Category Archives: Essays

Half-life takes on a whole new meaning

Half-life (t½)

noun

  1. the time taken for the radioactivity of a specified isotope to fall to half its original value.
    • the time required for any specified property (e.g., the concentration of a substance in the body) to decrease by half.
  2. the amount of time spent actually living your life if you have chronic migraine

You’ve probably seen the ads.

A woman curls up in fetal position on a couch, her back to the camera, while a voiceover asks: “Are you living a maybe life?”

The voice goes on to describe how chronic migraine — defined as 15 or more migraine days a month — leads to living a “maybe” life, full of tentative plans that may have to be jettisoned at a moment’s notice. Maybe you can go to the kids’ dance recital tonight, maybe not. Maybe you’ll be able to get out to the grocery store today, maybe not.

Know the half of it.

Let me tell you. I’ve had chronic migraine all of my adult life, meaning that I am ill about half of the time, and there is no “maybe” about it. If you have that many migraines a month, you’ve got a 50/50 chance on any given day that you’re going to have a migraine. Do the math. Fifteen days out of a possible 30 (plus or minus) in any given month is 50 percent of the time. That’s half of your life.

That’s why I think it would be far more accurate to call it living a half-life, because if you’re sick this often, you  spend half of your life trying to make up for the other half that’s been lost.

A genetic link?

I’ve often wondered if there’s some biological correlation between my condition and bipolar disorder. There are striking similarities, not the least of which is the fact that studies indicate some sort of neurological dysfunction in the same area of the brain for both conditions. In addition, both conditions are characterized by manic swings from one state to another. In the case of bipolar disorder, the swings are of mood, whereas the sweeping changes with migraine are physical but equally dramatic.

This is more than idle curiosity. There is a history in our family of women being afflicted with one or the other of these conditions.

My mother’s mother suffered from migraines for much of her adult life. In her case, the headaches came only one day a month. But my mother can vividly describe how they often occurred on washday. Grandma would rush through the day’s wash with the old-fashioned wringer and tub before she had to retreat to a dark room, from whence she would not emerge until some 24 hours later, ashen and spent.

The good, the bad and the ugly of it

Similarly, I spent my childhood watching my bipolar mother swing crazily from euphoric bursts of creativity in which she would sit at the piano for hours, banging out one complex piano concerto after another, completely oblivious to her children and our needs. On her good days, she could plan an entire program for her school’s holiday music concert in the course of a single evening. These were glorious displays of her extraordinary talent.

But then there were the bad days, where she would plummet into a  pit of doom that seemingly had no bottom to it, and that seemed to need nothing quite so much as to drag me down into the depths with her. Those were the times when I would cringe in my bed in the dark, waiting for her to burst into my room and demand tearfully that I come keep her company in the living room. Once there, she would  recount the day’s litany of wrongs, injuries and slights that had been done to her by life, by other people, by anyone but herself.

There was never an official diagnosis for her condition, primarily because in my mother’s eyes she was fine and everyone else was crazy. So she never sought treatment of any sort. But you tell me. What does this sound like to you?

Like mother, like daughter? 

In reaction against her perpetual emotional chaos, I carefully cultivated a persona that was her exact opposite: determinedly calm, detached and unflappable. I am the ideal person to have around in a crisis, because I can keep a level head when everyone around me is coming unraveled.

But secretly, I dreaded passing on the legacy to my own children.

I dreaded it so much, in fact, that I almost didn’t become a mother at all. As it is, I waited until fairly late in my childbearing years before giving birth to two beautiful, healthy daughters. So far, both of them seem to have escaped either manifestation of this curse.

Still, while my own moods have remained relatively steady throughout my adult life, my physical wellbeing — and the accompanying energy spikes and nosedives — has been rather unnervingly similar to my mother’s wild mood swings.

The legacy limps on

I spent years worrying that the only thing my daughters would remember of their childhoods would be watching their mother crawl around the house on her hands and knees on the days when the pain was particularly intense. It was the only way I could see to the day’s pressing needs, which are always present when there are small children in the house.

Now that they are grown (or nearly so), they can tell me themselves what they do and do not remember. And luckily, they don’t remember any of that. What they remember is going out into the back yard to hunt for flower fairies. They remember spreading big blankets on the living-room floor to accommodate the groups of friends who came for sleepovers, which of course never involved anyone getting any actual sleep. They remember trips to pools and parks and museums. They remember my appearing by their bedsides to soothe them if they awakened in the night. Normal kid stuff.

Whew.

Back in an upright position

These days, the demands on me are considerably lighter than they once were. My neurologist has prescribed a whole raft of powerful prescription drugs to manage the pain. And even if they can’t completely eliminate it, even on those days when the pain is still sort of hanging around and flying at half-mast, it’s still possible for me to function.

Even if the world is spinning dizzily around me as though I just stepped off a 90-mile-an-hour carousel … even if  my stomach is lurching and roiling with a volatile stew of acids … even if the jackhammers are mercilessly drilling craters in my skull … even if I’m so drained and fatigued I’m at the brink of bursting into tears … I can still manage to present the illusion that I am perfectly fine and all is well.

I’m not being a martyr. I just get tired of explaining myself, and I’m not willing to miss out on half of my life–or any of it, for that matter. Sometimes it’s easier to fake it as best I can in the hope that no one notices how grey my skin is that day, or how my hair hangs down around my neck in a limp clumpy mat, or how my eyes are sunken deep within dark rings that look like ghastly bruises. Or how I seem not quite as funny that day, not quite as sharp, a little slower on the uptake in an exchange of witty banter.

And sometimes, faking it can come reasonably close to actually making it.

Those are simply the days I won’t be going to the gym. You probably won’t find me mowing my lawn or washing the windows on those days. And if you’re really observant, you might notice that my face may be just a tad grey, my hair just a tad clumpy, and my eyes just a tad sunken and bruised.

And I just now got the joke you told me two minutes ago.

As a matter of fact …

You might even say I lead a double life nowadays, rather than a half-life. On any given day, there’s a 50/50 chance I am deliberately concealing my true physical condition to keep colleagues, friends and even close family members from guessing how I’m feeling. I take considerable pride in the fact that many people who know me fairly well have never guessed I even have this condition. (Although I suppose some of them are going to know now that I’ve posted this essay.)

And if it’s one of those truly awful days — one of those horrible terrible no good very bad days when even the maximum dosage of those drugs can’t make a dent  — it’s possible no one is going to see me at all. I do my best to avoid letting anyone witness what’s left of me on days like that. It’s not pretty. In fact, according to the small handful of people who have been there to see it, it can be downright terrifying.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

But I don’t think anyone should worry on my account. Truly. Because don’t forget: No matter how poorly I am feeling today, there’s a 50/50 chance that tomorrow, I’m going to be feeling just fine.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Chronic migraine, Essays, headache, healing, Migraine

In which I confess my shameful drug abuse

This is how a nasty addiction gets started.

The little lies I tell myself. It’s just for today, just to ease the stress a little, just to help get through a patch of bad weather.

I’ll stop as soon as things get back to normal.

They’re only painkillers. The doctor wouldn’t have prescribed them if they were truly dangerous.

Still, he’s only 17 — too innocent, really, to understand the consequences of the choices I am making for him. Too innocent to understand how he might come to crave the hazy euphoria that creeps up on him within seconds of my plunging the syringe deep, deep into his docile, yielding form, while he tries to meet with his trusting eyes my own shifty gaze. And if the demand increases while the supply dwindles, where can he go to get his next fix? To what depths will he sink to score the next hit?

I’m only thinking of him

But hey. What am I going to do? The heat wave of 90-degree-plus temperatures is forecast to hold for several more days, and every time my cat wanders out for even a few moments, he comes back inside crawling with fleas. I swear they must be lying in ambush right by the  door, just waiting to pounce on his  shoulders, where he is unable to reach around and pick them off with his teeth.

Therefore, I have taken it upon myself to insist that he stay indoors until the heat breaks. Maybe by then, the fleas will have given up on Mozart and moved on to some other neighborhood, someplace where pet owners allow their animals to roam a bit more freely.

Still, he would go out, in this heat, fleas or no fleas. He is very insistent about this. He’s even taken to hiding himself under the hutch by the door, poised to make a desperate run for it as soon as one of us opens the door on our way out.

Seventeen years of getting used to things being done a certain way is a lifetime to a cat, and I worry that the sudden change in the order of things might be too stressful for him at his advanced age.

Excuses, excuses

That was why, today, I gave him a dose of the painkillers the veterinarian prescribed for a dislocated shoulder, even though he is no longer limping. I try to soothe my stinging conscience by reminding myself that, including the dose he got that day, this is only his second. It surely can’t do that much harm. It’s for his own good. It’s to help keep him calm. To get him through a rough couple of days.

Even so, I can’t help thinking that if anyone ever got wind of my behavior, this would all look very, very bad in the tabloids.

And I can only thank my lucky stars that, at least up to this point, Mozart has never shown the slightest interest in penning a tell-all memoir about how I led him to a life of debauchery and ruin. 

If he ever does, I’m in deep, deep doo-doo.

Leave a comment

Filed under Articles, Essays, humor, Quick takes, Uncategorized, violation of trust, writing

Curvy schmurvy. I prefer well-rounded

Tell me if you see what’s wrong with this picture that was posted on Facebook from the Women’s Rights News web site: a plus-size model clad only in her lingerie, with this blurb emblazoned in all capital letters and vivid purple ink: “There is no such thing as percect (sic). There is just me, and guess what I’m OK with that.”

Underneath that photo is the text line: “Curvy is fine.”

Click here to see the photo:

Leaving aside the poor grammar and spelling in the blurb … and leaving aside, for the moment, the irony that such an act of self-objectification appears on a web site that purports to promote feminist values … I have to wonder if anyone besides me is bothered by the use of the euphemism “curvy” to mean something it doesn’t actually mean. It implies that all women of ample proportions are curvy, and that simply is not the case. It also implies that no slender woman can possibly be curvy. Also not true.

I prefer the term “full-figured,” which is far more accurate without being pejorative. Better yet, how about “intelligent,” or “talented” or even (and I know this is a radical notion) “human”?

But what’s even more troubling to me is the fact that women feel the need to pose in their underwear to prove something. Because frankly, I don’t choose my friends on the basis of how they look in their lingerie. I’m interested in knowing what books they’ve read, or the results of their latest lab experiments, or what they’re doing to eradicate puppy mills.

And if someone is judging me on the basis of how I might theoretically look in my skivvies–especially considering that the vast majority of the population will never in fact see me in them without the proper street attire on top–it’s probably not worth trying to prove anything at all.

Except perhaps how quickly I can move on to a more engaging conversation with a more well-rounded person.

3 Comments

Filed under Articles, body image, Essays, feminism, friendship, Misogyny, Quick takes, social change, Uncategorized, writing

Chasing the elusive Chapter 2

Some people devote their entire lives to finding a cure for cancer. Some spend their lives looking for true love. For others, self-fulfillment is a lifelong goal.

The Holy Grail. The fountain of youth. The One Ring. Whatever the object, the quest for something larger than ourselves is what drives human civilization forward and separates us spiritually and intellectually from the animals.

Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.

For me, I’m afraid, the goal is far more simple. At least it should be. I’d just like to finish Chapter 2.

Time to break the pattern

You see, it’s no problem for me, when inspiration nudges me toward yet another not-too-shabby book idea, to knock out Chapter 1. I have a long and impressive history of producing butt-kicking, attention-grabbing, spine-tingling first chapters. At last count, I had  six Chapters One for various books that never made it to Chapter 2.

Well, it’s time to break the pattern. Today I started working on Chapter 2 of the seventh pretty decent book idea that, come hell or high water, I am going to finish. Now. This summer.

And this time I’m pulling out all the stops, looking at every possible angle, studying every obstacle. And what I’ve discovered, as I think about all the distractions that have prevented me from forging ahead into the rest of whatever book I’ve started, is that my biggest obstacle is me, and how I always manage to get in my own way.

I have met the enemy …

I might call it something else. The dishes piled up in the sink. The papers that need to be graded. Serious questions about whether this is really going to be a marketable idea and, even if I succeed in landing an agent, who’s to say anyone will want to read it?

The reality is, those are all obstacles of my own making. I even understand the basic underlying principle here. If I never really make a serious effort, then I’ll never have to face the painful possibility that my best just wasn’t good enough.

No one has to tell me that this is the classic definition of failure. I already know from firsthand experience that the only regrets I have ever had in life are about the things I didn’t do. They’re never about the things I did do … even when those things didn’t work out as I’d hoped.

I know, too, that by sending myself my own rejection slips before I even get started, I am making sure no one else beats me to it. Unfortunately, in so doing I am also ruling out the possibility that somebody might be interested enough to take a chance on me. And that maybe somebody else–and maybe a lot of somebody elses–might actually be glad I made the effort.

Tell me what you think

Sound familiar? If so, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please respond in the comments below and tell me what stops you from pushing through your own negative self-talk. And, tell me what tricks you use to get past it.  I’m looking for some good ideas, and there’s a good chance I’m going to try try some of your suggestions. If I do, I’ll write about it here and tell you how it worked out.

So there’s my challenge for my fellow authors out there. What does your negative self-talk look and sound like? What do you do to get past it?

2 Comments

Filed under Articles, change, Essays, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

A paragon of professionalism

Pen poised, wits sharp, I nod in profound comprehension as my brilliant colleague, a science professor, explains the groundbreaking research he and his students have been engaged in. This is all familiar territory to me, having spent the past several years of my career reporting on some of the innovative technologies under development at the Notre Dame nanotechnology facility.

Paragon …

One of the things I like to reassure my scientist sources about right up front is my comfort level and professionalism with the subject matter. I want them to know they’re in good hands. That their prized investigative research  will be handled with the utmost sensitivity and intelligence. That they can entrust to me their most complex and advanced concepts, knowing that I will distill them into simple, easy-to-understand explanations without altering a single subatomic particle of their sense and meaning. I may be a journalist, I may be an English professor, I may be the writing center director, but I also have a head for grasping  complex scientific subjects and translating them into everyday language for a variety of audiences. (You can check my LinkedIn profile. I think it says almost exactly that.)

So here I sit, nodding knowingly, laughing appreciatively at his brainy-scientist jokes, scribbling furiously to get down some of his better quotes.

Heck, I even smile sagely when our interview is interrupted by a call on his cell phone and he carries on a brief conversation that goes something like this on his end:  “Pronto. … Sì… venti minuti … ” and a few other phrases I forget now but the point is I understand every word.

When he hangs up, I say, “Parli italiano? (Do you speak Italian?)” See? I even speak the same second language he speaks.

Yep. That’s me. Ever the consummate professional, right down to my high-powered demeanor and my businesslike attire: chic red sheath dress accented with pearl jewelry, ivory peach-skin jacket and  elegant ivory pumps.

… or paradox?

And, for the pièce de résistance, a big glob of spinach left over from lunch, wedged prominently between my front teeth. So every time I smile at him, which I do engagingly and often to demonstrate that I am right there with him, he can’t help but see it.

And which I myself don’t discover until I happen to glance in the mirror, several hours afterward.

Leave a comment

Filed under academia, education, Essays, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

Simple pleasures

“Sssshhh; we need to use our inside voices,” I caution my students primly as we leave the sunlit campus courtyard to head back inside the building.

This is met with a burst of raucous laughter from my twenty- and thirtysomething students before we settle into a tasteful silence as we enter the hallways. Our decorum lasts mere seconds before we break into fresh merriment. They’re a witty group, and no one is exempt from the gentle barbs  … including the professor. (Lest anyone think we are using the fine weather as an excuse to goof off, I will add that the students have been sharing with one another their rough drafts for a final project, and the fresh air and green space helped to sharpen their mental faculties. Their comments on their classmates’ work are detailed, respectful and astute.)

“This is the best English class I have ever had,” Kaytlyn chuckles. “I’ve been telling everyone they need to try to get you as their teacher.”

I live for simple pleasures like this. A day warm enough to hold class outside, laughing loudly enough to disturb everyone  in the classrooms inside. An afternoon at the farmer’s market, chatting with the rosy-cheeked, suspendered Amish (Mennonite?) vendor about the absence of GMOs in the food he gives his chickens. And he shows me their picture: fat, glossy and smug, strutting around among patches of bright emerald-green grass. A simple meal of fresh, local, organic food in season. And a tree so beautiful on my afternoon walk it takes my breath away.

Spring took forever to get here, but today made it worth the wait. Well worth it.

Leave a comment

Filed under academia, classroom, education, Essays, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

Never the Twain shall meet

I can’t stand George Eliot and Hawthorne and those people. I see what they are at a hundred years before they get to it and they just tire me to death.” – From a letter written by Mark Twain

I never thought I’d say this, but I’m saying it now:

Samuel, Samuel, Samuel. Sometimes you need to know when to shut up.

This from someone who has been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain’s writings and pithy sayings. I love his books. I love his short stories. I love his little bon mots that have been duly passed down by generations of admirers.

Come see the softer side of Twain

I love repeating his famous bits of wisdom like this one:  “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

And of course, this oft-repeated classic: “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

There are even times when he borders on lyricism and beauty. His book Adam’s Diary, a little gem that in my opinion gets far too little attention, ends with this tender line about Eve:  “Wherever she was, there was Eden.”

Aaaaahhhh.

But spare me the venom

Sometimes, however,  Twain can be a little too much like the MTV character Daria.

For those who aren’t familiar, Daria is an animated TV series created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for the teen-to-young-adult audience of MTV. The series features Daria Morgendorffer,  a sharp, acid-tongued and decidedly antisocial teenager whose wry observations about the people around her expose the follies and hypocrisies of popular culture and suburban life.

At first, her relentless cynicism is entertaining and makes her sound edgy and sharp, maybe a little smarter than the rest of us. But after a while, you just want to smack her and tell her to get over herself. Knee-jerk cynicism isn’t really any more intelligent than rank sentimentality … and given the choice, I’d rather be friends with a sentimental fool.

In praise of happy endings

I say this because Twain’s scathing dismissal of Nathaniel Hawthorne feels particularly harsh to someone who, as a teenager, found redemption and hope in Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Like his main character Hester Prynne, I felt publicly branded and stigmatized for sins that  were of other people’s making. The oppressive condemnation and ostracism from self-righteous Christians that I experienced in small (and small-minded) backwater towns felt remarkably similar to that of the Puritans in Hawthorne’s tale. 

The novel ends with a happy ending of sorts:  evil is exposed, the guilty are punished, and the heroine finds genuine forgiveness and peace … and even a measure of respect from the townspeople who once shunned her.

It was good news for me

Maybe a worldly man of Twain’s maturity and experience could see where that story was headed. But to a 15-year-old girl who could barely hold her head up for all the shame that was heaped on her, it was a revelation of astounding proportions that a respected man of letters and man of God might actually be on the side of the tainted woman.

So with all due respect to Twain’s undeniable wit, given the choice between a sharp-tongued cynic or a compassionate if sentimental fool, I’ll take the sentimental fool any day, hands down.

Because if we writers truly have the power to shape the world around us, then I want to be on the side of the ones who offer mercy and hope. Seems to me that’s a much happier ending.

And when you get right down to it, don’t we all, deep down, want happy endings?

Leave a comment

Filed under compassion, Essays, Faith, friendship, God, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

Poem for April 20

For today’s poem, my usual source at Writer’s Digest challenges us to write a beyond poem. “The poem could be beyond human comprehension,” Robert Lee Brewer writes. “It could be from the great beyond. It could be from beyond–another city, country, planet, solar system, dimension, etc. Don’t be afraid to go above and beyond with it.”

For my offering, I am reconstructing from memory a poem I wrote in third grade as a school assignment. My teacher was so impressed (I believe she used the word “precocious” several times), she had the principal read it over the loudspeaker. My mother was so unimpressed she immediately threw it away. I’ve tried to be faithful to the original as I wrote it; however, with the passage of time, some of the lines have faded from memory. I’ve had to reconstruct those as best I could. Others, however, are recorded here exactly as I wrote them.

A few people may wonder how a third-grade child could possibly possess such a vocabulary. Here’s the quick answer: I come from a long line of educators, I read constantly as a child while my classmates were busily developing their athletic and social skills, and I was always the classic bookworm: painfully shy, slightly nerdy, and infinitely more savvy about how to diagram a sentence than how to hang upside down by the knees on the monkey bars.

That’s how.

First, then, the assignment, which probably every school child in America has done at some point: First we read the famous poem “Nancy Hanks” by Rosemary Benet. Then we read the response by Julius Silberger. Our assignment was to write our own response to Nancy Hanks. Mine, titled “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams,” appears immediately below.

Nancy Hanks

Rosemary Benet

If Nancy Hanks
Came back as a ghost,
Seeking news
Of what she loved most,
She’d ask first
“Where’s my son?
What’s happened to Abe?
What’s he done?”
 
“Poor little Abe,
Left all alone
Except for Tom,
Who’s a rolling stone;
He was only nine
The year I died.
I remember still
How hard he cried.”
 
“Scraping along
In a little shack,
With hardly a shirt
To cover his back,
And a prairie wind
To blow him down,
Or pinching times
If he went to town.”
 
“You wouldn’t know
About my son?
Did he grow tall?
Did he have fun?
Did he learn to read?
Did he get to town?
Do you know his name?
Did he get on?”
 
*  *  *

A Reply to Nancy Hanks

Julius Silberger

 
Yes, Nancy Hanks,
The news we will tell
Of your Abe
Whom you loved so well.
You asked first,
“Where’s my son?”
He lives in the heart
Of everyone.
 
 *  *  *

And here was mine:

 

Beyond Your Wildest Dreams*

 Ann Louise Graham, age 8

 
If indeed Nancy Hanks were among us today,
What news would I give her? What words would I say?
That her son grew up tall, and he learned how to read,
And his work saw a nation’s oppressed people freed.
“What’s happened to Abe?” Nancy asks. “What’s he done?”
He’s a lasting example to most everyone.
With his words on our lips, in our minds and our hearts,
His ideal never falters, nor ever departs.
You questioned us, Nancy, for news of your son.
Yes, Abe Lincoln got on, Nancy Hanks. He got on.
 
*a reconstruction
 

Leave a comment

Filed under classroom, Essays, Poetry, Quick takes, writing

Almost famous

Sometimes opportunity doesn’t exactly knock. Sometimes it just rings the doorbell and runs away again before you can answer.

I was pleasantly surprised late one recent afternoon when I received an email from HuffPost Live, the online news network of the Hufffington Post. They were doing a segment on scent-related technology, and I was being invited as as a guest. If you check way back to the early mists of time on this web site, you’ll see that one of my early posts about a year-and-a-half ago was about the untimely demise of my sense of smell (anosmia) after an accidental encounter with white vinegar.

Don’t ask. You can go read it if you really want the gory details. It’s in the November 2011 archive.

Out of the blue

Still, that brief blog written shortly after the vinegar incident is the only thing I’ve ever written about it. I’ve given the matter little thought since then; certainly I’ve never pretended to be any sort of expert on the subject.

So the email came out of the blue as far as I was concerned, and I had to do a bit of a scramble just to remember when, exactly, I had written about it. I couldn’t remember what I’d said, either, so I had to print out the post so that I could read it over and highlight passages I thought might interest them.

I was a little apprehensive waiting for the appointed time of the live segment, hoping that the conversation wouldn’t stray too far from the two or three catchy phrases I wanted to share with the listening audience.

But I was ready. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the breakneck pace of our high-tech information age, it’s that the fast-paced world of journalism has no time for expert guests to hem and haw while they try to figure out their main idea. If someone needs a quote from you, he or she needs it now. Right now. Not five minutes from now, when you’ve had time to think about it. Right now as in right this second.

Ready … set … no go

Therefore, I had my key phrases highlighted, my main ideas memorized, by laptop camera poised at just the right angle to de-emphasize my double chin.

Then I waited.

The appointed time came and went–the featured speakers were introduced one by one–the lively conversation began, and I sat poised in front of the camera, smiling, waiting for a call that never came.

Was I disappointed? Sure I was. But there was a slight sense of relief as the discussion unfolded and I quickly realized I simply had never thought about the subject in the same detail as had the selected guests. Two were scientists who specialized in the olfactory system. Two were authors who had written entire books about  anosmia compared to my meager 727-and-some words. The fifth guest was an artist with an entirely different perspective.

Don’t get me wrong. I would have done my level best to be articulate and interesting, and certainly I would have welcomed the exposure. We writers are grateful for any chance we can get to promote our work. But the selected guests were simply more immersed in the subject than I was, and therefore they were better for that particular segment.

It’s all good

Still, I am proud that something about my work stood out enough for the staff at HuffPost Live to consider me worth inviting. That feels like a pretty decent feather in my cap.

Meanwhile, I do have a host of subjects about which I have written extensively. Migraine, for instance, or sibling violence, or bullying, or sexual assault. Those are my areas of expertise. And someday, I hope some enterprising journalist will need an expert source on one of those areas, will comb the existing blogs and find something in my words that’s worth a second  look, and come calling for my opinion.

And I won’t have to re-read anything I’ve written, and I won’t need a moment to collect my thoughts, because it’s all in my head.

When that happens–when opportunity gives my door a good solid knock–I’ll be ready.

1 Comment

Filed under Articles, Chronic migraine, Essays, Quick takes, Uncategorized, writing

Who says there’s no crying in the classroom?

He is tall, muscular, and handsome — a confident ex-soldier who only moments earlier was keeping a lively class discussion percolating along with his entertaining observations and quips. It’s the first day of the semester, and within the first few minutes I can see that he will be one of those students every professor loves to have in class: bright, engaged, friendly, funny.

In short, he’s the very picture of success by our cultural standards.

But now he is on the verge of tears. Not noisy, gut-wrenching sobs that would draw attention to themselves. These are silent tears that well up in his eyes as he toils away at the simple writing assignment I’ve asked the students to complete. I wouldn’t even be aware of them if he hadn’t asked me to come over to check his work. Up close, I can see them threatening to spill over, but I can see also that he is struggling with every ounce of his being to keep them in check.

He’s embarrassed. He’s  hoping I won’t notice them. So I oblige him by pretending I don’t.

Voices of failure

So, what was the assigned topic that has reduced him to tears? I asked the students to write about their deepest fears surrounding having to take a college English class. I gave the assignment knowing that it would open up a Pandora’s box of painful memories for my students: discouraging comments from other teachers, repeated failures in other English classes, the slow wearing-down of confidence until the student decides, somewhere deep inside, that “I just can’t do it.”

But that’s not why he’s crying at the moment. Right now, this veteran of fierce combat conditions is crying because he’s flat-out scared.

He’s scared that, even though he has answered every single one of my questions and formatted his writing just as I specified, he must be doing something wrong. Those relentless voices of failure that he’s internalized over the years insist that it must be so. And when I reassure him that he has done exactly what I asked him to do, he presses his fingers to his eyes, blinking hard to stanch the fresh threat of tears.

A regular occurrence

It’s a delicate business, this teaching at a community college. So many of our students arrive at our doorstep perfectly equipped to do the work as far as mental capacity is concerned, but so badly damaged by difficult life circumstances that I sometimes wonder how so many of them manage to muster the wherewithal to sign up for college classes, much less show up day after day, week after week.

Which is why I give a small, rueful laugh inside when I run across the occasional article by a fellow academic posing some form of this question: “How do you handle it when a student starts crying in front of you?”

The way the question is framed, it has a “has-this-ever-happened-to-you” quality to it. As if the notion that a person struggling with the everyday challenges of adult life might experience a meltdown here and there is something of a curiosity.

I don’t know where these other professors do their teaching, but in my realm, tearful students are a relatively common occurrence. I have regularly witnessed students shed tears of frustration, tears of relief, tears of sadness and loss, occasionally manipulative tears as an alternative to doing any actual work — and, more often than not, tears of sheer terror.

Nobody had ever asked

Consider the case of Tammy, a young woman who took one of my basic grammar courses several years ago. Defiantly decked out in giant hoop earrings and skin-tight animal print, she had all the swagger and bravado of the quintessential Tough Chick.  On the first day of class, she stalked past my desk without so much as a glance in my direction and found a seat near the back of the room, sullenly cracking her gum.

That steely facade held up for the first several class sessions. Then one day I noticed she was staring blankly at the wall rather than listening to the class discussion.

Suppressing my annoyance, I walked back to her desk and leaned over.

“Tammy,” I said softly so that no one else could hear. “Are you with us?”

A pair of wide, startled green eyes swerved from the wall and locked on mine.  “No, Professor Price, I’m not,” she whispered. “I’m trying, but I don’t understand a word of what you’re saying.”

And before I knew what was happening, her whole story came tumbling out, there in that classroom while the other students waited patiently: a whispered litany of failure after failure in her English courses because she could never understand what was being said.

And then she whispered the clincher:  “You’re the first teacher I’ve ever had who asked.”

The journey of a thousand miles

Thus began a slow journey that Tammy and I undertook together over the next several months, meeting after class, painstakingly breaking down simple classroom tasks into even simpler tasks. And over the course of that semester, we talked about all those voices she had internalized, voices that told her she would never succeed in English class, in college, or in life. We talked about possible ways to silence those voices.

And through it all, I could never really tell how much of it was taking hold.

Then came the final exam. I held my breath, knowing that Tammy often became so anxious taking tests that she  completely blanked out.

Sure enough, when I looked at her desk, she was staring at the wall with that blank look. But wait. No, not completely blank. As I looked closer, I could see that her wide green eyes were slowly filling with tears.

“Tammy,” I said quietly, and motioned for her to follow me out into the hall.  And we talked. We talked about the internalized negative voices. We talked about the importance of believing in herself. We talked about all the hard work she had done that semester. We talked for a solid half-hour, and when I sent her back into class, I told her she could take as much time as she needed.

She finished nearly two hours after her classmates, but she finished.

And the result?

I would love to report that she passed the test with flying colors. The truth, however, is always far more nuanced than we would like it to be. The truth is that she made an attempt to complete the exam. By objective measures, it would not be considered a good attempt, but I knew it was the best she had in her. I had my work cut out for me trying to find ways to give her even partial credit for her answers. I tweaked and twisted and bent the rules so far in her behalf they all but screamed in pain.

But in the end, she did not earn a passing grade on the test. She passed the class — barely — because I gave her lots of points for effort. But even so, I was pretty sure her failing grade on the exam signaled a failure on my part to help her get past her destructive self-talk.

Until the last day of class, when students were asked to write out their evaluations of the course and the teacher. There sat Tammy, struggling as always to put down some semblance of a cohesive thought on paper. When I saw what she had written in her halting prose, though, I knew I had my answer.

“God bless you, Professor Price,” she wrote. “No one has ever tried as hard to help me but you. This is the first time I thought I could maybe achieve my dreams.”

What’s a professor to do?

So with all due respect to my colleagues at colleges where apparently the students are an admirably stoic lot who barely bat an eyelash under stress, I return now to the question: What do you do when a student starts crying in front of you?

I don’t know what the others do, but I can tell you what I do.

I do whatever the student seems to need me to do. 

2 Comments

Filed under academia, Articles, classroom, compassion, education, Essays