I wrote a story about a special teacher this weekend, and in doing so, I realized that I did not leave the after-effects of those days behind me. So much of what occurred that fourth-grade year impacts how I act today.
For example, my greatest fear is not drowning or falling off a cliff, but forgetting to put on deodorant when I go out of the house. I tend not to care so much about how I present myself around our home, but when I am in public, I have a near phobia that someone will tell me that I am pungent or malodorous.
In the fourth grade, we had a chart by the Ivory soap company. Each child had a line by their names, and each day you earned a sticker according to how “clean” you were. There was a checklist that had to be covered each day, to earn the sticker. I believe that the goal was not to embarrass anyone, but to teach the importance of good bodily hygiene.
The checklist included, of course, hair grooming, clean faces and skin, clean fingernails, clean clothes, and teeth cleaned. If you passed all of the elements, according to the requirements, you received a Ivory sticker next to your name. If you had one or two improprieties, such as dirty and bitten nails, you received a yellow sticker next to your name. And if you failed more than two, then you received a red sticker.
The chart was on the wall for everyone to see, and although I think my teacher hated the idea of the chart and the potential to injure a child’s fragile sense of peace, she was required to do so. Needless to say that for a whole school year, I received only red stickers next to my name.
I did not know how to change the situation, but I can remember hoping each day just to get a yellow sticker, anything but the red one. To have received an Ivory sticker would have sent me to the moon. But, of course, you cannot show up in smelly and dirty clothes and expect a different outcome. But, even then I knew that having all red stickers made me different, and not in a good way.
I remember the look on the other children’s faces when I got near them, the backing away, the noses flared out. I imagine there were words said, taunts made about Stinky Ginny, but I thank God that I cannot remember them today. Yet, the specter of those red stickers has never left my soul.
Douglas and I drive about 25 to 30 miles for church, a 35- to 40-minutes drive each way. About twice a month, one of us teaches Sunday school, so we need to be the first ones in the building, ready when the students come. But, we can be half way there, and if I cannot trust my memory that I remembered the deodorant, then we either go back home or stop at the nearest open pharmacy or grocery store to buy some, even if it means being late.
My children used to tell me that I was a fanatic about bathing, for I made them shower every day, and they hated it! I know that my fear was that people would smell my children and think me a bad mother. I checked everything from head to toes, ears and all. They would cringe to see me coming with a washrag, a comb, and a brush. And yes, I will admit that I have more than infatuation with being clean all the time.
The next year, when I was in the fifth grade, my sister and I went to live with a great-aunt, Aunt Brownie, who was like a drill sergeant, with very strict rules on hygiene and cleaning. She was the first person I ever saw boil water and pour it over the dishes after washing them.
We wore the same dress two days in a row, but we were clean. The fastest way to get a whupping was to come home with your hair messed up. We bathed every other night in a round tin tub that doubled to wash clothes.
I made so many friends that next year, some of the same children that had been in the fourth grade with me. We did not have a chart in fifth grade, but I relished knowing that I would have had an Ivory sticker every day, because Aunt brownie did not play!
So, yes, the scars of our past still have the power to dictate our behaviors. I know that the fear is unreasonable, but at age 67, the likelihood is that I am not going to change. I, too, cannot stand to sit next to a rank individual, especially not on a plane where I cannot escape.
But when I do, I just pretend that all is well. I think the average person knows when they have passed acceptable standards of hygiene. I don’t want anyone else to feel the shame that cripples me at times, so I keep it to myself.