Friday, November 13, 2009

Smoke if You Got 'em

or How I Got Asthma for Two Years

I was always a healthy kid growing up, so it came as a little bit of a surprise when I developed an asthma related cough in my middle school years. It appeared out of nowhere, but with two parents in the medical field, it was treated to the fullest extent.

The effects came and went – occasionally in gym class or while playing flag football after school I would need to catch my breath or begin coughing. There was no time that the symptoms were tested more than on the bus rides to and from school. You see, there were two kids named Mike and Kevin sat in the back and smoked cigarettes. This was a completely unbelievable occurrence for me. We all had the same health class where they clearly identified the dangers of smoking, yet these two guys lit up every afternoon.

The dilemma was that the back half of the bus was reserved for the 8th graders, but that’s also where the smokers sat. I couldn’t move up and sit with the 7th graders after waiting a whole year to earn the right to those seats. I stubbornly stood my ground and rode the bus a few seats in front of the clouded last row.

A week passed and I reached my breaking point. I went to the bus driver to have her ask them to stop. She was a skinny woman with a large auburn hairstyle that has passed its prime during the Reagan era. If you looked at her face it was hard to tell if she was 40 or 65, which was reason enough to not look at her at all. I remember emphasizing that I had asthma to gain some sympathy, even putting on a bit of a show with some forced coughs. It did not phase the driver one bit.

At the next stop light she looked at me and said "I smoked when I was their age, and I turned out okay."

"You're a bus driver," I told her with the elitist innocence that could have only been delivered by a privileged child.

She shot me a scowl the likes I had never seen and told me to sit down. How could she not see that this act of young rebellion, smoking, could send them directly down the same path as her, the path that lead to driving a bus? As much as I did not care for the two smokers I didn’t wish the life of a public school bus driver on them.

I was a lot of things, but not a tattle tale. Apparently this didn’t bode true for several of my fellow bus mates, all of whom had mentioned it to their parents when they arrived home that night. These parents called other parents and the phone tree grew to include my mother, who asked why I didn't say anything about it. The next day we had a new bus driver. I guess she wasn't doing so well for herself any longer.

In a related side note, my asthma and any signs of it went away shortly after I got to high school. The unused inhalers collected dust in my bathroom cabinet while I was able to get by without using them. We used to joke about the urban legends of the school being built on a lead field because the land was cheaper, but the in 2001 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released an assessment on the school's neighborhood. It featured such lines as “The area is associated with landfills that were located in the area from the late 1800s through the 1950s,” and “Residents should avoid digging or other activities that disturb soils beneath the ground surface in the neighborhood.” In short, my old middle school was built on top of a landfill and when gym class was on the field outside, we were not too far above a century and a half of buried landfill waste. The same waste which contained samples of lead, mercury and arsenic, to name a few, only inches beneath the surface. When the report went public, the community demanded change, and a new middle school opened on the other side of town in 2006.

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