Toxic Justice by Nancy Swan
October 9, 1985, Wednesday
A yellow cloud billowed down off the flat top roof above my classroom at Long Beach Junior High School. Swirling briefly between the trucks and the outside wall, the stinging, sweet-tasting fumes and particles blew into the room through twelve open windows.
"Shut the windows," I yelled to the students, but my voice was drowned out by the loud rumbling and hissing from the machinery and trucks parked outside.
Two seventh-grade girls at the other end of the room coughed and fanned their notebooks in a vain attempt to breathe fresh air. Several children cupped their hands over their noses and backed away from the windows. I ran to the end of the classroom and shoved a bottom window shut. Standing on a chair, I leaned out to close the upper window, but it had swung too far out for me to reach the handle.
I looked down from the window into the bed of a battered white pickup truck where a motor or air compressor continued to roar. I could almost reach out the window to my right and touch the bundle of hoses that hung down from the roof. The hoses snaked along the grass toward the large silver tanker parked in the median between the buildings.
My eyes and nose were stinging. Holding my breath, I pushed up on my toes and strained against the metal sill to lean out further, but still couldn’t reach the latch. Mike, one of my taller students, climbed up beside me and tapped my shoulder to get my attention. “I can get that, Mrs. Swan,” he said.
By the time I stepped down, several children had already begun closing the remaining windows. I sank into my desk chair and grabbed a tissue to dab my watering eyes. With all the windows closed the noise was muffled, but the fumes were still pungent. My students continued to sniff and cough, especially those closest to the windows. Some rubbed their eyes while they worked on their projects. I shook my head. This is all wrong.
I scrawled an angry note to the principal, Marlon Ladner. Notes between staff and administration were our only means of communication during the school day. I reread the note and worried that it could get me fired. When it came to injustice inflicted on me, my students, or my family I had a quick temper and had learned the peril of speaking my mind at school. I had been warned by at least one principal after I had refused to participate in what I felt was favoritism toward a student that, because I was teaching an “elective” course, my teaching job was expendable. I liked teaching Home Economics and I especially like teaching seventh grade. To keep on doing what I loved, I had learned to swallow my pride and to keep a tight rein on my opinions and my temper.
I crumpled the note and tossed it in the wastebasket, and grabbed another slip of paper out of my desk drawer. I took a deep breath, trying to tone my outrage down a notch. I wrote, “The fumes and noise are unbearable,” and added a request to “please” move my class to another building. My student helper rushed the note to the office, but returned a few minutes later without a response from the principal. She shrugged and told me that the secretary had taken the note, then told her to go back to class.
The smell of the fumes was getting stronger. My students rubbed their noses and eyes and coughed. I walked around with the tissue box, offering tissue to those who needed them.
“Remember your quiz on Friday,” I said, glancing at trucks and men outside the windows. “Students, I know its hard with all the distraction today, but do try and get through this assignment.” How could they focus on their work when I couldn’t? I was looking out the window at the trucks parked in the median when another student walked up to my desk and held out her instruction sheet for me to sign. “Mrs. Swan, what are they doing out there?” asked Amanda, turning and looking out the windows.
I smiled as I reached out for Amanda’s project. The students were making a sample of clothing repair stitches. “All I know is that those men are spraying on some kind of roof material,” I said. I examined Amanda's work and signed her worksheet that she had completed the assignment correctly.
“Why do they have to spray that stuff on? ” Amanda wrinkled her nose. "It stinks real bad." She had a worried look on her face.
“The teachers were told that the roof has to be insulated with this material before we can get air conditioning.” I dabbed the sweat off my brow with a tissue. “And air-conditioning would feel really good right now, don't you agree?” I smiled and nodded in an attempt to lighten the mood.
Amanda nodded as if she understood. I watched her walk back to her table, feeling a pang of guilt. She had trusted me and I had reassured her everything was going to be okay when I had my own doubts about the safety of the chemicals.
When I flipped a page on the stack of projects I had been trying to grade all morning, my hand knocked over the small gold frame in the middle of my crowded desk. Two more students walked up to my desk for help. There would be no time to grade papers today, so I pushed the stack of papers to the side.
“Those your two kids?” Kathy asked. “They look like twins.”
“They’re actually four years apart. Tommy is eleven and Brandon is seven, ” I said, tossing the stack of papers into my briefcase, knowing I'd have to find time to grade them at home tonight. I set the frame upright and smoothed the tape over the tiny thermometer I had stuck in the space between the two photos.
The thermometer read almost ninety degrees, but combined with the high humidity that day, it felt much hotter. With the windows latched closed, the mist of particles and fumes was trapped in the suffocating room. The children wiped their sweaty foreheads and complained about the heat. When they begged to reopen the windows, I finally gave in and opened two lower ones. Within minutes, the fumes became so strong that we had to close the windows again.
The yellow fog outside grew so thick during my second period class, we could hardly see the next building. Dirty, butter colored foam formed large clumps along the eaves, then plopped to the ground like heavy soap suds. Flecks of foam coated the windows and covered the green grass in a sickly yellow snow.
I looked up at the clock, growing impatient to hear a response from my note to the principal. The roofers had started with the four buildings on the north side of the school at the beginning of the week and had been spraying the chemicals for three days. I had watched the roofers on Tuesday when they sprayed on the building next to mine. By the end of the day the foam had encrusted their clothing and formed long ski-like extensions on their boots. Wearing white hoods and connected by an umbilical of hoses, they looked like astronauts.
The smell of the fumes had been strong all around the campus, but I had no idea how bad it had been for the teachers and children in the buildings directly underneath the application. I put my hand up to my throat and swallowed. My throat burned and it felt like there was sand under my eyelids. I was sure the fumes were the cause because my students were complaining of the same symptoms. Did the principal have any idea how bad the fumes were in the classrooms?
The ceiling creaked and popped under their weight of the two roofers stomping around on the roof overhead. I looked up at the ceiling fearing it might cave in. Since early that morning, the roofers had shouted to each other, banged equipment, and smoked cigarettes right outside the windows, oblivious to the school children just a few feet away.
Sitting at my desk I watched one of the other roofers as he walked between the windows and the large commercial van parked ten feet outside. His deep mahogany skin and dark plaid shirt were in sharp contrast against the white side of the van. Above him, painted on the side of the van in large faded maroon letters, was "MIRI Roofing.” The man pulled himself up onto the tailgate and disappeared into the back.
While the students continued to work on their assignments, I got up and walked to the window so I could see into the van. The man’s back was toward me as he snapped on a pair of thin blue vinyl gloves. The van was packed with black and white 55 gallon drums. The man tilted and turned several of the heavy drums, then bent over appearing to read a label on the barrel. Moving to the side of one of the drums, he pried off the lid and slid it over onto another drum. A few minutes later, he tapped the lid back down, then hopped out of the truck.
The label on the drum was turned toward me. I was curious about what they were spraying and tried to read the label. The particles on the window obstructed my view so I pulled the window all the way open and crouched down to look through the opening. The writing on the label was too small to read. My heart skipped when I recognized the large red diamond shaped sticker stuck next to the label. The contents were flammable.
I wondered if the workers had thought about the flammable nature of the chemicals in the drums. Earlier in the morning, several roofers had leaned against the back of the van, smoking and tossing their lit cigarettes on the ground. That also meant the hoses outside my windows also contained flammable liquid. The hoses were hanging just a few feet from the pilot light on our classroom furnace. The roofers did not seem to be concerned about their own safety, let alone mine and the children in my classroom.
“We’ll be lucky if we are not blown up,” I muttered to myself. I was angry and frustrated. A sick feeling grew in my stomach as I looked back at my students. As their teacher, I was responsible for their safety. How would I protect my students if the chemicals in the van or tanker caught fire or exploded? Only a span of only twelve to fifteen feet separated the van from the children in my classroom. Fire and tornado drill instructions were posted on every classroom wall, but there were no emergency plans in the event of an explosion or chemical exposure.
I rushed another note to the principal, this time underlining, “The fumes are making us sick.” My second period student helper also returned from the office without a response from the principal.
By the beginning of third period class, my throat was so irritated and sore that it hurt to swallow. When I tried to call the roll, my voice was gravelly and hoarse. Finding the breath to talk became exhausting effort. I could barely speak above a whisper.
Angie, one of my smaller students, turned to the students at the table behind her and waved her arm. “Shhh. Be quiet. Ms. Swan can’t talk.”
“Hey! Shut up, so we can hear,” one of the boys yelled from the back.
“Mrs. Swan’s sick,” Angie said, over her shoulder. She turned back towards me. “Do you want me to call the roll Mrs. Swan?”
I nodded, and smiled, then handed her my roll book. The children grew quiet and began relaying my instructions to the back of the room.
As Angie called out the roll, my thoughts drifted to when I first started teaching at Long Beach Junior High. At first I had wanted to advance to the high school, until had I discovered that moving to the high school wasn’t a promotion and didn’t pay more, although the community seemed to think so. Parents and teachers often had why I left a teaching j0b in California to teach in Mississippi. I fanned myself with a folder and remembered the dream job I turned down a decade ago, a position to teach public speaking and run the video equipment in a state-of-the-art, air conditioned, high school in California. Instead, I accepted a teaching job in Mississippi, as one of the lowest paid teachers in the nation, in a school that was not air conditioned. That answer was too complicated, so I told them the simple, yet honest answer: I came to visit my parents in Mississippi, met the man of my dreams, and stayed.
I looked out over my classroom of children eager to cooperate and help and smiled. With one foot still in childhood, they were moody and hard to please. As emerging adults, they were willing to accept responsibility and could show consideration. I wished many times that I had also majored in psychology. Squeezed between the frustration of their parents and the mercurial tempers and hormonal rushes of twelve-year-old children, teaching this age group was not easy. As one parent put it, “How can you like teaching seventh grade? Even their own parents don’t like them at that age.” I did not know the answer. I just knew that I liked teaching seventh grade.
I leaned over my desk with its stacks of papers to be graded and flipped my notebook open to today’s lesson. The two-inch thick white binder holding a copy of the textbook I'd written, Threads and Stuff covered one third of the surface of my desk, leaving little room to work. During the nine years I had taught in the Long Beach School District, the school board had refused to purchase textbooks for my course. I spent the first four years designing my course and the last five years writing the textbook. I had squeezed in time in the evenings, while my children practiced piano and did their homework. During summer break I had worked in the early morning hours before the children got out of bed.
My reward had come just in time. I was close to finishing my textbook teacher’s guide and was exhausted but thrilled at the prospect of completing my book. A month earlier, I received a letter from Scholastic Magazine in September requesting a review of Threads and Stuff. I smiled, remembering that I had jumped up and down, waving the letter and squealing with glee like a five-year-old. The hard work was done. All I had left to do was to finish the teacher’s guide and I would be finished by January.
Angie waved her hand to catch my attention, motioning that she was going to clip the absentee list to the classroom door for the office monitor to pick up. I leaned back in my chair and sighed. I had forgotten to run off the quizzes. I opened the binder, pulled out the quiz for Friday, and placed it in a folder to run off before I left school that afternoon.
I set the folder in my briefcase on the shelf behind me. Turning around, I rubbed my hand over a spot on my forearm that had been stinging. The school did not have screens over the windows, so biting flies, mosquitoes, and bugs were a recurring classroom problem. It wasn’t an insect bite; instead it was a dozen or more tiny, stinging water blisters. The raised and reddened area looked like contact dermatitis, similar to that caused by poison oak. Looking up at the dense yellow fog of particles outside the windows, I was convinced the blisters must have been caused from contact with the roofing chemicals when I had closed the windows.
I sighed and hoped the children would not notice my fatigue and frustration. I was halfway through my classes and I just wanted to go home and lay down. My head hurt, my sinuses burned. I was nauseated from the sweet taste that had formed in the back of my throat. I swallowed and coughed, trying to clear the taste from my mouth. Then I gagged.
With my hand over my mouth, I ran into the hallway outside my classroom. I steadied myself with my hand against the painted cinder block wall in the empty, darkened hallway and doubled over and gagged again. Leaning back against the coolness of the wall, I wiped my eyes. My legs were shaky, but I steadied myself and walked back to my desk, pretending that nothing was wrong.
I no longer had the strength to get out of my chair and was afraid to move for fear I’d gag again. How was I going to make it through the rest of the day? When the ancient loud speaker on the wall finally crackled and popped, I was relieved. Maybe the principal was finally going to tell me I could move my students to another classroom.
“Teachers, let me have your attention,” said the principal over the loud speaker.
The class grew quiet. I looked up at the speaker and the small American flag beside it. It seemed like yesterday that my class had stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Several years earlier, saying the Pledge had been discontinued as a result of a civil rights controversy. Now all I could remember of the pledge was the beginning, “I pledge allegiance,” and the ending, “with justice for all.”
“Teachers let me have your attention,” Mr. Ladner repeated. “Do not, I repeat, do not, send anymore notes or students to the office to complain about the roofing project. The contractor has assured Central Office and me that the roofing chemicals are not toxic.”
Not toxic? I shook my head in debelief. I wasn’t sure of the scientific or medical definition of “toxic,” but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the roofing chemicals were a health hazard, especially for the children. The principal continued rattling off a series of announcements, but I was not listening.
Maybe I was over reacting. As a parent, I trusted school administrators, and especially teachers, to keep our children safe. As a Home Economics Teacher and Drama director, I was responsible for the safety and education of more than one hundred and twenty-five children in a curriculum that required use of sharp objects and electrical equipment. My classroom vigilance for the safety of my students made me acutely aware of sounds and smells that were out of the ordinary.
The principal ended his message with a reminder about the pep rally. With everything happening, I had forgotten about the pep rally that had been scheduled for that afternoon. When would I get the quizzed run off? The sun was almost directly overhead. The flat-top buildings were broiling under the sweltering sun.
Just before lunch, the roofers finally moved to the other end of the building, the noise of the machinery died down, and the fumes let up. I walked across the room and stood next to the windows, looking out over my classroom and fanning myself with a folder. My students rubbed their eyes, sniffed and coughed while they copied notes for Friday’s quiz off the blackboard. The fumes had to be responsible for making them sick. It would be too much of a coincidence for all of us to come down with the flu at the same time. I couldn’t take my students out of the classroom without permission from the principal. What could I do to protect them?
When the lunch bell rang, I was relieved. My class had third lunch period, which was the last lunch period of the day. I was hungry and lightheaded. I dreaded the long walk to the cafeteria with my students, but hoped maybe if we got some fresh air we would feel better.
There were a dozen chattering teachers at the teachers' table in the cafeteria. I ate my lunch in a hurry so I would have time to check my mailbox in the faculty lounge. Most of the teachers at the Junior High either had lived in Mississippi or had been graduates of the Long Beach School system. When I first started teaching in the Long Beach school system I had complained to my husband Charles that I felt excluded. Charles told me that the other teachers were probably intimidated because I had graduated from a California university and probably didn’t know how to behave around me. He had smiled and hugged me, calling me his “California girl” and told me not to worry about it. But I did, because I like the other teachers and wanted to be accepted.
I asked the teachers at the lunch table if they knew what was being sprayed. Janie leaned and said, “You know what they say, if you want to know what was going on around school, you have to ask the students.” I smiled. That had been the standard joke among teachers since I had begun teaching. But this time, even the students didn’t have the answers.
After lunch I walked my students back to class on the route assigned to us. We walked quietly down through B-Building and out onto the covered walkway toward F-Building. The roofers were spraying on C-building to our right, which butted up to F-building. A thick yellow mist billowed down, covering the walkway directly in front of us. There was no way around it, so we had to walk through it.
In my classroom I stood next to windows and looked out at the median between the buildings while fourth period students left and fifth period students filed in. Large clumps of foam lay scattered like boulders where they had fallen off the roof. Some of the larger pieces had been gathered and dumped into empty chemical barrels. The tardy bell rang. Just one more class to go, I thought. With the roofers spraying on another building, the air seemed to be better. I was sure I could get through the day.
It didn’t last. Right after checking the fifth period roll, the van and trucks returned to their original spots outside my classroom windows. I groaned, no longer afraid to show my disgust to my students. The blonde roofer heaved a tall metal ladder out of the pick-up truck and propped it against the outside of the building. The two roofers climbed back up to the roof, hauling up the heavy bundle of hoses, their white hoods dangling out of their pockets. I stood at the window and watched the African American as he dragged the other end of one of the hoses into the van and shoved the end of one of the hoses down into the lid of one of the drums.
A few minutes later, the loud engine began rumbling and the hissing grew louder. The mist was finer this time, more like a fog. The cloud billowed over the edge of the roof. The smell was overpowering. I had been wrong when I had thought the day couldn’t get any worse.