The Music Man and the 39-cent Bar of Soap

bar_of_soapMy music teacher, Mr. Sullivan, was a fat, bald man. Whatever hair he did have was an unattractive dull rusty color. Strangely enough, his wife, who was a substitute teacher, was a cute young thing with pretty blonde hair and a good figure. I always wondered how he managed that one.

In fifth grade, we sang songs like “Old Kentucky Home” “Home on the Range” (Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam), “Yankee Doodle” and other  traditional American favorites.

I attended a mostly white school in the suburbs; you could count the black students on one hand. Halfway through the year we got a new student, a black kid named Gary. The boys accepted him as another guy to play with, run races around the track, and play cars on the floor with.

One day while we were in music class, Mr. Sullivan told us, “I don’t have any prejudice against people who have different color skin. But what I do have prejudice against is people who don’t wash. Soap is 39 cents. Everybody can afford that.”

I digested his words for a few minutes, and realized, yes, that makes total sense. I noticed that Gary did have a distinctive smell; he smelled different from the other boys. Except Charles of course. Charles always smelled awful. (Charles was a poor kid, rumored to have been the product of his father and his sister.)

I figured Mr. Sullivan had a good reason, and that he didn’t like Gary because he smelled funny and his explanation made perfect sense. It wasn’t because Gary was black, it was because he smelled funny.

About a month later, I went home after school, hitting the cabinet for the Oreo cookies before starting my homework. As I opened the cabinet, Mother told me, “We are using paper plates for supper tonight. The well has run dry and we don’t have any water.”

“What about the toilet?” My first thought popped out of my mouth.

“I was able to fill a few jugs with water from the neighbors across the street, but we can’t flush every time. Don’t use so much toilet paper.” (Mother had always tried to explain about only using 2 squares, and I never did figure out how that was enough to dry yourself with.)

I ate my cookies, and out of habit went to the kitchen sink to wash away the crumbs from my hands. I turned on the faucet and nothing came out. Then it hit me: it’s not about the soap, it’s about the plumbing. If a pipe breaks or there is no water, you can’t wash. It has nothing to do with 39 cent soap.  It’s about the plumbing, and poor people can’t always fix their plumbing immediately.

I realized that people can make excuses for just about anything. They can lie to themselves to make themselves feel better, without addressing the real issue.

Were you told stories like the 39-cent soap by your parents and teachers?





9 thoughts on “The Music Man and the 39-cent Bar of Soap

  1. Both of my parents grew up poor so they had compassion about things like that. I did work with a 1st grade teacher once who said she liked making her students cry because it was cute. Sick. I really like the way you tell a story!


  2. Adrienne, My son’s 3rd grade teacher should not have been allowed near children! She was so mean and nasty. Sadly, I didn’t realize what was going on until the end of the year. He had trouble telling me what was going on, because he was so young. I took him out of public school that year, and into Christian school. I also had a mean gym teacher. It’s sad that people can be so mean to kids. Thank you for your compliment also! I am trying to be ME when I write. But I can’t help comparing myself to people who do it better.


  3. We had very little money when I was growing up but, thankfully, there was always water from the tap, even if it was often cold. Hand me downs and mend and make do taught me some valuable life lessons though.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your teacher is totally right, keeping ourselves clean( off course body and mind)is important!
    I take usually long bath but my husband in and out no time……I always tell him to keep his body clean!!
    I force him to use a soap which is effectively inhibit and remove his body odors, especially the odor comes with aging and scalp odor.( 一一)


      1. Oh,sorry, I think I misunderstood.
        I didn’t mean judging people is right. I have some friends who are black, but they are soooo talented and nice people. I do love them!!

        Talking about a bath, it is very cold here in January, so I really miss hot springs.

        Liked by 1 person

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