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When a Teacher Questioned My Daughter's Health Issues

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Editor's Note

This story has been published with permission from the author’s daughter.

My oldest daughter is 17, and at this point she has been sick for just over a year. So sick that we’ve had to pull her out of a brick-and-mortar school, where she was an honors student. She is now enrolled in an online school and has a reduced class load, both in the number of classes she is taking and the amount of work she can do for those classes.

While her specialists have all been great, answers still have not been found that explain the whole picture. We have already run into people who want to place blame on the “easy” answer. The ER doctor whose advice was to “see your friends more” and tried to insistently tell us she was “just depressed.” We were at the ER because she was having tachycardia, chest pains and shaking like crazy. Turns out she has reactive hypoglycemia, and her blood sugar had plummeted. But it was easier to make a snap judgment and dismiss her.

She has a 504 accommodation plan in place that requires her teachers to modify class load. One teacher has been amazing, who has extended the class to make it an entire year course, in addition to modifying curriculum to give her more flexibility in how quickly she turns in work.

Her other teacher, however, is another story.

In three months, he only returned my phone calls twice, and my daughter’s once despite multiple attempts from both of us to communicate with him. He did email her a couple of times when she made inquiries about other ways to get credits toward her grade.

During each of these interactions, he repeatedly questioned whether she was “so sick that she really can’t do more,” even while swearing up and down he believes us. He told both myself and her that he thinks it’s a motivation issue, and refused to modify her class load despite the fact that she has a 504 in place. During the final two conversations, one with my daughter and one with myself, he repeatedly asked questions, interrupted and barreled over each of us before we could answer. He finished it up with a statement that he wasn’t being rude, because he didn’t yell or curse at me, then hung up on me.

Yes, a complaint for non-compliance has been filed with the school. There are many things I want to say to this teacher, but I have decided to invest my limited energy to an audience who will actually be receptive, rather than wasting it where it obviously would not be heard.

To this teacher I would say — you asked what we needed, then in the same breath refused to stop long enough to hear an answer.

What my daughter needed from you was compassion and understanding. You didn’t need to believe anything. It was not your place to determine if she was “really sick enough.” It was your job to have compassion, understanding and to work with her and with myself as her parent. It was your job to follow her 504, which you and the school are legally bound to do. You failed, utterly.

And in the end, if it turned out that she still couldn’t keep up, a mature conversation about options at that point would have been both expected and appropriate. But you never even tried. You said you see your job as supporting your students and helping them succeed. Can you honestly say you did that for my daughter? If so, your perspective of “support” is skewed, and needs some serious re-evaluation.

But even beyond that, the emotional and psychological ramifications of an interaction like this can be so harmful to people experiencing ongoing health issues. You made a snap decision, based on little information, then rigidly refused to see any other perspective than your own.

If there is one thing I can teach her while she goes through this, it’s that it is OK to stand up for herself. That your inability to see outside of your own experiences and perspective does not put the burden of responsibility on her.

To those reading this I say — I am so proud of her for how she handled this situation, even with as dramatically as it affected her emotionally and physically. It is so hard to watch her go through this, and feel unable to make it better for her.  The unfortunate truth is that this wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last time someone wants to dismiss her health. People will sometimes choose to see instead a young woman who they think should be healthy and fine, therefore she must be. That’s the trick with invisible illnesses.

So I will teach her how to stand up for herself, how to advocate. How to speak doctor-speak (because yes, it sometimes seems like it’s a whole other language). How to find the resources she needs in order to ease her path. And that others’ ignorance is not her responsibility.

Standing up for yourself can look like many things, and it doesn’t always have to be attempting to educate someone else on a condition or situation they don’t understand. Sometimes it might be, sure. Sometimes it is recognizing when the situation is beyond saving and gracefully stepping away, for your own sanity and health. Sometimes people are receptive to it, and sometimes they just aren’t. It doesn’t devalue her struggles, and it doesn’t make them less real because someone else can’t see it.

Getty image by jacoblund

Originally published: January 2, 2020
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