My third year as a sixth grade teacher was my last. The decision wasn’t a defeat to multiple sclerosis necessarily; it was a defeat to sixth graders and to an incompetent administration. I made my decision in October and enjoyed another eight months of school-related chaos and student-inspired disease revelations. My third year was my first year using my wheelchair semi-regularly. I set up my classroom accordingly, and used the chair mainly to get from my classroom to the distant bathroom, or to pick up my students from their resource classes. Occasionally I used it to monitor student progress during cooperative learning activities, but with coats and backpacks and notebooks and handouts strewn about, negotiating the chair through the close-quartered classroom was difficult. My students loved my wheelchair. Usually, in fact, if I didn’t guard it closely, one of my kids would steal it from behind my desk and wheel around my room at mach six before I could reach the chalk and scribble threateningly on the detention board.
One winter afternoon, I wheeled to the cafeteria to retrieve my second group of sixth graders from lunch. I had used my thirty-minute lunch break not to eat, rather to push myself to and from the main office making copies. I kicked myself through the door to the lunchroom right as 6-02 was lining up along the wall next to my classroom. I was practically sweating from my effort to cram 78 things into a half-an-hour, and my kids were waiting for me impatiently. A few of them were playfully fighting each other, and others appeared to have angry ants in their pants. They were moving around so much I was convinced that some type of stimulant had mysteriously slipped into the school lunch. I gave my thirty sixth graders the sternest face I could muster, and demanded that they stop writhing around and prepare for an afternoon of serious learning.
They listened to my request. Mostly. Except for Stevie. Stevie stood at the line’s center with his best friend, Brandon. Stevie loved my wheelchair. Actually, he was the one who initially removed it, piece by piece, from the trunk of my blue Nissan and constructed it in my classroom. He had studied the chair for a few minutes, furrowed his twelve-year-old brow, and then pulled the cord in the back. The seat bent upwards and Stevie slid the wheels on effortlessly, all the while he explained exactly what he was doing with more patience and clarity than I ever used while describing the five-step writing process. Stevie was difficult to teach because he had the uncanny ability to see the other, less popular, sixth graders surreptitiously picking their noses. Then he’d quietly point at the nose-picker, and learning would cease until his twenty-nine peers would stop giggling and gaping. Stevie also back flipped off of a table in my classroom before dismissal one afternoon. He landed the flip like a gymnast, but I was appalled with myself – that a third year teacher failed to notice a small child climb a table was another testament to my year end’s requisite career move.
In the cafeteria, Stevie innocently asked if I knew how to “pop a wheelie” with my wheelchair. I told him I didn’t, repeated how important it was that learning commence, and continued towards my room. Stevie didn’t move though, and neither did his classmates. Stevie’s question quickly commanded the attention of the rest of the class. Brandon spoke next,
“Try one, Miss Hooks – they’re fun.”
This comment was followed by numerous words of encouragement from the rest of the class, and culminated with my authoritative answer:
“We have important things to do, and I don’t know how to do one anyway.”
In retrospect, my response was completely ineffectual at redirecting the attention of my students away from the wheelchair and towards the all-important lesson on Ancient Egypt.
Stevie left the line and grabbed the back of my chair. “You just push yourself forward and then pull back hard, like this.”
(He did it, I tried neither to laugh nor shriek.)
I was secretly amused at their interest in this, and, rather than prioritize Egypt, I agreed – per Stevie and Brandon’s request – to attempt my first wheelie. The class (minus Stevie) was in a neat line, and by this point they’d stopped fidgeting, writhing and fighting with each other; they were focused entirely on me. Using Stevie’s words of encouragement and direction, I pushed myself forward and then pulled back quickly. Then, rather than lifting the front wheels gracefully off the ground while appearing cool and lithe in my green wheelchair, I flipped over backwards and landed directly on my head.
Luckily I wasn’t wearing a skirt.
Not so luckily, the next group of children had already entered the lunch room (at exactly the same time I landed strategically on my head). My students were motionless and silent. They were convinced I was dead. Before I could prove them otherwise, I heard Brandon whisper:
“Stevie, we killed Miss Hooks.”
Then, still upside down, I erupted into laughter and managed to yell (while laughing), “I TOLD YOU I COULDN’T DO A WHEELIE! GET ME UP!”
Steven and Brandon offered me their hands, and the line changed from a relatively straight and orderly formation into a circle of gaping and appalled (although certainly amused) sixth graders. Even Roxanne, the secretary in charge of lunch duty that day, noticed me on the floor. She grabbed the microphone from the stage (the lunch room doubled as an auditorium) and drew every child’s attention to the mess that was myself on the cafeteria floor:
“Hooks, what on earth are you doing on the floor?”
I have no idea what I taught that day. I’m sure my students don’t know either. I do, however, remember the girls in my class that gathered around my head to ask if I was okay, and the firm grasp of Brandon and Stevie's hands that pulled me off the ground.
My pride was slightly damaged – for obvious reasons. But teaching in a wheelchair wasn’t necessarily all bad. I knew I loved my students. Had I not ended up on the floor of the cafeteria with thirty concerned kids trying to get me up, I might not have learned that they loved me back.