Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Too Sick For School

"Daddy, my stomach hurts."

That's how it started yesterday morning. Five minutes before the bus was due, my daughter announced to me that her stomach was bothering her. What to do?

My mind immediately raced back to my own childhood when, like every other red-blooded kid, I had faked a mild illness to skip a day of school. But I don't think I did that until junior high or high school, when the stakes were bigger and the anxiety level was higher. My daughter's in fourth grade, and loves school, so it seemed unlikely she was trying to pull one on me. Besides, the day before, she'd gone to the school nurse a couple of times complaining of the same problem. The sick-scales tipped in her favor, so I let her stay home.

Later that morning, on my way to work, I thought back on my youthful hooky history. As an adult, I have a rigorous work ethic. It's an extremely rare event when I call in sick. I can't remember a single year when I used up all my allotted sick days. I have to lose my voice (a vital resource in the radio profession) before I won't go in to do my show. But as a kid, like all kids, I tried to get away with a day off every now and then.

While my school-skipping cons weren't as intricately planned as Ferris Bueller's, they did require some thought.

First, there's the look. Somehow, kids can create the illusion that all blood has left their face -- or that all of it has rushed there. Your hair must be unkempt, and a slight slouch helps, even while remaining horizontal in bed. This is no time for neatness and good posture, but don't overdo it. If you're doubled over in pain or lying lifelessly on the floor in the fetal position with your eyes rolled all the way back, you're not only going to miss school, you're going to learn how little fun the emergency room of your local hospital can be.

Second, an elevated temperature helps. This one takes work. One colleague of mine says she used to hold her head over the heating vent until she felt a little woozy. Then, when her mother would feel how warm her forehead was, she'd know she was too sick to attempt anything academic.

Personally, I grew up in an apartment with radiators, but rather than expose my flesh to the scalding pipes, I'd go for the thermometer fake-out. This involved convincing Mom that I felt warm but was shivering, thus guaranteeing she'd bring out the thermometer. She'd place it under my tongue and leave for a few minutes to attend to my brother (who knew not to attempt the almost impossible double sick hoax) and father, and get them off to school and work, respectively.

While she was gone, I'd hold the thermometer next to the radiator. Other kids preferred holding the thermometer up to a light bulb. Either way, you have to do it just right, and it takes some trial and error. You don't want to warm it too much, or you'll look like you have a temp of 107 and the next thing you know, you're in the emergency room. Worse, you'll have to stick that thing back in your mouth before Mom returns, and you don't want to scald the bottom of your tongue. You have to time it so that you move that mercury up to about a hundred degrees or so -- the universally agreed-upon level for being sick enough to stay home from school -- and keep it there until Mom re-appears.

Third, use the right tone in your plea. Again, work on this ahead of time so the timber of your voice is a little shaky. Do not clear your throat. Sound exhausted, as if you barely slept all night. For some reason, the higher the register, the more plaintive the plea will sound. Practice a few times in your room before your parental performance. Caveat: don't pretend you have a sore throat if you're going with the stomach ache fake. Pick one direction and stick with it.

Fourth, vomit is magical. You don't actually have to throw up. Acting like you might spew at any time is often enough to earn you a day of rest and relaxation in front of the TV. If not, you might have to add special effects, like pouring water into the toilet while you make hurling noises. Note: under no circumstances should you actually vomit. This isn't a made-for-TV movie about bulimia.

Speaking of vomit, that was about the most unpleasant thing that could happen at school, wasn't it? Some kid who really was sick would blow chunks in the classroom, instantly creating a lesson in odor management. The teacher calls the janitor, who strolls in pushing that big gray barrel on wheels -- the one with a broom sticking out of it (they must come standard as a combo at any school janitor supply store). For some reason, the broom brush would be sticking up, with the handle shoved into the muck, which made no sense. Anyway, he'd spread some kind of sawdust/kitty litter mix onto the mess, and then leave it to marinate for an hour or so. Meanwhile, everyone held their noses and moved to the other side of the room, praying for the bell to ring.

What I didn't know then, but I do know now, is that parents are hip to the phony sick day deal. I'm sure my mother and father just rolled their eyes whenever I thought I was getting away with something.

On the other hand, there were kids like my friend Mark, who was never able to pull a fake sick day because his Dad wouldn't buy it. Mark didn't even bother trying to mount a performance, because the only way his father would let him stay home from school was if his legs fell off and his armpits were on fire. Needless to say, Mark was always at the bus stop.

The bottom line on my daughter's bellyache was that she was fine by the afternoon, and went to school this morning with no complaints. Maybe she thinks she pulled a fast one on me. I don't know.

But I do know that we don't use the old glass thermometer anymore. It was always too hard to read -- having to align it perfectly to see where the mercury meniscus was -- so we've upgraded to a plastic-covered digital thermometer. Besides, we don't have any radiators. Obviously, she has some serious planning to do for next time.