Let’s face it. We all feel invisible or even forgotten at one time or another. When this happens with people we consider to be a part of our support system, it’s obvious we need to re-evaluate who those people are. As I’ve written before, that’s a heart-wrenching process. The part of my life I haven’t shared with you is how I felt after ten years of teaching in an environment where I continue to feel more or less forgotten. This emotional part of me has been buried while I’ve been focusing on physically making it through each day, but recent life experiences have brought it to the surface. It isn’t easy to think about this time in my life because it brings up some debilitating issues I worked really hard at resolving. But here it is! Time to reflect on my feelings, to identify them, with the ultimate purpose of being able to let them go. Holding onto them will only exacerbate my cervical dystonia symptoms, and so it’s finally time to reveal a part of my life that was a challenge, to say the very least. This is my story, so please read it with an open heart.
As I was experiencing my dystonia symptoms while still teaching a few years ago, I came across a stress reduction tool kit containing ten small stop signs I placed strategically around my home. In this way, I could move quickly from obsessively thinking about stressful work-related issues to having a completely different thought. When I would see one of the signs, I’d sing “Stop! In the name of love, before you break my heart. Think it over!” It might sound silly, but it worked. Hand gestures and all! Remember Ally McBeal’s theme song? A song that made her smile and gave Ally feelings of self-confidence and a sense of power over what she could control. My theme song did the same for me and still does to this day.
Even with these reminders of my worth in place, the anxiety, sadness and anger of being forgotten or dismissed by families, colleagues, and administrators whom I had devoted my heart and soul to every single day for ten years still feels very demeaning. If I knew someone who went on sick leave, the compassionate action I would take would be to contact that person in some way. Maybe this immediate reaction just comes second nature to me. Throughout my career, I have called kids at home to check in on them or tell them about something I was excited to share regarding one of their passions. I’ve called parents throughout the year to tell them something positive about their children, wanting to teach families that receiving a call from a teacher shouldn’t always be associated with something bad. When a child was “off” on any given day, I would check in with the parents to express my concern and find out if there was anything happening at home that I should be aware of.
When one of my kids got a concussion playing football during lunch recess, I still remember running down the hallway and out the doors to the field to where he lay. Seeing him lying there as stiff as a board with tears streaming down his face, I had to put my own fears aside so I could be there to support him. It was a gift for me that I could ride in the ambulance and be at the hospital with him until his parents arrived. There was no way I was going to let him go to the hospital alone; no one should have to feel that way. He was scared, and since he had been my student for two years, I knew about all of his passions. I was able to put my hand on his arm and distract him from his pain and the longing he had for his parents to be there. We talked about his family, and we spent time talking about some of the family stories I remembered he had written about. Yes, these are all things a good teacher does. Yet, they’re also what a kind person does.
Not only have I written notes of congratulations to colleagues, families, and students alike, I’ve also written sympathy cards when a member of a student’s family or a colleague’s family has been ill or passed away. I’ve attended events outside of school to support the people who surround me every day, not just because it was the right thing to do but because I viewed this community as a part of my extended family. Every year, I made donations to the school committees (I worked at two schools: one during my diagnosis and one afterward) whose job it was to send out “Get Well” or “Thinking of You” cards containing notes from the other teachers; I always made an additional donation to a basket filled with self-care items when someone was sick.
When you commit so much of your life to the people you meet through your job, it’s impossible to feel any other way than compassionate and caring, for me anyway. I don’t give in order to receive. It’s just the kind of person I am. When you are experiencing an unexpected life sentence in relation to your health, however, it goes without saying that it feels good to know there are people out there who care about you. Expressing these thoughts isn’t about creating a pity party for me. It’s about sharing my own personal experience so that all of us will think twice about our ability to remember people who may need it and to remind us to acknowledge the existence of others in one way or another on a regular basis. Who are those people you may have forgotten because they were “Out of sight” and “Out of mind”?
I went on sick leave at the end of February two years ago, right in the middle of the school year. Not once did I get any communication from the staff in the form of a card, basket, or anything else to inquire about how I was doing or to show I was in their thoughts. In fact, people knew I had this diagnosis for three years, and even as I continued to struggle with my health AND be the best teacher I could be throughout those years, nobody asked how I was. Can you imagine teaching over one thousand students in the period of ten years, writing and receiving multiple grants that benefited all of the students and teachers in our district, reaching out to families and giving them multiple tools to help their children succeed at home, and facilitating numerous workshops while being a union representative and serving on multiple committees? At the same time, I was furthering my education by taking classes for certifications in Gifted Education and Critical Literacy and Writing so that I could help every student achieve his/her potential.
Now that I think about it, I wonder why I committed so much of my time to being an active member of this educational community when my lack of presence revealed that I was invisible rather than cared about. As this was revealed the moment I walked out that door on February 28, 2013, to go on medical leave. As I look back, I can see that I was invisible long before I actually had to go on LTD, but at the time, I chose not to see it. When someone doesn’t show up for work for days, weeks, and finally months, isn’t that when you should be reaching out to that person to see what they want or need? Or what about asking the simple question, “Are you okay?”
I finally realize that the lack of compassion I received is not a reflection of me. It’s a reflection of all the people I came into contact with. It just seems like one person could have made a comment somewhere along the line to see if there was anything I needed from the community I had given so much to. A member of one of the PTOs? An administrator? A colleague? Or even a family? With great disappointment, I can count on two hands how many people from my professional life have communicated with me since I went on LTD.
However, I am incredibly grateful to the colleagues who offered to give me a ride to my physical therapy appointments the summer after I went on LTD and the colleagues who also helped me pack up my classroom. Now it’s been over two years since I’ve been able to work, and I can count on one hand the number of people who still care enough to stay in touch. When you are diagnosed with a lifetime neurological movement disorder, it’s very difficult to find any good in the intentional or unintentional act of being forgotten.
But then I got a letter from one of my former students on the Navajo Nation. She now has a family, and at one time, she told me she wanted to be a teacher. After twelve years of exchanging letters with her, I’m reminded that I’ve made a difference in her life. And when I received an invitation to a former student’s graduation the other day, I knew I made a difference in her life too. It’s not just girl students I’ve connected with either. Recently, I received a piece of mail from the father of a high school senior whom I’ve been working with for the past year; this news made my entire year! It was a congratulatory letter telling the young man he had been awarded a $1000 scholarship for each of his college years, based on a written essay we had conversed about and revised together. His writing has never included my words. But my questions have brought out a depth in his writing (and dare I say even a desire to write) that his dad says was never there before. These are diamonds in the rough. The gems I need to search for during the times when I reflect back on the larger community I was a part of for so many years , those whom I feel I’ve been abandoned by. I know these precious nuggets are out there, but you know the old expression, “You can’t see the forest through the trees.” Negative thinking certainly interferes with my healing, and while I still see the glass as half full in most areas of my life, sometimes you just have to allow yourself to feel. Because I am, at the very least, visible to me! Unfortunately, the feeling of being forgotten doesn’t begin and end with my own story.