Sunday, October 27, 2013

One Lesson

She wouldn’t eat a banana in the teachers’ lounge.

The blue mat underneath me was dusty. I slid my white socks back and forth along the gold wrestling ring and they picked up the tan residue. She talked about sexism, harassment. In PE class, at fifteen years old, I hadn't met enough of the world yet to know what those two things were, really; but a boy had just told me in the lunchroom that if I kept scratching my mosquito bite tits, maybe they’d get bigger. I knew what it meant for somebody to make you feel bad about yourself. About being female.

Even when you’re a strong woman, you have to be careful, she said. I felt embarrassed when she talked about herself in that way, but also curious to hear an adult speak so candidly. She was teaching us about self defense. I couldn't imagine how a woman that seemed that strong--someone who coached and who commanded the attention of the entire school--ever felt vulnerable.

She wouldn’t eat a banana in the teachers’ lounge. Even a woman like her who didn't take shit from anyone. It was enough of a boys' club that she changed her own behavior because it was easier than dealing with harassment.

She died this week. A retired teacher from my high school who was in her sixties. My PE teacher and our former Activities Director. When I started this essay it was going to be about how unfair it is that strong people can get shitty diseases like early onset Alzheimer's.

It is, but this isn't about that anymore.

This week I ate lunch with my fellow teachers at the same school--the one where she had been made uncomfortable almost twenty years ago, the one where I now teach--and a friend asked me, "Did you hear how she got her dementia?"

Got her dementia. That's not a thing you hear people say. Several people in my life either have dementia or early onset Alzheimer's, but it's generally not a thing we talk about someone getting.

Over the last few weeks when my grandma went rapidly into dementia symptoms, my family spent a lot of time agonizing over how suddenly and inexplicably her brain seemed to cloud. The doctors were stumped. She had a broken tailbone, but she was incoherent. It took tests upon tests upon tests until they finally found pneumonia, and started to treat her with antibiotics. My dad explained over the phone that often it's an infection that can cause that speedy confusion older people. He calmly told me how we hoped she could return to her pre-illness mental state once the antibiotics took effect. "But we don't always know," he said. "The brain is a tricky thing." Grandma's dementia came from pneumonia. Apparently a bladder infection could do the same thing. To your brain.

Sometimes I think about how fragile we all are and I'm amazed we can even walk around.

"Did you hear how she got her dementia?" my friend said, at lunch. "She got knocked out by a student when she was breaking up a fight."

I sat there with my mouth open. I'm not sure how I thought I would feel, or that if thinking she died of early onset Alzheimer's of an undetermined cause was somehow better. And even now, I don't know which version is true. It doesn't matter. Her death is a sad loss. She was gone to those who loved her before she died, and she died young. As my friend talked about the brain trauma that might have caused her dementia, all the teachers in the room got quiet. And we stayed quiet. Because her death--either way--is a confirmation of our worst fears. Either we are vulnerable because we are, or we are vulnerable because of the work we do. Which was hard to accept, given the fact that we had to get up five minutes later and walk into our classrooms.

When the Newtown school shooting happened last December, I struggled a lot with my feelings of vulnerability in the classroom. I asked myself a lot of questions in the days that followed: Would I stand in harm's way to protect my students? Yes. It's what I would hope someone would do for my own children. Would I be able to stop a person who came into my classroom and wanted to do harm to me or anyone else? If I'm being honest, probably not. Would I die trying? If it came to that. I can tell you those are not decisions I thought I'd be making when I got my teaching credential at twenty two years old: Would I die for this job? Would I die for someone else's child?

This seemed different. In that moment I think I was asking myself if I could die just for being there. There are a lot of safety measures in place to keep people out, but when you're dealing with humans--including students--it's complicated. They, especially, are complicated. I think we're afraid to talk about when the risk comes from inside the classroom.

This week two teachers died at schools. I don't know the details because I'm too mired in writing my thesis to watch the news. I think this is probably a good thing, based on my history of anxiety.

There's something to the fact that all our biggest uncertainties and self-esteem issues are concentrated into our teenage years. Into high school. Sometimes I feel like even the physical space boxes kids in. Our most painful, awkward, hyper-aware years are confined to that place. This makes high school show up again and again in fiction, TV, movies. People are always trying to work out their issues. Each time I hear another news story about a high school shooting I think about the kids I know that are completely unable to process pain without lashing out. And always--always--when these things happen, I internalize it, wonder if that could be my school. Me.

The brain is a tricky thing.

I didn't know this teacher who died very well. She was a presence on campus, for sure. She was a role model to me. She was an amazing teacher. But I didn't know her personally on any level. I realize now that I watched her just like my students watch me. Exactly the same way that makes me crazy sometimes. That's the one thing about my job that I think might finally drive me out someday--the feeling like I'm constantly being scrutinized, discussed, analyzed by people whose brains haven't yet had the benefit of engaging with a full world. It's the nature of the job; it's what we want them to do all the time--turn forward, look at me--and it means a kind of hyper-scrutiny that can become difficult to live up to.

But I watched her. I watched her from my roll call spot on the wrestling mat while she walked up and down the aisles, checking off who was dressed for PE and who was not. And I watched her while she sat on her knees and talked to us about why she wouldn't eat a banana. I wish I had a more significant specific memory of her than that, but she taught me twice about how we are vulnerable.

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