Friday, May 30, 2014

"Fair and softly goes far."  ~ Miguel de Cerantes


I had been minding my own business, standing first on one leg, and then the other, in the looong super market line, trying so hard to be patient until my turn would come to check out. Then that BOOMING voice! 

It was Betty Jean, my adult ballet instructor! Instantly, I tried my best to force my shoulders down towards my toes, to force my chin up as high as my neck would allow, and, lastly, I tried forcing my shoulder blades to touch behind my back... but alas... they wouldn't meet. I knew the drill: Betty Jean would stomp over to me, grab my shoulders and force them downwards and together. Ouch! Done...

None of the people in front of me in that line turned around. They were too scared! Could have been the grudging groaning that I did when my shoulder blades crashed into each other... Could have been that they were all former students... dunno... Notice that I called Betty Jean my "instructor." She was NEVER my "teacher." There is a difference between the two...

When I started my teaching career, I was an art teacher in a nearly brand-new school. My dream had come true! Right across the hall from my art room was a huge bulletin board encased in sliding-glass doors. I rubbed my hands together and nearly said aloud, "MINE! MINE! ALL MINE!" I would create gorgeous bulletin boards inside that space. I'd fashion them out of my high school students' amazing art work. I'd change it out each time they learned new techniques or used new media. Heaven! And they paid me, too... a pittance, yes, but I was now a professional art teacher!

One day the nurse came to me and asked if I'd do a bulletin board about epilepsy for her. I said, "Sure, but what exactly is it?"

Now that was back in the day when every school in the country had a real live, official registered Nurse. With nearly 2,500 kids in that building, a certified nurse is as essential as certified teachers after all. So the nurse said, "Terry, you're a teacher. Study it yourself! Here's some books..." So I did, and my bulletin board actually caused people to stop and find out as much as I understood about epilepsy.

... and then we moved to Southern California, my husband and I.

I had a job in a wonderful junior high school fairly close to home, and the principal had slipped me into a slightly... well, pretty well "used" classroom. I was teaching English, my other major, and I was loving it. I'd been teachng 9th grade, and then they threw in a couple of 8th grade classes, just to see if I was paying attention. It was great, actually!

The next school year arrived, and they added a 7th grade class to my 8th and 9th grade classes! Now, 7th graders had just come out of elementary school in those days, and they cry a lot and... well... OK, if I have to... "We'll give  you the 7th grade Honors class, Terry, just to break you in..." I was told. Sheesh...

That day the kids were quietly reading a short story that I had done a really great job of introducing to them, if I do say so myself. All the kids were reading, and I was at my desk in the back of the room, reading some of their essays from the day before. Just then the tiniest girl in the class tip-toed up to my desk, and asked for help. So I helped her, and she tip-toed back to her seat. Then I tip-toed over to her desk to whisper to her that she didn't really have to tip-toe to my desk, and then I tip-toed back to my desk.

Then she came back to ask me another question, and I helped her, and then she came again and I helpd, but the fourth time was one too many!

"Please go back to your desk and see if you can answer your own question this time by reading the story to the end," I said without looking up from the essay I was grading.

"But I don't feel good..." she whimpered.

"What's wrong?" I looked up and I felt her forehead with the back of my hand like my Mom used to do with my brother and me. No fever...  "How do you feel?"

"I don't know... I just don't feeeelll well."

"Do you feel urpy? You know, like you might throw up or something?"

"Noooooooo.  I just don't fee..." and she fell over backwards in a dead faint! First she was standing, and then she fell... just like a tiny tree, she fell to the floor!

I ran to her and put her head on my lap, and she began to shake and quiver and make sounds. The kids had turned around and were scared. It was silent in that room! 

"David, turn the lights off," I said quietly. 

"Class, she is having an epileptic seizure. There's nothing to be scared about, but you have to be completely quiet. She's going to be awfully scared when she wakes up. David, go to the office and tell the nurse what's happening." 

"Now, class, she needs to stay warm because the floor is so cold. If you have a sweater or a jacket, could you please toss it over to me?"

"Thank you, class," I muttered as I dug myself out of the mountain of clothing that had been tossed silently from nearly every student.

As she came to, it was just like the books I'd read said it would be. She was disoriented, clammy, and didn't understand why she was on the floor with her head on my lap covered with sweaters and jackets. But the school nurse had just arrived with a wheelchair. As we picked the little one up and put her in the chair, I saw a sweaty portrait of her entire body remaining on that cold, hard floor.

The nurse called her parents and they rushed her to the hospital. It was her first epileptic episode. Thank you, thank you, Nurse, for asking me to create that high school bulletin board back in Omaha, Nebraska, after asking me to read all that information!

A few years passed, and that used room was still mine, but I was now the English Department Chair! I had mostly 9th grade classes to teach with a couple 8th grade classes for variety's sake. It was now MY job to set up the English department's schedule. But before the first day of school, I was called into the principal's office, along with 6 other teachers. We all would be having an epileptic student in class, and his parents did not believe in doctors or medicines of any kind. The student's medical history indicated that his epilepsy was severe.

Put yourself in his place, Terry, I thought. OK, I will. 

Now, teaching on the first day of the school year is soooo easy that anyone off the street could do it, without a teaching degree! Kids behave beautifully that day... because that's the day that students examine all the teachers... up, down, side-ways, forwards, and backwards... checking out what they have to put up with for a whole, entire, loooong school year. They are also figuring out how to handle each teacher. That quiet first day is very deceiving... but it is quiet!

I asked Michael if he would mind staying in my room after class during the 15-minute morning break, and he said, "OK."

Michael was miserable. Michael hated school, hated it! Michael wouldn't look anyone in the eye, and certainly not ME! Michael had even worse acne than I did! But, Michael stayed in his desk after class so I could talk to  him. Michael was brave... brave and miserable... just as miserable as I would have been.

"Michael, I know that you have epilepsy. You have grand mal epilepsy, right?"


"Do you, by any chance, get an aura before it happens?"

He perked up a tiny bit. "Yeah, I do."

"How long does it last before the seizure comes on?"

"How do YOU know about this!" he nearly yelled. "Do YOU have it, too?" he whispered.

"Nope, I have asthma, though... since I was 7 months old. It scares me when I start to wheeze..."

"What's "wheeze'?" he asked.

"Don't want to talk about it... I'm afraid that it will start up. It means I can't breathe... How long do you have between the aura and the actual seizure?"

"I don't know... about 2 or 3 minutes, I guess."

"Here's what we're gonna do... If you feel an aura is coming on, no matter what I'm doing or what's going on in class, I want you to catch my eye and give me a hand signal, and then you walk right out of the door and straight to the nurse's office. Do you have that?"

"Yeah... but what if..."

"Listen to  me! I will get a big guy in class to go outside and walk with you to the nurse's office, just in case the seizure should come on quicker than usual. I will tell him that you might pass out, and that's why I'm asking him to go with you. Got it?"

"Yeah." His eyes opened sooo wide and his face nearly smiled! "Yeah, that might work," he said to me. "I don't have to say nuthin' to you... just look at you and give a you a hand signal? Really? Well, what's the signal going to be?"

"Michael, I don't know any hand-signals. But I went to the University of Nebraska, and once I dated a football player there, and he said that the team had hand-signals, but he'd never show me one. Signals are always secret! You figure one out, and show me after class. No one else will know it... just you and I." And we shook on it!

Michael did have some seizures in school that year, very bad ones, too. But you know what? He never had even an aura in my class. We were completely prepared for it, so, it never came. Michael was relaxed in my class, and he even raised his hand a time or two, and answered a question here and there. Wonder if there is any relationship between epilepsy and asthma, because I never had asthma in my classes, either...

Oh, and Betty Jean.. I take it all back, that stuff about her being an "instructor," not a "teacher." She must have been a teacher because to this very day, every time I'm waiting in any line anywhere, I practice my releve's! Annoying though it must be to people behind me, I make sure my back line is straight from the top of my head to my toes, and then I raise up on my feet until I am balanced on just the frontal pads of my two feet. Then I raise and lower myself all the time I'm waiting. It's fun, but I must annoy the heck out of those poor folks standing behind me... "CLASS! RELEVE!!!"


  1. What a great story! A girl sitting right in front if me in Geometry had a seizure, and it's pretty alarming if you don't know what is happening.

  2. Thank heavens for that nurse in my first year of teaching! I have many more stories from those first years, but they are pretty distressing ones about kids and what they had to live through. I was sooo naive about life, then.