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To the Teacher of a Student with Chronic Pain

Middle school is not easy for anyone, whether you are in the “popular group,” the “intellectual group,” the “athletic group,” “the party group,” and so on. I did not fit into any group when I first entered seventh grade. My bike accident happened right as summer began after my sixth grade at a private school. I was excited for the summer but very anxious to enter a public school where I knew no one and would be the new kid on the block. My anxieties about entering a brand-new school were only intensified after my bike accident when I then had half a shaved head, chronic pain, and a face that was still difficult to recognize even after recovering for three months.

One would think that the students would be cruel to me, but it was not just the students that misunderstood me. There were some teachers who truly made that first year at a new school a bigger disaster than it already was. The funny part is that my scars still were evident: my hair had not grown back all the way, I still had bruises and as I stated before, my face was not yet healed by any means. I was in both physical and emotional pain and I feared going to school every day of the week. I had one teacher who taught history/geography in my first year of middle school. I had never been very interested in either history or geography, but this class was right before my lunch period where I ate lunch in the bathroom alone daily just so no one could see me and I would not be made fun of, or worse be the only kid among 100 students eating all alone. I spent the 50 minutes of the class I already did not like watching the clock tick by, dreading the sound of the bell for lunch time.

There are certain moments we never forget, and one of those moments for me happened in this particular class. I was called to the front of the room to point out a certain state on the map the teacher had hung up on the chalkboard. I could hear the whispers behind me as I timidly walked up to the front of the room, facing 30 other kids. My heart was pounding, my palms were sweating and I had totally forgotten what the teacher had asked me to point out for the class. I may have been watching the clock while he was teaching the lesson and had no clue what he had even asked me to do. Either way, I could not find the state or city the teacher had asked me to find. He was not kind about my inability to follow his directions and kept pushing me to find what I knew deep down I could not find on this damn map.  After about five minutes, tears welled up in my eyes and I ran out of the classroom and into the nearest bathroom where I slammed the door and let my tears fall. No one came to see if I was OK. I stayed there until the bell rang for the dreaded lunch I would be eating in that same bathroom stall.

To this day I have trouble with geography. Up until a couple of years ago, I thought Seattle was a state. There may be no correlation to my ignorance to geography at the age of 35 and my experiences in seventh grade, but I am sure there has to be some relation.

Eighth grade was a tad easier for me in school. My visible scars had healed, my hair had grown back and I was able to hide chronic pain for a long time. I began to have friends and enjoy learning again. I did not eat lunch in the bathroom and made two friends who are still my closest friends 20 years later. Nothing was ever easy as I was fighting an invisible battle with pain, but at least I did not have the added stress of being put down by certain teachers and peers.

I believe teachers need to have an extreme sense of empathy just as I had when I was a social worker. We all need to remember that people are fighting battles we know nothing about. There is a reason kids act out in school: No one is born “bad” and I truly do not believe there is such a thing as a bad kid. I could not count on my peers when I entered this new school because I was not only the new kid but I was the new kid who looked like a “freak.” I should have been able to rely on my teachers and there were many who were extremely helpful to me. Without their empathy and support, I am not sure I would have made it through that first year of middle school.

Just because one is a doctor does not mean he or she is a good doctor, and just because someone is a parent does not mean he or she is a good parent: the same goes for teachers. You can have all the knowledge in the world of geometry and world history, but what students need to learn the most is how to treat other people. I will never understand how geography is more important that empathy. I thank this teacher for being so hard on me and teaching me what I know is not OK. No, I never found that damn state on the map during that geography class, but I did learn strength and I learned how important it is not to judge someone no matter what they look like, and I started to learn how important empathy is.

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