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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Line

I know teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but I definitely do. Kevin is my favorite. He has an identical twin who writes a little better and is quieter in class, but there's something about Kevin that I've never been able to pin point. He and his brother transfered into City from a vocational high school in the neighborhood, and while I'm skeptical of the decision that removed two 17-year-old sophomores from a reputable vocational school to a college preparatory high school, I cannot imagine this year without them.

From the second week of school forth, Kevin has tested "the line" with me. He pokes his head into my classroom on a regular basis and adds insight to my history lessons. His insight usually comes in the form of loud, pseudo-musical utterances of "Baby, baby... UGH!" Then he closes the door behind him and saunters off to the bathroom. He says I walk like a duck, and when I showed my students a picture of me running in college, he responded with, "Wait, why didn't you run like a duck?" I guess he conveniently forgot my introductory spiel in the beginning of the year when I told his class that I'd gotten MS when I was 19.

One day, earlier this year, he told a few of his peers about watching me push my wheelchair up the steps, and I felt him encroaching upon the esoteric "line." He was laughing and his classmates were laughing and, in an effort to take myself less seriously, I was probably laughing, but I'm horribly self-conscious sometimes, and I hate thinking about what I look like to others. I got the class settled and told Kevin - in a barely audible tone - to stay after class. Slightly shaken by my suddenly serious demeanor, he uttered, "Am I in trouble? You callin' my mom?" I reassured him that he was neither in trouble nor about to receive a parent phone call, and reiterated that I only wanted to talk to him for a second.

When the bell rang, his 27 peers charged out of the room, and Kevin remained seated, his already large eyes stretched wider than usual. He watched as I wheeled over to his desk and parked myself two inches away from him.

"Kevin, you're not in trouble, but there's something I want you to understand... I have a really good sense of humor - about pretty much everything, and especially about my MS. But I want to make sure you know that there are thousands of other people with disabilities who aren't anything like me. I'm one of the only people I know that laughs at myself and jokes about stuff that is actually kind of serious."

He looked away. "I know, Ms. Hooks."

I continued, "I mean, I don't want you to start making fun of someone someday, expecting that they'll laugh like I do, because -

"I know, Ms. Hooks. My dad's in a wheelchair."

I tried not to register a look of surprise on my face, and continued the conversation, "Really? And is he in his wheelchair all the time?"

"Yeah, he got shot."

"And do you joke around with him like you do with me?"

"No. Definitely not."

"Well I guess I just want you to know that as ridiculous as I act all the time, I don't want to 'duck walk' around this classroom and push my wheelchair up the steps every morning, okay? You can still joke with me, just -

"I got it Ms. Hooks. I'm sorry."

And with that, Kevin grabbed his Nike backback and left. He still pops his head into my room during just about every period, and he is still the center of attention all the time, but at this point - at least to Kevin - the duck-walk is dead.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Height and Humor

It is my second year teaching high school in Baltimore, my third year teaching with a wheelchair, and my eighth year with Multiple Sclerosis. I don’t use my chair all the time, but my school is close to the size of the Pentagon, and my balance is slightly worse than that of a two-year-old child’s. Consequently, in order to avoid any MS-related humiliation and/or unnecessary fatigue, I use my wheelchair while I teach my 9th and 10th graders American Government and United States History. This also enables me to wildly gesticulate with my hands while I’m teaching without knocking myself off balance mid-lecture.

During the first two weeks of school, I used my wheelchair at all times. I like to set a precedent – I am a teacher with a wheelchair. And while I get my students used to the idea of a rolling teacher, I also try to convince them of my supernatural powers that compensate for my neurological disease. Namely I like them to believe that I have x-ray vision that enables me to see notes, candy and cell phones hidden inconspicuously beneath their desks, coupled with the unique ability to know when they're lying to me about incomplete homework or class work). Unfortunately for me, all 180 of my students saw through the supernatural power fa├žade before October.

During the second week of school, I stood up during my last period class. I was apparently so excited about the foundations of American government that I could no longer sit still. Grasping the desk to my left, I locked my knees and continued talking. I then noticed that my 7th period class was unnaturally quiet. Not only were they quiet, they were staring at me, and off to the right, Ashley’s mouth appeared to be hanging open. Mid-sentence I started to worry that something was on my face, or that I had a bizarre chalk stain on my boobs. I paused to ask if everything was okay.

Jasmine was quick to respond, “You’re standing, Ms. Hooks!”

I briefly reiterated that I can stand; but I can’t walk very well, and continued with my lesson. Mid-sentence, another hand shot up, and Stephanie asked how long I could stand for. My lesson seemed to diverge from the daily objective. She raised her hand again as I attempted to get the class back on track.

“Wait, Ms. Hooks Kevin’s in the bathroom, right? Can you stand ‘til he gets back and see what he thinks when he walks in? Maybe he’ll think we cured you while he was out.”

While rationally I know that playing practical jokes with my students during the second week of school is not a highly recommended teaching strategy, I couldn’t resist. A few minutes later I heard the door open and Kevin shuffled in nonchalantly. The rest of the students were watching him, waiting for a reaction with bated breath as he sauntered around my empty wheelchair and back to his seat. When he was properly sitting I felt his eyes look down at my feet and move all the way up to my eyes. Then, without raising his hand he interrupted me –

“Ms. Hooks, you are so tall!”

Top Ten Reasons why MS isn't that Bad

1. If you play your cards right, you could end up spoiled. Not only will family members lavish you with gifts, unconditional love and support, but society will spoil you as well. If you are disabled enough to qualify, you are privy to:

- Unlimited free parking in metered spots and preferable parking in general
- VIP-type seating at concerts, sporting events and other entertainment venues
- Preferred treatment on airplanes as well as discounts on Amtrak trains

2. Undisputable excuses to get out of anything you do not want to do. Examples include:

- Participation in costly, stressful and otherwise laborious weddings
- Attendance at potentially awkward family or coworker gatherings (this might also high school reunions)
- Barbeques or picnics during oppressively hot summer weather or otherwise unappealing conditions

3. A convenient scapegoat for pretty much everything you do wrong. MS no longer stands for Multiple Sclerosis, rather my scapegoat. It comes in handy if you are ever:

- Chronically late
- Occasionally forgetful
- Too lazy to finish something you start
- Too tired in the morning to realize that your socks don’t match

4. An occasional right to entitlement. This does not mean that you are entitled to life as a bitter, irritable human being, only that when things are not MS friendly, you are entitled to small temper tantrums or short-term pity parties. These, while never enjoyable at the moment, often develop into very entertaining stories. You are entitled to a fit if:

- People pity you
- You use a wheelchair and you live in a completely inaccessible city
- It is too hot to properly enjoy the summer without melting your myelin
- You can no longer do something that you really, really loved doing

5. Increased potential for heroism. After an MS diagnosis, you will likely live your life in much the same way you did before. You will exercise, work hard, raise your family, attend social gatherings and maintain your sense of humor. You will not, however, be able to accomplish ordinary goals without the risk of inspiring others. People will likely note your achievements with the added: and she has MS! This is, of course, demeaning and potentially maddening, but will doubtless bring you positive attention and occasional accolades. My advice? Enjoy them.

6. A marked increase in self-esteem. You will develop confidence in who you are, rather than what you do. (Unfortunately this often comes at a heavy price; there are days I was just fine defining myself as a runner.) Post-MS, you will come to know and appreciate who you are with or without the things you do.

7. A legitimate excuse to never wear high-heeled, platform, or pointy, stiff and unforgiving dress shoes. You will rejoice as you save hundreds of dollars on practical and comfortable shoes rather than expensive, trendy and bizarrely uncomfortable shoes.

8. An increased ability to relate to those around you. MS makes you more sensitive and compassionate. This is (unfortunately) a result of increased vulnerability and fear, but it nonetheless turns you into an empathetic person who friends will soon regard as selfless and wise.

9. A genuine appreciation for unconditional love. Eight years after my diagnosis, I am now positive that I have no casual, obligatory acquaintances. My close friends and family members are willing to help me with countless inane tasks – from grocery shopping to cleaning my bathroom. My best friend in college even attempted to run a lap around the track with me on her back, just so I wouldn’t “forget what it felt like to run”. Despite the fact that we both ended up in a heap on the track (I am 5'10"!), her effort was valiant.

10. A well developed sense of humor. Even if you weren’t able to laugh at yourself pre-MS, you will inevitably learn to take things much less seriously. You’ll have to. And when you do, you will find that all the drama and stress of day-to-day life seem a little lighter and a little easier to handle.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Inspiration (?)

I don't write often enough. This is a problem (albeit minor) caused by:

1. Not having enough time. This, I acknowledge, is a bullshit-type excuse. Sometimes on the weekends I find myself lying leisurely on the floor, staring at the ceiling. I'll roll to the side and my eye might catch my wooden memento box so I'll investigate old letters, poems, cut-outs from my college alumni bulletin etc. I usually find something entertaining or awkward and call my mom to share. While I'm on the phone I might notice the dust that has accumulated on my (old roommate's) TV, or my $35 IKEA desk, so then I clean. I tend to my plants. I vacuum. I do laundry. At the end of a perfectly "free" Saturday my most productive feat is generally some inane household task or a trip to the gym.

2. Feeling a perpetual need to do work. When I was writing my (yet unpublished, so secretly non-existant) book, writing was my "job" so I made it a priority. Now it's just a luxury that I afford myself after my lessons are written, my papers are graded and my students' parents are contacted. I put writing beneath several activities on my personal priority scale: the gym, clean clothes, bills, teacher work, etc. I've come to realize, though, that I will never do enough work to satisfy my job requirements (or my department head) - my lesson could always be a little better, a few more parents could definitely be contacted and the pile of papers really should diminish on a daily (weekly?) basis. That said, I should include writing into my personal job description/priority list. But I don't.

3. A general lack of inspiration. I do not like my job lately. All the beautiful things that happen on a daily basis (and yes, they really do happen!) are shrouded by other bigger and uglier things. Since this blog is not anonymous, I shouldn't elaborate, but since I'm sort of seething, here goes:

- My job, though definitely better than being dragged across hot coals face first, is no longer preferable to Chinese water torture. And while never formally enduring either, I doubt that statement contains much hyperbole. I no longer trust anyone I work for, and while I used to shrug of administrative incompetency and focus strictly on my students, the former is starting to greatly interfere with the latter. Let me elaborate:
  • I was placed on a Performance Improvement Plan because I taught my United States History students about the genocide occurring in Darfur, Sudan. This led to a highly awkward meeting between my department head, other administrators, my union representative and myself. I was forced to sign a paper acknowledging my own incompetence and inability to adhere with Maryland's "core learning goals." That my students kept pace with the other US History classes was ostensibly ignored. A lot of things were ignored, actually: their midterm grades, the quality of their Darfur essays (in many cases the ONLY writing assignment a few of my students have ever turned in), or their genuine motivation in an educational activity I still characterize as both authentic, relevant and important.
  • During my scandalous teaching of the first genocide of the 21st century, my students produced posters geared to educate the school and the community. The posters were the greatest things I've ever seen in my 6 years as an educator - graphic and accurate yet hauntingly appealing to the eye. Other teachers came into my room praising my students. One teacher was even crying because what the posters represented is so gruesome and real, and our government is so paralyzed and incompetent and self-involved to do anything about it. Don't get me started. A week or so after I painstakingly hung the posters in the hall, I came into my classroom to find approximately 25 posters in a giant pile on my desk. It made me want to do something rash and loud and violent. It made me want to cry. It made me want to eat my shoes. My students were incensed - especially since the packing tape had stuck the posters to each other (and to the mouse poop on my desk) and their work was - for all intents and purposes - destroyed. I waited until my diaphragm allowed air to properly enter my lungs, and casually rolled myself into my vice principal's office. There, I used my sweetest, fakest voice to ask, "Who took my kids' posters down and why?" The answer? "Ms. Hooks, you are simply NOT allowed to tape things up in the hall. It removes paint... [blah, blah, blah]" I was still violent, but, as ridiculous as her reason sounded at the time, I believed her. I reassured my students that their posters could be rectified and that the tape was ruining the (lack of) aesthetics in the hall and tried my best to forget anything had ever happened.
  • Which became increasingly difficult last week when a different (tenured) teacher in our school approached me about the genocide in Darfur and asked me help her launch a miniature Save Darfur campaign inside our International Baccalaureate school. As I volunteered to be the 1st floor's representative, this teacher had students hang posters outside of my classroom. (Right next to the Student Government Association's campaign posters and adjacent to the AP/IB testing schedule.) In case you were wondering, the posters are currently taped to the wall.
  • I was written up for allowing a student to "race down the hall in my wheelchair during the instructional day." This is, I must point out, an egregious lie. Especially she is a self-proclaimed documentation specialist, and the date she cited was a day when I was sick. God bless my journal.

Time out. More soon...