Goodbye, Smell-O Brick Road

If you wonder often why the great civilizations of early Mesopotamia disappeared – And, gosh, who doesn’t? – it’s probably because their bricks smelled like dog poop. My daughter tried to make a mere two bricks for Social Studies last month, and for days our house smelled like a kennel of dogs with diarrhea. It wasn’t pretty.
My daughter was making the bricks as part of a seventh grade homework assignment. Her Social Studies teacher at Mount Abraham High School, Barb Simoes, was helping the kids transition from the study of early nomadic civilizations to a study of Mesopotamia, and so she had them begin by making bricks. They were supposed to use clay, because Mesopotamia was a river civilization and the ancient Mesopotamians used clay for everything. They depended on clay the way we depend on Pentium processors, although that meant their laptops were much heavier than ours.
The kids would then bring their homemade bricks to school, where they would be subjected to a rigorous series of tests: Could they support fifty pounds of weight? Survive a dunking in a bucket of water? Be capable of being rolled five times? I love tests like these, because there are no tiny ovals you have to fill in with a number two pencil.
Of course, the students were only supposed to use whatever materials were handy in their yards, because a key part of the lesson was, as Simoes explained, “people use the resources available to them.” One year, Simoes told me, an enterprising lad made his brick out of melted and refashioned Skittles candy. Obviously, the Mesopotamians didn’t have Skittles, but if they had their civilization might still be flourishing: That brick, Simoes said, was mighty impressive.
Unfortunately, we don’t have any clay in our yard (or Skittles in the house), and so my daughter got dirt from different spots around the vegetable garden and the barn. It was almost dark when she was gathering her dirt, a detail that might have been a factor in what she scooped up for her bricks and what would occur over the following days.
That night my wife looked at the dirt and water and flour that our daughter was mixing in a pair of bread pans, and thought they might need some help. And so she suggested adding a little corn starch to the mixture. “After all,” she said to me later, “it thickens gravy.”
Indeed: All great architectural accomplishments begin with gravy.
Then they set the bricks on the woodstove to cook. A woodstove isn’t exactly a kiln, but then dirt and corn starch aren’t exactly clay. And so it seemed to make sense.
Almost instantly the house was infused with a rich, robust potpourri that smelled, I imagine, like a Mesopotamian sewage treatment plant. My wife insists that my daughter and I were overreacting. “The bricks most certainly did not smell like dog poop,” she said. “They smelled like barf.”
In any event, our daughter gamely brought her dried bricks to school. “As I walked down the hallway,” she said, “people walked the other way. And when we were testing them outside, people thought they were made of dog poop – but they didn’t use just that word.”
Her bricks didn’t pass any of the tests. They collapsed under the weights and dissolved in water like sugar. But that didn’t really matter. As her teacher said, this exercise was all about process. And, besides, my daughter had fun.
Nevertheless, I did ask her if it was even remotely possible that in the dusk she had inadvertently gathered a little dog poop in with her dirt. She said it was highly unlikely, but perhaps there was a small chance. And so the lesson she learned from this assignment? Well, there were two.
It’s not likely the pyramids are made of corn starch.
And, just in case, we better buy some new bread pans.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press, January 15, 2006.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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