Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fun with Synonyms (A True Story)

In honor of the fact that it snowed again in Michigan this morning, I decided to extract an archived blog post from two winters ago (winter, by the way, sort of ends in Michigan, and there are some distinguishing characteristics of other seasons). I was observing my classroom (a.k.a. I was taking attendance and entering make-up work), and my studious pupils were absorbed in paragraph writing when—with no forewarning whatsoever—an eighth grader in the front seat of the second row vomited all over my floor. Luckily, no one was sitting beside him when he splattered the runny, liquidy mess. After hurling the revolting chowder, he never raised his head an inch. I wondered if he was too embarrassed to look up, but what I soon realized was he was too sick. Again, without any warning, he started retching, only this time I saw it happen. Out of his mouth jetted a wide stream of slimy sickness. What was on the floor quadrupled in size—at least. The hoven stream of spew was as round as his mouth and came shooting out of his throat like it was shot from a fire hose. The liquescent flow upchucked for a good seven seconds straight. The rancid, putrid gag sprayed and splashed into a pool the size of a bathtub.  Students, to my amazement, scattered politely. Surprisingly, not a single one of them heaved his or her own breakfast contents. Finally, the boy, about eight pounds lighter, stumbled awkwardly out of the room (I wondered why he hadn’t thought of it before), banging into one desk and bouncing off one wall before escaping through the doorway, leaving me and his classmates with a puddle of bile large enough to drown in. Four steps from the door, we all heard round three, the jet-spray of fluid grossness splashing in the hallway.

The rank, foul smell accosted us all at once. Two windows flew open, and chilling, sub-freezing, sweet February Michigan air satiated my classroom. Everyone within fifteen feet of the stench acquired a new territory to inhabit. I calmly phoned the main office and said something like, “There’s a puddle of puke on my floor of enormous proportions. I need some help.” I wasn’t exaggerating. If there wasn’t a gallon of stomach cesspool reeking in my room…well, then there were two gallons—more than should have sensibly fit in his stomach.  There was a stagnant, fetid  lake on my floor.

As we waited for merciful assistance, sweatshirts stretched over noses and frosty arms embraced tightly to bodies. One girl asked what was taking so long. I said, “Our custodian isn’t a teleporter. It’ll take a few minutes to get here.” Needless to say, I focused my astonishing teacher attributes to the problem at hand. My goal wasn’t to wish the room rid of the squalid pond of putrescence; it was to get my shivering, nauseated students to finish that all-important paragraph. Girls were sticking aromatic chapsticks nearly up their noses and everyone else’s arms and faces had disappeared into loose garments. Three boys asked for permission to step into the hall, which I granted on one condition—that they take their work with them to complete, but as soon as they exited to the hallway, they stepped back in. It smelled worse out there, but at least the boy wasn’t lying dead in front of the restroom, ridded of half his body weight.

Probably eight full minutes after my emergency phone call, who do you think arrived in my room? No, it wasn’t the custodian. He was away at lunch. It was the principal’s secretary with a broom and one of those buckets of chemically treated sawdust to soak up the lagoon on my floor. I tried to find the actual name for the stuff on the internet and the best options I found were “barfbits…chunderchow…[and] spewsoaker.” If you want to visualize the bucket she was carrying, picture a three-year-old’s sand pail, and then divide it by about three. It held roughly enough spewsoaker (that’s the name I like best), to cover approximately two-square feet of the repulsive, malodorous loch on my floor. It was the secretary that suggested I escort my class to the Community Room for the remainder of the hour. Students hastily flooded out the door (pardon my pun) and gratefully reassembled in the refrigerated meeting room. Apparently, someone had opened a window in the room and the glacial Michigan air had managed to freeze it in its exposed position.

Students gathered at tables, unloading their materials, not even complaining that their newest classroom temperature was fixed at an Antarctical (I made that word up) freezessence (I made that word up too). At least they couldn’t smell that horrific barf or see that unsanitary tarn that was infesting my classroom. We got right to work. Students put pen and pencil to paper and teacher paraded around the room, my breath escaping in white clouds of glorious freedom from nasal agony. Before the bell rang to end the class, I had the assignments in my stiff, frozen fingers, and I sent my students happily on their way.

Why do I tell this story—with only the slightest of exaggeration? Because writing about gross things is amazingly entertaining and fun. And choosing awesome synonyms to describe the dreadful experience was more enjoyable yet. I did it because I had fun writing it, describing it, and choosing appropriate words for it. I’ve learned the written word can be engaging, compelling, charming, amusing, gripping, convincing, captivating, enchanting, hilarious, mesmerizing, riveting, entrancing (I’m giving my thesaurus a workout), and sickening (like this passage was). But most of all, it can be wonderfully liberating. I can say things I’ve never said before. And whether I exaggerate a touch or tell it like it really is, I get to be the one to say it, knowing that my reader gets to be the one who enjoys it (or feels queasy). I’ll never forget what happened in my classroom that Friday, but now, neither will you.