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Warm Memories of School's Furnace

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on January 11, 2003


 The smells, the soot and the teacher who smoked

By Roz Young

            Naomi Pittman lives here in the building in which I live, and the other day she handed me three yellowed newspaper columns she had been saving for years. `These are funny,' she said. `Read them.'
            They were first written in another century about the elementary school Naomi had attended when she was a child. The building, Washington School, was erected in 1890, and for years and years much of it was unused. Then in 1941 the school system was changed from the 6-3-3 system (six years elementary, three years junior high, three years senior high) to an 8-4 system (eight years elementary, four years senior high.) This meant that some of us high school teachers were assigned to teach classes in unused parts of the elementary buildings. We did not even have certificates to teach in elementary schools.
            I was one of those teachers. When I arrived, the principal, Emma J. Clark, assigned me to teach in a room that had not been occupied since the school was built, 50 years before. It had high ceilings, wood-paneled walls, slate blackboards and on one wall, an elaborate metal heat register with a chain jutting out of it. The chain controlled the heating system.
            If the room was too cold in winter, the teacher was instructed to pull the chain out of the register. The chain set something in motion down in the walls and directed heat from the coal-fired furnace in the basement.
            The mechanism that operated the chain worked like a spring-operated window blind. If the teacher wanted to feed the chain back into the wall, she had to put her foot up on the paneling and jerk and jerk until suddenly it went snaking through her hands. It went in with such a rush that we were warned to let go in a hurry. I don't think we would have been drawn through the grating, but you never could be sure.
            The heating system could not cope with all the reactivated rooms in the building. Both the classes and the teachers had to wear coats and gloves much of the first winter I spent in Washington School.
            The summer after my first year there, the Board of Education voted to take out the old coal gravity furnace and install three new ones with attached blowers that would force the warm air into the rooms. The pipes through which the heat rose into the rooms had never been cleaned since the building was erected. Fifty years of soot had collected on their surfaces.
            The first cool day in fall, the janitor turned the heat on, but not the blowers. The smell that arose from the new furnaces was a fragrance of burning paint, scorched metal and smoldering rubber. You could smell it clear all the way to McGee Street.
            The smell gradually wore off during the autumn and by Thanksgiving none of the teachers even mentioned the odor any more. It did, however, give Miss Clark an opportunity she had been waiting for.
            Isabel Sachs, one of the new teachers, smoked. I think this was in the days before anybody had even heard of the surgeon general. Nothing printed on cigarette packs said smoking was dangerous to your health. Teachers were allowed to smoke in the building if they went to the furnace room in the basement.
            Miss Clark had expressed her disapproval of smoking and announced, `I can always tell a teacher who smokes when she opens her purse,' but there was nothing she could do about it.
            Isabel always smoked in her car on the way to school, and although she stood outside the building for a minute or two before she entered, airing her clothes, still a tell-tale fragrance hung around her like an aura.
            One morning about six of us were in Miss Clark's office waiting to sign in when Isabel appeared in the door.
            Miss Clark, a portly woman with pince-nez spectacles and a plangent voice, drew air audibly through her nostrils. `There goes that old furnace, smoking again,' she remarked.
            `Oh, no, Miss Clark,' said Isabel. `That's not the furnace you smell, it's me.'
            We didn't dare laugh. For a moment Miss Clark sat in her chair, her balloon of smugness deflating.
            But never count Emma J. Clark out.
            `You should have said, `It's I,' ' she remarked.
            On the first day of winter the janitor received word that he should turn on the blower system.
            Out of every wall register in the building rushed clouds of black soot.
            Everybody began coughing like hyenas.
            Miss Clark got on the telephone to the downtown office, and within half an hour we put on our coats and hats and went home.
            As late as three months afterwards, flakes of soot rolled out of the registers. I could almost feel them land on my hair.
            I bought a black and gray tweed suit in hopes that the soot wouldn't show, and at night when I took off my stockings, my legs were gray and where my shoes had been, my feet were white.