A few days back, while reading Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar with a normally frolicsome group of our nation’s sixteen year olds, I found myself falling asleep. I tried the usual tricks of alertness, from pinching myself to assigning a student to give me a shake.

It wasn’t working. Amazingly enough, the students were enthusiastic about the play, jumping out of their seats to volunteer to read parts, laughing at the arguments between Brutus and Cassius. Nevertheless, it is not considered good form to fall asleep in class. There is nothing quite so embarrassing as startling awake to twenty-six pairs of eyes staring at you, knowingly.

It was late afternoon. There was a little more than a cup of water, hot and ready to use, in the Zojirushi. Not enough for a whole pot, but enough for a cup. I rummaged around, trying to think of a way to make just a cup, when I remembered that a student had thoughtfully brought me a ziplock of assorted tea bags. I sorted through them, finally settling on a twinings variety called “lapsang souchong.” I gave the students a little chat break while I steeped the bag. I do not often drink bagged tea- so I was ready to be disappointed- but I needed a diversion, a sip every twenty seconds to keep me awake. I removed the teabag from the cup and walked back to my seat in the circle.

“Ewwwwwwwww,” the boy next to me said, “that smells like an ashtray!” I gave the brew a quick whiff. The lad was right. It had a distinct tarry, smoky odor. But there was something else.

“Let me smell!” another boy demanded. I took a tiny, tiny, sip and nearly spit it out on the poor girl reading for Octavious. “Yuck,” I exclaimed, “it smells like . . . an ashtray with a bit of fish oil in it!” I dumped the tea into the wastebasket, and the students passed the empty cup from chair to chair, giving it a sniff and a withering evaluation. “How can you drink that stuff?”

“The tea we usually have,” one of the Tuesday Tea Regulars assured, “does NOT come in bags, and does not smell like THAT!” Obviously someone likes this tea, as Twining’s has gone so far as to market it in handy tea bags. Is the distinct smoked fish taste and odor a function of processing or something else?

There was no longer any danger of falling asleep.

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