THE FOURTH SINK
In the mornings, the room smells dusty. It’s strongest near the fourth sink. I try to avoid opening the cabinet beneath but sometimes I have no choice—all the donated paper towel rolls are down there, stacked like logs in a crinkly wedge. Really it’s more musty than dusty. Word choice. I want the kids to be specific when they’re making their field observations, so let me hold myself accountable too. Sunlight drenches the room in the mornings, east-facing classroom, the series of tall windows like tipped pitchers. The black lab tables shining. It’s mostly quiet here this early.There’s a hole in the floor under Table 8 that you’d think would be the likely culprit. The sea jelly–green tiles cross some kind of seam there, a ridge transecting the room. Our school building is settling awkwardly after sixty-five years. Where the ridge passes under Table 8, ten inches of it have crumbled inwards, revealing the worn edges of weight-bearing two-by-fours and a rind of shadow between. I can’t stop predicting that the hole’s the source of the smell but that hypothesis needs to be dismissed. I’ve crawled under the table to check too many times.
It’s coming from that fourth sink, from the gap behind the wall. I just know it. That’s not evidence, of course. I would never allow a student to cite “just knowing it” as support for one of their claims. Gotta dig deeper: Why do you think that, how do you know? I need to pry out the paper towel rolls after school one day, after the kids have gone home. Someone needs to look inside and I guess it’s me. At times there are noises coming from back there too, bristling. Four sinks, sure, it’s excessive for a middle school science lab but it is nice to have them. We use them. Though I’ve stopped letting the class use the fourth this year, just in case.
When they come in each morning, one or two kids will mention the smell. And lately, occasionally, the sounds. But they usually only mention it right as they walk in and then we all forget again until the next day, There’s so much else to keep track of. Nadia is having a seriously tough time at home and feels comforted if I let her hold the rock hammer during class. Victor and Kayla need me to find them a mic for the plate tectonics song they’re working on. And it’s the sugar cube lab today, where they use tealights to send sugar through a simulation of the rock cycle, bash the cubes down to sediments, melt them into magma. I need to find extra hairbands before class starts and print the procedures. And cut some aluminum foil. Get out the tongs, the goggles. Figure out when to have a conversation with Jenny because I promised her a seat change and that class has a bunch of tender personalities to keep track of. Flip through yesterday’s mini-quizzes and figure out who needs a check-in. The faint noises, the snarling, the scratching, and that persistent smell get drowned out by 124 eighth graders moving through all day so of course we forget. But it’s there. Every morning it’s there. I’ve been quantifying the smell on a 1–5 scale and the data suggest it’s getting stronger.
Copyright © 2019 by Devan Aptekar
DEVAN APTEKAR teaches 8th Grade Science at Tompkins Square Middle School on the lower east side of Manhattan after many years there as dean. A native New Yorker, he grew up by the beach in Brooklyn. While he has published over twenty children’s books and loves teaching science, he is devoted to writing strange bittersweet novels.