Last week I had pinkeye. Not just normal pinkeye, but double pinkeye: both eyes. I looked like I’d been partying for four days straight with Tony Montana. The medical name for pinkeye is conjunctivitis, which in Latin means, “your eyes look like junk.” You know it’s bad when the first thing your doctor says when he comes in is, “Wow, looking at you makes me want to wash my hands.” His fresh-faced Dartmouth intern had a look that said, “Umm, this doctor thing just got REAL.”
Pinkeye is not something you normally get as an adult. I hadn’t had pinkeye since I was about nine and Donald Trump was just a friendly extra helping Kevin McCallister find the hotel lobby in “Home Alone II.” A lot of people get pinkeye when they’re young. Here’s how it goes: first your eyes get red. Then the school nurse reacts like you’ve contracted bubonic plague. She politely informs you that you’ve been transferred to another school district (in Romania). And then you get better after a few days. It’s not a big deal — except to school nurses. I swear, if you ever want to cause a riot at a school nurse convention, just walk into the room and yell, “I’ve got pinkeye!”
(You can also try saying loudly, “Oh, are you bleeding? Don’t worry — I don’t need gloves.”)
How ironic then that I contracted my first case of pinkeye in about twenty-five years from a school nurse. It was this past November and, finding myself having to inch my chair closer and closer to the TV just to make out the subtle visual distinction between such characters as Princess Leia and Chewbacca, I decided it was time to get my vision tested. It just so happened that the nurses were overseeing a school-wide vision testing at the high school where I work, and were kind enough to allow me to duck in line and to put my eyes into the machine, where they were probably the 200th pair that day. The next morning I woke up knowing that I didn’t need glasses, but looking like a walking advertisement for Visine. Pinkeye. I missed three days of work straight — a record for me. Once it cleared up, I figured, “Hey, at least I’m done with pinkeye for, say, the rest of my life.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d been a pollster in Michigan.
Now there’s a weird thing that happens to teachers: our bodies know when vacation is coming up. For weeks and weeks kids are getting sick around us — coughing, sneezing, touching door knobs, blowing their noses, handing in papers for us to grade that probably contain more germs than a New York City subway car. Our classrooms are basically giant Petri dishes. Somehow we manage to will our bodies to stay healthy — right up until vacation. Then it’s like our bodies realize, “Hey, we can finally let our guard down.” And we get sick.
It happens to me every year, especially during February Break. Every year I steel myself for it, but every year it happens anyway.
This Christmas Break was no different. I tried. The week before vacation, I coaxed a plus-sized bottle of sanitizing soap from the nurse’s office and spent the days leading up to break lathering myself up with the stuff. I wiped every surface in my room with a set of bleach wipes before and after school. I started operating the door knob with my shirt sleeve around my hand. Your basic germaphobe behavior. I basically turned into Bill Murray in “What About Bob?” I did everything short of hosing out the classroom in between periods. I was NOT going to get sick. Not this Christmas.
Well, I got sick this Christmas. A few days later, anyway. Ironically during the time when I was stuck home alone, I caught a virus that ripped through me like Grant through Richmond. I passed the rest of the week — which I’d planned to spend skiing and drinking beer and just generally enjoying the novelty of being outside during daylight — confined to the couch and put through a spate of Lifetime movies, the most scarring of which was a thriller centered on a charming woman who was already on her third round of husband killing by the first commercial break. Let’s just say if I’d had more energy I definitely would’ve relocated our entire knife collection to somewhere my wife would never find them (such as in my paddling gear).
Finally, a few days later, I’d clawed my way back up to health, feeling a little bit like the forest does after a wildfire. In fact — in classic teacher fashion — I’d gotten well just in time to go back to work, which I did last Monday. I figured that was the end of it: just another case of the body allowing work but denying fun. Typical.
But a strange thing happened. By that afternoon, my eyes were tearing up more often than John Boehner’s. By the time I got home, my eyes looked like I’d been smoking dope with raft guides. The next morning I took one look in the mirror and knew I’d better stay home — otherwise I’d break the record for “most students immediately switching English teachers in a single day.” Not to mention the poor school nurses, all of whom would probably have to be carted out after they heard the news that there was pink eye in their school.
I passed the next four days — a record number of work absences for me — in a variety of ways. There were the trips to the doctor, the look on his face as he examined me that said, “Don’t act freaked out . . . Don’t act freaked out . . . , ” the antibiotics that did not work. Then there was the fact that looking into any sort of light felt like torture — sort of like Reince Priebus probably felt when the armed men made him stare into that lightbulb and repeat, “I will support Trump . . . ” I began insisting that all lights be turned out anywhere I was in the house, and I also began wearing sunglasses all the time, like some Hollywood diva.
There was of course there was the inevitable guilt at missing four straight days of work. This is no Mad Men-era workplace, when Don Draper goes out on long, boozy lunches that turn into two-week benders and no one asks any questions. Anyone who is wired to be a teacher will understand: even though it makes no sense, you always feel just a little bit guilty when you’re absent. It’s like you’re letting the kids down. Then of course you come back a week later and the kids say, “Hey, were you out or something?” Public schools: they keep you humble.
Finally by last weekend I’d once again clawed back up to something approaching normal health, though I’ve spent the rest of the week looking worriedly back over my shoulder for the next illness chasing me. It’s been four days and it hasn’t come yet. Hopefully I’m all set on pinkeye now for about fifty years.
In the meantime I’ll be scrubbing my hands and wiping down my classroom. Because before you know it, it’ll be February Break.