Don’t you love the smell of rosemary? It truly is a delicious herb to flavor potatoes, lamb, chicken, and add a distinctive touch to every sort of gourmet dish. It is also a girl’s name.
Many years ago, I had a student named Rosemary, but sadly, she did not live up to her namesake seasoning. She came from a family of eight; two parents and six children. All six of the children were mentally challenged. Back in the 70s they called it “familial retardation”. Genetic failure. I think I would have quit after the second child was diagnosed, but these parents were poor, and mildly intellectually challenged themselves. By the time social services got to them, they had six offspring.
They did the best they could, but the mother and father really had their hands full. The parents always cooperated with school and with the state agencies, so they never took the children away; at least not during the time I knew them.
I was teaching half days and spending the other half days visiting the families of our students, in their homes. It was a federal project my school had become involved in. We were trying to find out if we could help parents extend the learning the kids did at school into their homes in the evenings. We tried to teach the parents how to help the children practice their new skills at home.
For example, I taught parents how to teach their children the “back-chaining” way to tie shoelaces. If they taught them the same way we did at school, it would hopefully cause less confusion for the child and shorten the time it took them to master that skill. We tried to transfer many skills to the homes in this way. The grant program went for three years, and I felt it was successful.
Well, my task with Rosemary, and with her five siblings, was to teach them how to properly bathe. We did not teach this at school, but every staff person at school knew this was a skill these parents had not taught their children. The six of them were extremely “fragrant”, and not in a good way. Rosemary was sixteen and her hygiene was simply abominable. She had fairly curly and closely trimmed brown hair and for a teen, her skin was relatively free of acne. She was tall, with good posture, and could have presented herself as an average girl, except for that awful odor. I will politely describe it as a sour and biting combination of intense body odor mixed with a urine/feces scent. Rosemary smelled nothing like rosemary.
It was a steamy, early September afternoon when I visited Rosemary’s home to explain this new program. The front room appeared to be fairly neat, but not at all clean. It was dark, dusty, and smelled like “dog.” I was ushered into the kitchen, where the parents and I sat around a large oval table, where I presumed they ate meals with their large crew of children. It was covered with a clean bright yellow tablecloth. I started explaining my purpose while they smiled and nodded their approval of the idea. They actually wanted me to teach all the children to bathe, stating that they knew they had been having very little luck with their own efforts.
We had only be seated there maybe one minute, and slowly, an extremely foul and rancid odor wafted up to my nose. I leaned a little forward, then a little to the side, and realized it was coming from under the table.
“Do you have a sewer back-up problem?” I asked, even though that was not exactly the right smell.
“Oh no, don’t worry about that, the dog had her puppies under the table yesterday. We just haven’t had a chance to clean it up yet.”
I tried very hard not to gag, and quickly asked if I could see the bathroom. I just wanted to see the tub or shower arrangement they had so I would know how to simulate their bathroom in the locker room at school.
The bathroom was upstairs. The floor was covered with hair, the mirror was small and cracked, and well, I will spare you the condition of the toilet. The tub was filled with dirty clothes; it was overflowing, and piled high, about three feet over the top edge. It was obvious that this tub had not been used in a really long time.
I looked at the mom. Knowing she could probably read the concern on my face, I tried to mask my distress when I asked, “Where do the kids bathe or shower?”
“They just wash up down in the kitchen sink. The faucet up here don’t work,” she replied, with a helpless shrug of her small shoulders. “The water in the tub works, but I can’t catch up on the laundry for all these kids.” I arranged with the school social worker to get Mom help catching up on the laundry.
I took Rosemary to the shower at school. We didn’t usually instruct kids in bathing; we only used the tub/shower combination to clean up a child if they became ill or incontinent and needed to “start over” before going home. We kept spare clothes there and normally used it only for emergencies.
Rosemary took off her clothes in the restroom stall and came out with a towel around her, as I had asked. I saw she was still wearing her bra, and she seemed genuinely surprised that she had to remove it. When she dropped the towel to remove her bra, I saw she also still had on her underpants. Again, Rosemary really did not know that it was necessary to totally strip before showering. This girl, at age sixteen, had never had a bath or a shower. She had only done “sponge baths” her entire life. She probably wore her underpants to her “baths” in their kitchen, for modesty reasons.
If you can recall the happiest, most refreshing time you have ever been in the shower; when that water felt so warm and enveloped you in its comforting torrents….multiply that times 1000, and that is the delight Rosemary experienced that day. She used the shampoo sample first, as I instructed her from the other side of the shower curtain. Then, she got her washcloth soaped up and scrubbed herself top to bottom. She was somewhat alarmed, as was I, at the fistful of pubic hair she held after washing her private area thoroughly for the first time in her life. Then she rinsed.
She was a good student. She did the washcloth routine again, and again, and again. She took forty-five minutes and showered four times. I finally had to give her a sixty second countdown, and then I reached in to turn off the faucets. She stood there and cried, sobbing into her washcloth and begging me to let her do it again. I got her to come out and wrap the towel around her by promising her she could do it again the next day.
We taught all of Rosemary’s siblings to shower. A male teacher helped with the two boys, and I taught the three other girls. The parents were so grateful and three months later, the tub at home was still being used regularly. Rosemary was able to get a part-time position in our vocational education department’s Marriott maid program. Previously, her poor hygiene had prevented her from being employed. It was a happy ending for everyone. The bus driver who drove those six kids back and forth to school didn’t have to spray his bus with Lysol every day. The youngsters started to make more friends at school and every other teacher in the building thanked me repeatedly.
I felt guilty. I had been paid to do something that I was sure I would have done for free. Even if I had not been a teacher, and I discovered this family who did not know how to bathe, I would want to teach them. It was the only humane thing to do. To me, there is something obscene in that kind of uncleanliness. Not pornographically obscene, but the inhumane kind of obscene. In the first twenty-five years of my life, even living on a farm, I had never seen that kind of filth. In the forty years I have lived since then, I have not seen in again. It was appalling, and I fixed it. It was so simple, really, and the simplicity of it still astounds me. It felt SO good to have helped those kids, and it was so easy. All it took was a little soap and water.
I think everyone should have something that horrifies them to the point of taking action to remedy it. I want everyone to have that feeling that I experienced when I taught Rosemary to bathe herself. I’m not talking about trimming your toenails when they get too long. I’m not talking about dropping some change in a red Salvation Army bucket. Of course, we all need to do those necessary and those generous things to be human and to share our bounty with others. I’m aiming at the idea of correcting something that cannot be allowed to exist.
Everyone can fill in their own blank. You each can name something whose existence is intolerable to you. Go do something to change it. Try to help fix it. Think big. It could be something that would benefit just one person. It could be global, but it doesn’t have to be; just so it makes someone’s world better…it doesn’t have to the whole world. Go get your ‘soap and water’ and get busy. I’d love to hear about it when you get it done.