The second time I heard the girl say Hey, it dawned on me that her voice was projecting specifically in my direction. I turned and saw the only Hispanic student in my first period math class. She was wearing a black windbreaker and dark blue jeans. Young and progressive, I reminded myself that she stood out only because of her black windbreaker.
I realized that I did not know this girl's name. She returned my blank stare with a blanker stare, revealing that she didn't know my name either. We both looked at each other in the way a person might look at their mailman if they ever ran into him at a grocery store on a Sunday.
"You have dog poop on your shoe," the girl said.
When I realized what was happening, I looked down at my glistening white K-Swiss sneakers. My already self-conscious-soul withered at the sight. The outside half of my right shoeand ostensibly everything beneath itappeared to have been dipped not in pulpy, undercooked brownie mix, but warm, slow-churned caramel. If I'd taken a photo, I could have later convinced people that I'd slipped on a wet clay path while hiking through Arizona's Senora Desert. This shit was fresh.
Years later, I would come to realize how lucky I was to have the dog shit brought to my attention by this particular girl. For one, I didn't know her. This meant that the newest mark of humiliation on my carefully constructed social facade would bruise, not scar. For two, this girl was a saint. She didn't try to embarrass me. Quite the opposite, in fact. She got my attention in hopes of helping me avoid embarrassment.
Her timing was also fortunate One minute later and the bell would have already sounded. The dog shit would have been recognized sometime in the middle of class, in front of everyone. The whole thing would have become a hazy memory, rediscovered several decades later by an expensive psychotherapist whose middle-aged client was wetting the bed three nights a week.
Now faced with this disaster and minimal time to react, I quickly thanked the girl and called an emergency meeting with myself. It was at this moment that my olfactories finally showed up. All my other senses had been getting organized for the task at hand. But my Smeller had been strangely absent the last few minutes. Now, fully aware of the pile of shit enveloping my right shoe, I pictured my Smeller bursting through the door, sweating profusely and breathing hard. Sorry I'm .lay .late, my Smeller panted. I .meant .to .tell ..you .that .(gasp) ..that leaf you slipped on when (gasp) .you were walking through the grass on your way into the building (gasp) that wasn't actually a leaf .(gasp) .That was a pile of .(gasp) .dog shit. See, I have the proof.
The proof was frighteningly sharp. It was the kind of stench that makes a man question how much he really knows about the world. It left burn marks inside my nostrils and infiltrated my stomach. I could feel my esophagus shudder.
I was furious at my Smeller for dropping the ball and not coming to me earlier about this. Next to unexpected house smoke, and maybe your own B.O., dog shit is the most important danger that a Smeller is responsible for detecting. Had my Smeller been focused and not taking in so much of the fresh autumn air that morning, I would have immediately been alerted about the shit on my shoe, and would have had an opportunity to wipe it off on the open grass. (And, if necessary, find a firm twig to use for mining the cracks of the sole.)
But instead, here I was, surrounded by the cruelest potential enemy known to man: seventh grade peers. I didn't know if the Hispanic girl had first seen the shit or smelled it. It didn't matter. I now smelled it. And because I smelled it, everyone around me was destined to smell it. And when they did, their eyes would water. They'd start to feel engulfed by the wretched aroma. The classroom would become a non-lethal gas chamber, and the victims would eventually search for the Nazi who pulled the lever.
Horrified by this thought, I evacuated my desk and headed toward the front of the room. I moved as fast as I could without drawing attention to myself. In seventh grade, you're still subject to the despotic rule of asking the teacher for permission to use the restroom. Ever since my mother had stopped giving me M & M's for successfully using the grownup toilet at home, I'd grown less and less comfortable with the idea of seeking approbation every time I had to pee. But coming from an upper-middle-class American family, the concept of revolution miles from my mind. And so, throughout my school days, I willingly took all issues concerning my bladder to the proper authority.
The dog shit crisis didn't pertain to my bladder, but the integrity of the law was aimed to keep teachers involved in all forms of student restroom visits. I had this on my mind as I moved toward my teacher's desk.
The teacher was Mr. Adams, a tepid but qualified twentysomething-year-old who occasionally came to class hung over. It was clearer than I realized at the time, that teaching was merely Mr. Adam's test drive to the real world. Still, he cared just enough about his temporary profession to classify as one of those heroic Americans who was overworked (for nine months a year) and underpaid.
I didn't want to tell Mr. Adams about the shit on my shoe. But I realized that a disguising restroom request might not suffice. It wasn't quite 8:00 a.m.what 13-year-old would need to use the bathroom so early? And I wasn't even sure I could take my problem to the restroom. Though never specified, I assumed public restrooms prohibited non-human shit.
Needing a plan, I considered telling Mr. Adams that I felt sick and had to leave immediately. The benefit to this would be getting out of class. The cost, however, would be lying. I had no moral objections to lying during a crisis as magnificent as this. In my mind, it was not unlike looting a bakery immediately after your town is ambushed in an aerial strike.
But there were add-on costs to this particular lie. What if I got sent to the school nurse? What if that led to a phone call home? I was perfectly fine with carrying a lie through so many channels, but this lie wasn't strong enough to survive the arduous trek. Even if I somehow found a way to clean my shoe before seeing the nurse, chances were that someone at some point would get wise. My illness would be diagnosed as Humiliation, caused by stepping in a Whopper of dog shit.
Another thought was not asking Mr. Adams for permission to leave at all, but instead, casually saying to him, "I'll be right back", as I strolled out the door. My relationship with Mr. Adams was probably stable enough to survive this daring move. But I lacked the requisite audacity.
Unable to mastermind a plan, I chose capitulation. "Hey, Mr. Adams?" I quivered, one decibel above a whisper. "I think I need to use the restroom or leave or something. I have dog crap on my shoe." My tone projected a carefully-crafted casualness that let Mr. Adams know my urgent crisis was no big deal.
As I'd feared, Mr. Adams's reaction was one of intense confusion. His eyes started to wander. An unsettling wrinkle emerged across his forehead. His mouth opened before stalling awkwardly halfway. If faces could speak, his would have said, What the hell are you talking about?
It felt like a willow tree could have matured in the amount of time Mr. Adams spent staring at me. My nerves trembled. I dreaded the idea of repeating my statement. There's something unbecoming about hearing yourself say you have dog crap on your shoes. Especially when you're indoors.
My belief in God solidified when Mr. Adams's comportment finally started to morph. It went from bewilderment to amusement. He didn't laugh at me. Not externally, anyway. Then, perhaps thinking I might have motives to lie, he glanced down at my shoe. What he saw, jolted him. The jolt seemed to amplify his amusement. "Yeah, go ahead," he chortled. "Good luck."
The whole exchange was embarrassing, but really, it was the best outcome I could have hoped for. Mr. Adams reacted in the same way that any of my fellow students would have reacted. The only difference was, his adult maturity afforded him the decency to brake on his reaction once I felt sheepish. A fellow student wouldn't have even slowed their reaction until I'd felt suicidal.
As the huge piece of dog shit and I turned from Mr. Adams and headed towards the door, a burst of doom obliterated any specks of security that had still been hiding somewhere within me. What if I tracked dog shit all over the classroom?!, I wondered. They say the human mind develops amnesia to handle the stress of a traumatic experience. Had I indeed tracked dog shit all over the classroom that morning, I wouldn't coherently be writing about it today. Dog shit is like herpes: lugging it around is bad; spreading it is deplorable.
I looked at the floor where I had just walked. By the grace of God, none of the dog shit had left my shoe. I have no idea why not. It was miraculous. And, like a lone plane crash survivor, I still struggle for answers to this very day. With the amount of motion and friction that goes into walking, the shit staying only on my shoe seems to deny every principle of physics from Newton to Einstein. 1
I was thankful that Mr. Adams had granted me permission to flee. But when I stepped out into the hall, the weight of the situation started to overwhelm me. I couldn't leave schoolthere were Sick Days and Snow Days, but no Dog Shit Days. I couldn't go to the nurse. Or counselor. Or principal. And I wasn't quite spoiled enough to think it would be okay to call upon one of the custodians.
Utterly unsure of what to do, I gazed down the empty hall. My eyes fixed on locker E-54. It was a random locker. The only difference between it and lockers E-53 and E-55 was the pattern of faint scratch marks that had accumulated over the years. Exhausted from the trauma of escaping the classroom, I started to wallow in self pity. I thought about how locker E-54 belonged to some student in the building, and how that student was probably sitting in class at the very moment and not even noticinglet alone appreciatingthe two clean shoes hugging his or her feet. Like me, the student had probably risen that morning, gotten ready for school and expected a normal day. And the universe had delivered. But for only one of us.
I was about to surrender and ask Why Me?, when I caught a whiff of the toxic fumes. The vigorous stench shook me to my senses. Feeling my willpower return, I decided I would reclaim my day. I would go outside and drag my shoe through the grass. I would drag it in multiple directions. I would scrape it against a step, if need be. I would do anything I could to eliminate the biggest chunks of shit that was occupying my sovereign right shoe. Eliminating the biggest chunks would allow me to focus rationally on the rest of the mess and move forward from there. One step at a time, I told myself.
With that, I walked down the hall, out the doors and back into the very grass where disaster had struck.
1 Dog shit has a way of doing this. As disgusting and devastating as it can be, it doesn't get tracked around very much. It finds a shoe and stays there. Yes, dog shit is wrong for clinging to unsuspecting shoes. But, in a way, we should all be grateful that it clings so hard. It's like an undocumented immigrant that at least eschews remittance and spends illegally-earned cash inside The States.