Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Little Homie

As a teacher in a wheelchair, I am chronically reminded that kids -- even kids that talk out of turn and never do their homework -- possess a level of core goodness that (unfortunately) seems to erode a bit after the age of 18.  I am reminded of this almost every morning when I park outside of my school and am immediately bombarded with students asking if I need help, while the adults hurry into the building to sign in and get their copies made before 8:00.  Sometimes I am also reminded of this when I use the bathroom.

Those of you with proper "adult" jobs might have access to office bathrooms that are clean and well-stocked with toilet paper and hand soap.  If you're really lucky (though chances are, you haven't even noticed this), your properly stocked bathroom might even be ADA compliant (a.k.a. wheelchair friendly).  As a teacher, I am not afforded such luxuries.

A few weeks ago, Jasmine, one of my old students spent her sixth period lunch in my classroom with me.  She calls me her "Big Homie" and I call her my "Little Homie"; ironic considering she is roughly twice my size.  She had work to do and I was hastily recording grades from the day's quiz into my gradebook.  She'd intermittently reminisce about ridiculous things I did during class three years ago (she thrives on poking fun of me), and her occasional imitations of my voice are hilariously funny (though only because I hope they're totally -- I pray -- inaccurate). When the 10 minute warning bell rang, I figured I should head to the bathroom while I still had ample (or what I thought to be ample) time. 

As I left the room, I told Jasmine to come check on me if I wasn't back when the bell rang.  The words were intended as a joke.  I mean really, what could a student do if I fell in the bathroom?  (Even if that student threw the shot and the discus for the track team.)

So I headed into the bathroom and managed to -- for the sixth time this school year -- get stuck on the toilet.  No matter how hard I tried to heave myself off the toilet with my left hand on the grab bar and my right arm braced on the toilet paper holder, I could not get myself to stand.  And try as I did, I could not manage to keep myself calm; I started crying (which further ensured my complete inability to get up).  Then I made another crucial error -- I looked at my watch.  1:24.  In one minute, the bell would ring, my 7th period would invade a teacher-less classroom and inevitable chaos would ensue.  This made me cry even harder and though I tried one more time to get up, I was met with zero success.  The bell rang and my completely counterproductive meltdown elevated a notch.

Then I heard the bathroom door open. 

"Ms. Hooks, you okay?"

It was Jasmine.  I was crying so hard at that point I could barely speak.

"No.  I'm stuck.  Go find Mr. Marinelli and ask him to watch my class."

She said she would and promised she'd be right back.

The late bell rang sounding the official beginning of 7th period and I attempted to get it together.  Jasmine once again opened the door.

"I couldn't find Mr. Marinelli, but I asked the skinny kid with the heart condition in your class to keep an eye on things and he said he would.  What do you need?"

[The skinny kid with a heart condition could never, incidentally, be trusted to keep an eye on things.]

"Can you come in here and help me get up?"

"Okay, but public bathrooms scare me."

She walked in.  I pulled my skirt down as completely as possible so as to appear somewhat presentable and opened the stall door.  Jasmine peered in and immediately broke into hysterical laughter.

Her laughter is contagious, even in the most extreme of circumstances.  So I started laughing and crying simultaneously, and incoherently told her that nothing was funny.  This made her laugh even harder.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Get me off this freaking toilet!"

"Obviously.  But how?"

I explained that she'd need to move the wheelchair out of the way, come into the stall and grab me under the armpits and help pull me up as I attempted (once again) to stand.  This she did with ease, all the while laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.  She pulled me up, helped me adjust my skirt (which, incidentally had fallen into the toilet during one of my attempts to get up) and held me for support as I awkwardly pivoted and flopped into my chair.  Once sitting, she helped me bend my stiff legs, flushed the toilet and pushed me over to the leaky sink.  We both washed our hands and headed out the door of the bathroom towards my classroom.  Unfortunately, though, despite Jasmine's heroic rescue and a relatively crises-free resolution to another failed bathroom venture, I could not fully get it together.  Jasmine stopped pushing me a few feet away from my classroom door and -- still laughing -- told me I could not go into my classroom.

Recognizing nothing other than the urgent need to have a teacher in a classroom of 28 14 and 15 year-olds, I stupidly asked why.

"Ms. Hooks, no disrespect, but you look like you just got bitch slapped in the face."

The comment made me laugh so hard, that my tears almost stopped completely.  I hastily tried to rub the smeared eye makeup away from my under eyes and waved air towards my face in a completely ineffectual effort to return my face to its normal color.  I looked up at Jasmine and asked if I looked any better.

"Um, not really."

So I escorted Jasmine to her physics classroom first, told her teacher that she was late because she was helping me, and turned towards my classroom.

When I rolled through the door, an audible silence spread through the room.  I guess it was obvious that I'd been crying.  I avoided eye contact with all 28 pairs of eyes in the room, turned on the LCD projector and told everyone to start the quiz.  In an unprecedented demonstration of obedience, they all opened their bags, got their notes out and started on the quiz.  Quietly. 

Except Antonio.  Obnoxious and adorable Antonio got out of his seat, walked to the front of the room and hugged me.

A hug, at that point, was the very last thing I needed; I am completely unable to maintain my composure when I'm that raw and someone treats me with any semblance of tenderness or compassion.

I cried.  Again.  In front of all 28 students.  The very last thing a teacher should ever do.


Kim said...

first, i am so glad that you blogged this story. Jasmine sounds older than her years.

You wrote "possess a level of core goodness that (unfortunately) seems to erode a bit after the age of 18."

Unfortunately, I came across that this weekend at the movies. We were early to a Friday night movie. THere were lots of seats still available, but ALL the wheelchair accessible seats were taken by a group of, um, older than 18 yr olds ( i presume ). Kids with hostility written all over them. I had to get into an argument with one to get him to move. I am sitting in there in a wheelchair, and he has the audacity to ask me WHY HE HAS TO MOVE. Unfortunately I said because it is THE LAW. I so wish i would have embarrassed him and said, "because it is the humane, compassionate, kind and right thing to do". It was a SCENE that I would have rather not have made..

xoxoxo to you..

Anonymous said...

Your kids see beyond the wheelchair to the good PERSON you are. YOu should not feel ashamed; you actually did them a favor by letting them see you as a...HUMAN BEING! I am sure it was awkward, but you actually taught them a lesson you ( and they ) will never forget. Hang in there!

m said...

What a wonderful piece of writing that was. Wow.

Lauren M said...

I will never forget seeing a HS teacher after she'd been crying. When you are an emotional teenager it's reassuring to see that even adults can lose control of their emotions and it's OK. Unfortunately this teacher was crying because of some horribly mean senior girls who must have felt threatened by the teacher's young age. I don't know if the girls felt badly about their behavior, but as for myself, I realized that if I wanted to be a teacher I'd have to learn to not take things personally. That's still something I tell myself almost daily because it's not an easy thing to do.

Catherine said...

This is the most beautiful story I've heard all month.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Susan said...

Whoa. I just got linked here from The Bloggess and this was an incredibly written, beautifully told story.

You (and your students) are incredible.

Shannon said...

I just came across your blog for the first time. I've read two posts and they were both so moving and felt so true. I just wanted to let you know.

Anonymous said...

Your honesty and story-telling abilities are amazing. Thank you.

Cait said...

this one made me cry. big time.

i don't get to see my patients much after they leave me. so its really good to hear that there are nice people in the world like your students that help out, when it is most needed.

(i also cry when people are nice to me when i'm feeling upset haha...) but i think its good for kids that age especially to see that adults are people too, with all the range of emotions, just like they do.

great story!

Lambert said...

Thank you for the article, very worthwhile material.
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