Friday, August 26, 2005

A first-day-of-school story

After reading this excellent post at David Boles' site Urban Semiotic, and this week being the beginning of a new semester, I was reminded of my very first day--indeed, my very first CLASS, at 8:00 in the morning, no less--as a college teacher, which happened at my previous school 12 years ago this month. As Mr. Boles and every other freshly-minted teacher know, some things you just can't get taught.

I was young, brimming with confidence; an ABD at that time, true, but the diss. was well in hand and I would be defending in the coming spring. One of my new colleagues asked me if I was nervous, and I said, "No way--I'm wearing a tweed jacket." I bound upstairs to my class, shaking not from nerves but from excitement. I introduced myself and passed out the syllabi and began my spiel.

After about 15 minutes, the door opened, and in came, very slowly, Denise: a young woman crippled with, I learned later, cerebral palsy. She walked with the aid of a cane, but it was obvious that she would not have been able to walk without it or some other support. Somehow, she was also carrying a backpack on one shoulder. She eventually found a seat, and I resumed my yammering about the syllabus and The Importance of Writing in Today's Society.

After all that, I gave the class a couple of topics for their writing samples, they set to work, and one by one they brought up their writing to me and went on their way. Denise very slowly rose from her chair and brought her work to me and then headed for the door. And lost her balance.

She fell over and, unable to move quickly enough to break her fall, she hit her head on the corner of a table lectern that was sitting by the door. It was a direct blow. We all gasped; my heart wasn't pounding so much as lurching about in my chest, confused about whether it should keep beating. I moved toward her; just as I began to bend down to help her up, she said, very firmly,

"Don't help me."

It wasn't angry, her tone; it was determined. And so I didn't help her.

I don't think I've ever seen a person take as long to rise to his feet as Denise took. And, though I've met many many students since then whose courage I've admired, there are few whose courage I admire as much as hers. But the thing is, for a long time what I felt for her wasn't admiration but something else, something very painful. It was only after I realized that she simply refused to give up that I really felt admiration for her.

That's a hard thing to confess to, though. Shouldn't courage be something that is self-evident? Apparently, not always. In Denise's case, courage consisted of the accretion of the simplest acts of Living that she insisted on accomplishing on her own. And it suddenly occurs to me that there exist many people far more physically whole than she who, by this measure, lack any courage whatsoever.

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Anonymous said...

i like denise. you wanted to solve her problem quickly. she refused to let you do that. it probably was much more painful for you than her. you had to learn what she knew from a life time of living that slapping a bandaid on something is not always the best thing.


John B. said...

Thanks for visiting, first of all.
And yes: you are right. The teacher was taken to school that day. It is, in Denise's case, much braver to refuse help than to ask for it; my initial reaction, I'm sorry to say, was borne of a latent pity rather than, even, sympathy (how can a physically-healthy person truly know what disabled people experience, how they live?).