What Education Really Needs is Industrial Strength Voban

It was my first day of student teaching and I was feeling overwhelmed. I was wearing my only suit, which made me way overdressed and therefore feeling even more out of place. Adding to my discomfort was the fact that my cooperating teacher, as well as two thirds of the school, was out with the flu. And I had no lesson plans. I sat in the teacher chair with about ten first and second-graders sitting at my feet while I nervously took roll and wondered what I was going to do with these children for six and one-half hours. As I looked up from the grade book, six-year-old Felicia raised her hand and stood up when I acknowledged her.

“Mr. Parent, I don’t feel so…”she started to say and then threw up.

Chaos ensued as I jumped out of my chair. Students panicked and moved away from Felicia. I had Felicia’s breakfast on my suit, shoes, and the floor. I grabbed a trash can and put it in front of her. Then I found a teacher who wasn’t a substitute and she came to my rescue. She grabbed a pink bag out of her closet and sprinkled it onto the mess while I took Felicia to the nurse’s office and went into the bathroom to clean up. This was my introduction to both teaching and Voban. Voban is a pink sawdust material in a bag about the size and appearance of a two pound flour bag. The sawdust is impregnated with a deodorant base that absorbs, masks, and chemically neutralizes the butyric acid that gives puke its distinctive smell.

I actually had a chemistry teacher in high school who taught us how to change the smell of butyric acid into rose or banana scents. A senior aide stole some of the foul smelling substance and makd a lot of money selling it to other students who wanted to prank friends and enemies. A drop on a piece of paper which was shoved into the air vent of someone’s locker provided endless amusement to these black market patrons.

The story of my first day of teaching circulated throughout the school very quickly. Everyone, including my cooperating teacher, said I could not have had a better introduction to the teaching profession. It turns out they were right. In my thirty-one years of teaching in public schools, I had to deal with every bodily fluid, both literal and figurative, that students and class pets could produce. Throw in the emotional and psychological vomit of some parents, and I got hosed on a regular basis.

I wouldn’t trade any of it away. Most of my students and parents were great. I still have a box full of cards, letters, and other tokens of gratitude from students and their parents. I even ran into Felicia at a skating rink years later, and she came up and hugged me, saying I was one of her favorite teachers. In the small town I live in, I run into former students or their parents often. Most are very supportive and tell me what a great teacher they think I was. But there’s about 10% who are a different story. Exhibit A is the mother who told us she was too busy trying to take care of herself to worry about her son’s behavior. We three sixth-grade teachers warned her that her son was heading to prison without an intervention. Sure enough, four years later, he killed his girlfriend in a car accident after he stole a car and kidnapped her.

Those kinds of encounters, when parents blame you for their failures, or kids take out their anger on teachers and other students, wear you down. These are situations that you can’t prevent, but are forced to watch anyways. For the actual physical stuff, I learned to keep Voban within reach. After that first day of teaching, I always knew where the nearest bag of Voban was. In fact, Voban is an important tool in any elementary teacher’s tool bag. The younger the student, the more important it is. One teacher at our school poured wheat paste, which is in a similar bag, only it’s blue, onto a student’s accident. The janitor was not pleased at the result and thus was born The Voban Award, a yearly prize given to whoever did the dumbest thing in the classroom. Some winners included the teacher who locked himself into an interior hallway at 5 am, a teacher who typed for 45 minutes on a typewriter with no ribbon, and a teacher who spent a half an hour searching maps for a country called “Label.”

But what I really needed, and what every teacher needs, is an industrial strength Voban for the emotional, psychological, and societal vomit spewed onto teachers daily. We actually have a Secretary of Education who has never attended public school or sent her children to public school, and yet she is making decisions that affect every teacher and student in the country. We have more ex-teachers than any other profession. Over half of all teachers quit within the first five years. Sure money is an issue, but disrespect and lack of administrative support are the real causes of most teacher burnout. Teaching is the only profession where the more experience you have the less you are listened to.

I doubt that anyone will or is even capable of making such a product as emotional Voban. But if they ever do, the first place we need to deliver it to is Washington D.C. And we’ll need a lot of it.