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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Discussions with Students

In the days leading up to the start of the school year, I debated what to tell my students about my cancer. I'm normally pretty open with my students, and I frequently ask for their input on issues with my boys. They've given great recommendations on gifts, made good suggestions about parenting issues, been really frank about what their parents did well and where their parents could have done better. I always start off the winter semester by asking students for recommendations on movies I should watch during bad weather, and I'm nearly always pleasantly surprised by their enjoyable suggestions. The closer my own children get to the ages of my students, the more I feel compassion toward students and the more tolerant I am of their foibles. In general, although on some days it may not sound like it, my students are nearly always great kids, and it's too bad that I allow a few bad apples to ruin it for me some (many?) days.

Initially, I'd planned on starting to wear my wig even before my hair fell out so that they just knew me with Casey. But I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I may NEVER wear that wig. It's icky. Yet, I'm very conscious of not freaking out these brand-new-first-time-away-from-home-cul-de-sac kids. Then I thought maybe I'd just wear a scarf from the beginning. But I was having so much fun with my short hair that seemed to not be fair. After all, by the time school started, my hair would be on borrowed time. Taking 5 hours a day out of enjoying my hair just wasn't right.

Every semester, I tell my students that since we are going to be spending 75 or more hours together over the semester and because of the type of assignments, discussions, and activities we do, I am going to get to know most of them quite well. It's only fair that they also get to know me, so on the first or second day, I let them ask me any questions they want...nothing is out of bounds, although I do reserve the right to refuse to answer (something I've only had to do once or twice in 21 years). They ask me about my likes, dislikes, family, experiences, etc. I'm pretty blunt and straight forward with them. I like to say that there is a wall separating me from the class, but it is a low wall, and I'm sitting on it most days. When the semester ends, I'm more than happy to invite them over the wall, into my yard.

Therefore, I decided just to be straight with them. On the first day, after discussing Achievement Requirements, I just straight out said that we had one more order of business, that I'd be out of class every third Wednesday and they'd either have a sub or have an alternate, but equivalent to class, assignment on those days. I have cancer, and on those days, I'd be getting chemo. I also said that my hair was on borrowed time, but that I had a wig, although I wasn't sure I'd wear it. I'd probably use scarves or hats. I then asked them for two favors: (1) to be mindful of their health and their germs; to try to wash their hands shortly before coming to class; to not come if they were violently coughing or sneezing; to be mindful of flu symptoms and to stay away from me; and if they didn't feel up to par, to sit as far from me as possible and to let me know so I can take precautions; and (2) to please, if they have had experiences with cancer themselves or with family and friends, only tell me positive stories if they felt the need to talk to me, which I am not opposed to.

Interestingly, each class reacted differently. My 8:00 am class was silent. It's still the middle of the night after all. They still haven't said anything. One student in the 9:30 class, when I said, "I'm looking at this as a year of suck, but it's just a year and I'm going to have as much fun with it as I can" replied, "No shit. So what are you going to do for fun?" And I told them about the plans for henna tatts, collecting hats and scarves, looking for the humor, watching Golden Girls and other crap TV, justifying buying an itouch...

My third class was all "ooh, um, mmmm hummmm" and dropped it, except to ask questions about cancelled classes, and would I cancel classes if I were sick after chemo? But today, after I reviewed with them how to complete their On-line, out of class assignment for tomorrow, I could tell something was going on in one area of the room, lots of shifty eyes, muttered comments. Finally, one student said, "Ok, I'll ask...So, does chemo hurt?" And then someone else said, "Yeh, so what's it like?" that opened the door to discuss my experiences so far, and another student, whose grandmother has had breast cancer, and whose mom and aunt are currently in treatment, talked about their experiences. They asked whether I had shaved my head, did I do that tattoo I showed them my henna and they were all over it. That was nice.

Which brings me back to day 2 with my 9:30 class...a unique group because all but 5 are male, and there are lots of strong, leader personalities in that class. After I asked if they had any questions about the requirements or anything else, one asked, "So, what kind of cancer do you have?" followed by, "What stage?" "What's your cocktail?" "How are your kids taking it?" So, we had a talk about my psychological approach...not discussing stage or odds since that can just be discouraging to my personality type. Today, when I dismissed them, several of them wished me well tomorrow. That was thoughtful.

Overall, I'm glad I sat on the wall about all this. And, when I think back on previous years, it is the unusual semester when I don't discover that I have students who are living less than optimal lives. Over the last two years, I had a student whose mother had Alzheimers and he was worried she's forget him while he was away at college. Another was grieving his father's death. Another's mother had two heart attacks. Three students had lupus. One student had brain damage. I mean, it's not all about me.


PaperYarnGirl said...

I consider myself a decent teacher. And today was my first collegiate level class. I think of myself as the kind of teacher you write about being - open, honest, friendly, learning and growing along with them, though not always learning and growing about the same things. Today I leaned on the wall, chatting with the students, not knowing if it was really okay to sit ON the wall, or whether professional courtesy really dictated that I should take a step back altogether.

You take my fear away. I'm glad you shared with your students, and I'm glad you shared how it went with us. The students need more teachers like you. I strive to be one.

Theresa Williams said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I mean, thoroughly. It's so good to read your writing, after all these years.

grilledcheesegoddess said...

Thanks, Theresa. When my daughter was stillborn, my writing dried up, and now, 15 years later, it's just starting to come back. It might have something to do with kids being older, too. I'm enjoying this, and I'm realizing that I have picked up a lot of bad habits from (a) my students and (b) the mind candy I've been reading in the last few years. I have no desire to read anything that requires focus, though.

Theresa Williams said...

It's very clear that your fountain is flowing again, Dawn. The writing is clean, clear, and vibrant. Bad habits are fairly easy (and fun) to shed. The feeling of building toward something meaningful is exciting, a real high. This post, in particular, is very powerful in what it conveys. I like seeing your strength and vulnerability in it, your love for yourself and your students. It did my heart so good to read it.