My mom told me once that when I deny people the opportunity to help me, I deny them the chance to be a blessing. I found her words absurd – absurd and inconceivable. I relied on people far too often. I ask my roommates to clean the floors and carry my laundry from the drier to my room, I solicit strangers outside of shoe stores to walk me to my car or women in parking lots to cover me with umbrellas while I assemble my wheelchair in the rain. I’ve always imagined that if I find myself annoying, others would feel the same way.
It was late spring of my third year at Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School, and my students were convinced it was already summer. There were four days of school remaining (not that I was counting), and rather than spend the last hour of the school day listening to my own voice while thirty sixth graders attempted to secretly pass notes and play cards under their desks, I made an impromptu decision to save my own sanity: I took my kids outside.
For the last hour of the school day, I sat on the playground in a chair that one of my students had stolen from the second grade classroom and watched a few of my boys violently hurl a four square ball back and forth. My girls were clustered around my feet talking while other students ran mindlessly in circles. I participated in conversation with the girls while silently praying that none of my kids would climb the chain link fence, inflict pain upon themselves or others, or disturb the high stakes learning that was surely taking place within the nearby portable classrooms. Meanwhile, I got hot.
Since I was sitting, my body temperature didn’t matter much. I didn’t plan on going anywhere until 2:30. That left me 45 minutes to either spontaneously cool down or come up with an ingenious way to get myself from the playground, up the stairs and back to my classroom in time for dismissal. I pushed these thoughts to the back of my head and listened to Peggy and Kari discuss their summer plans. I watched Andrew bounce the four square ball directly into Michael’s face, and I glanced in the general direction of Jessica as she paced back and forth along the edge of the blacktop engrossed in conversation with what appeared to be a twig. All the while, my nerves were getting hotter and hotter and I felt my face flush from the heat. At one point I actually felt my entire nervous system come to a halt on account of the heat. By the time 2:30 rolled around I couldn’t get out of the chair. I felt like three mysterious hippos had descended upon my shoulders.
I didn’t have a whistle to use to get my classes’ attention (and, even if I had, they likely would have ignored it), so I yelled. Approximately 27 of my thirty students eventually gathered around me, and I told them my legs weren’t working on account of heat-induced MS issues and that they’d have to dismiss themselves (this was a risky request).
“Okay guys, you are going to get to the classroom much faster than I am. You need to get your stuff, put up your chairs, straighten the desks and proceed slowly and carefully to the busses. If I find my room in disarray, or hear about you knocking any small children over en route to your busses, we will never, ever go outside again.”
With that they happily scampered up the stairs, to my classroom and, eventually, home. Since I didn’t find anyone subsequently flattened in the hallway, and my room was relatively organized when I finally arrived, I was impressed. For once my homeroom listened to my directions.
Peggy, though, didn’t scramble up the stairs. She and Kari waited for me.
“What are you gonna do, Miss Hooks?” Peggy asked the obvious question just as I was strategizing how to properly crawl up the stairs without ripping my stockings.
I tried to pretend I was someone else – someone without pride issues; someone who had no problem physically relying on twelve-year olds. “Do you two feel like helping me?”
The girls nodded in unison and Peggy answered quickly, “Yeah, what do you want us to do?”
Collectively we decided that Kari would return the chair to the second grade classroom, and that Peggy would help me get up the stairs. She offered me her shoulder while I grasped the chain link fence that led to the building and the two of us began a long trek up the stairs. I mumbled a few words about MS and the heat, and distinctly remember communicating how sorry I was that she needed to worry about how her teacher would get back into the building.
I put more of my weight on Peggy’s left shoulder than any child should have to support, and she literally dragged me – step by school lunch infested step – up the stairs and towards my surprisingly organized and empty classroom. I probably apologized on each step because that’s what I do. There are moments when my guilt is as oppressive as the hippos that had perched on my shoulders that afternoon.
“I’m so sorry about this, kiddo. I guess we can’t go outside when it’s this hot. You shouldn’t have to worry about me…”
Peggy stopped hauling me up the stairs and looked at me very sternly. She was suddenly as serious as I try to look when I’m threatening someone with detention and she with equal gravity,
“I feel good when I can help you, Miss Hooks. I want to help you. I think we all do.”
I didn’t say anything. I just kept holding onto her, and moving my feet, slowly, up the stairs. Safely back in my classroom, Peggy went home and I sat at my desk until I had the energy to erase and wash my boards. All the while, Peggy’s words repeated themselves in my head: I want to help. I feel good when I can help you. I want to help...
So I suppose, when it comes to sixth graders, my mom was right.