My Illness Caused Me to Miss School, and My Teacher Responded Unkindly
In 2012, I was diagnosed with several chronic illnesses. Before this, I was a primary school student and very active in the school community participating in choir, piano, dance, soccer, basketball, softball, dance and competed in story writing competitions, and this was in my Year 5 year alone. As a 12 year old I became symptomatic and needed to travel hours each week to my nearest large city for testing, management and appointments. My old good week was winning a soccer game or mastering a song on piano, my new good week became visiting less than two specialists a week. I was under the care of neurology, cardiology, rheumatology, adolescent medicine, ophthalmology, genetics and rehab team which included physiotherapy, occupational therapy, psychology, exercise physiology and hydrotherapy. My life was truly turned upside down within a matter of months.
In 2013, when I moved over an hour from my school and school days from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. were no longer manageable, I moved schools. I went from a school that was able to accommodate my needs and was supportive of my absences, to a school which struggled with a child who was barely there. I understand that my situation may have been unique, but I was really hoping this school would meet my needs. I would attend one day a week with all my strength. I was at this school for six hours, and would remain bed-bound for the rest of the week just to build up the strength to do it all again the next week. Not to mention, I was hardly able to socialize and made no friends while at the school. This certainly didn’t help my situation as nobody truly knew what my life was like outside of school, and I was hardly going to be the outgoing girl to start an introduction with, “Hi, I’m Shannon! I’m new here. Wanna hear my life story?! I’m a sick kid!”
One afternoon, when a teacher noticed my regular absences, he asked me about it in front of my class of 25 13 year olds. When speaking to another student, my teacher said, “I bet Shannon just gets dropped off here by her parents everyday and just walks home because she doesn’t want to be here.” I honestly wish my 13 year old self had the courage to start listing off facts about my various conditions or to correct him by telling him I was confined to my bed six days a week. But I simply froze. How could a teacher, a person I trusted in an environment I thought would truly accommodate my needs, say something so insulting? Perhaps he didn’t realize what exactly I was going through, or thought it was just a joking comment, but to me, it was a painful reminder of how invisible my illness was and I felt nobody could understand me. This was over four years ago now, but here are some things I wish this teacher (and others) knew about my absences.
1. The best thing you can do is support your student with any coursework. One of the toughest parts about having a chronic illness has been the misunderstanding from my peers, and in this case, my teacher. We fall behind because our treatments and management is a lot more important than a little Year 8 algebra. Please ask us how we are, email us and check in. Suggest some work we can complete so we can try and keep up with others. It gives us something to do!
2. I’m not skipping school! I’m aware that some of your students may be absent due to simply not wanting to be there and it’s easy enough to sort me into this category without knowing otherwise, but please be aware! I’m not here because I’m either one of the following: in hospital, in an MRI machine, hooked up to an IV, at a specialist appointment, waiting hours at a clinic, sleeping all day because of weakness or too brain fogged to remember how to spell my name. There is a lot more to my life than just school. I need these things to make it to your class once a week.
3. This is literally the only thing I’m doing this week. I prioritized being at school over socializing, hobbies and outings. I have six hours of energy a week and you’ve got them all. Please be aware of this when you only see me in your class once a week. You know about my health conditions, and that I miss school very frequently. Clearly this means that I want to learn. If you really want to know what totally exciting things I’m doing (Netflix, sleeping, figuring out what drink is best to disguise the taste of my medication…), please ask me away from the class! I already feel so different from everyone else in my classes. Mentioning my illness in front of my entire class makes me feel like I don’t belong here, and I already feel like I don’t belong in my own body.
To my Year 8 teacher, if you ever read this: I’m sorry if I just missed the joke on that afternoon four years ago. I’m also aware that perhaps there was some miscommunication about my situation/absences but I hope this educates you on what life is like for a chronically ill teenager who has more to juggle than the usual school, social life and extracurricular activity. My six months at this school were difficult, but they were certainly a learning experience! I left this school about as quickly as I joined it with my end of year report stating, “It is hard to comment on Shannon’s progress due to frequent absences. Attendance needs to be the top priority.” I’m sorry. My health needs to be the top priority right now.
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