credit; pinterest.com

credit; pinterest.com

As part of a larger series of articles, my favorite Bookworm—Bookworm—provided this charming story:

When I was in 2nd grade, one of the reading books we had at school (which probably dated back to the 1940s) included an absolutely wonderful story about the way in which a teacher changed an entire neighborhood.  As I remember it, the teacher had a little girl in her class who always smelled stale and dirty.  For Christmas, the teacher gave the little girl a small perfumed soap.  The next day, the little girl showed up at school wearing her ragged clothes, but smelling sweet.

The little girl’s mother noticed how sweet her daughter smelled and decided that she should wear clean clothes too.  So this formerly slatternly, overwhelmed mother, washed her daughter’s pinafore.  And so it went, day after day.  The other children in the family also wanted to look and smell clean and fresh.  And with those clean, fresh children, the woman decided to clean her house.

Once the house was cleaned, she asked her husband to whitewash the inside of the house.  He did and, carried away with enthusiasm, whitewashed the outside of the house too.  The neighbors, impressed by his shiny house, decided that their houses should also look bright and clean.  Lastly, of course, the whole neighborhood started taking care of its gardens.  The moral was that, just by giving a little girl a bar of soap, that kind teacher was able to bring a new sense of pride to an entire community.

That’s a lovely story about how little gestures, shared among people with the same values, can achieve significant changes in people’s lives, perhaps even in society.  When Bookworm and I were in elementary school back in the 1400s, that was possible. Fast forward to 2013, where things are a little different.

A young man in one of my classes, at the age of 15, came to school dressed not significantly differently than most of the kids. His clothing wasn’t in disrepair or obviously dirty, but it was not nearly as fashionable or crisp as most. This, however, wasn’t the problem. He stank. It was a body odor at once as sour and pervasive as it was powerful, but because there weren’t enough empty desks to allow enough kids to move, it was a daily problem for the class. Merely entering the room, the odiferious cloud that surrounded him descended on the room.

The other kids were kind (I’m fortunate enough to teach great kids). They didn’t give him a hard time, but as quietly and privately as possible, begged me to do what I could to see that he bathed and washed his clothing. In my school, this is the kind of thing that is turned over to principals who have a bit more free time during the day to make phone calls, or if necessary, on rare occasions, personal visits to home.

So the principal did call the parents and kindly explained the problem and how it would affect their son, making him a social pariah and isolating him from his peers. And did this encourage the mother to see that her son was well washed and that his clothing was clean and pressed?  Did she appreciate the kindness and discretion of the educators concerned not only for the intellectual, but the social development of her offspring and his acceptance in society?  Did it encourage the father to assume his fatherly duties around the house?

Oh no.

Instead, the principal endured a tongue-lashing, the substance of which was that by bothering her about her walking biological warfare offspring, he was not doing his job, which was limited to teaching specific subjects.

The young man was transferred into another class that had far fewer students so that he could be somewhat isolated and the noses of his fellows—and the teacher—partially spared.

Such is the nature of society, and education, in contemporary America. Civic virtue, it seems, has changed a bit since Bookworm and I were in elementary school.