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Why I Continue to Teach With Rheumatoid Arthritis

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“What do you do for a living?” Upon an initial meeting, people often inquire about your work. Employment not only offers a paycheck, but also a mode of self- identity. Who we are is largely defined by how we spend most of our waking hours. Your livelihood becomes more than a way of securing the necessities of life; it becomes your way of life. But imagine if the very job that fed your family was also causing physical damage to your bones, joints and muscles. Now… what if this very work not only defined you, but you also believe it liberated your soul from its physical self? This conflicting congruence of emotions has been my life for the past 25 years.

As a classroom teacher who is completely enamored with her work, I fight to continue to impart knowledge. Basically, I fight to teach every single day. Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 13, fighting against my body is a natural daily occurrence for me. After numerous medical treatments, seven joint replacements and other surgeries, I have taught on a cane, a walker and a wheelchair. I have undergone four hip replacements, one shoulder replacement, and two jaw joint replacements. In other words, I have lost my “teaching” joints. As an educator, I stand for long periods of time, thus causing stress on my hips; I overuse my jaw joints by projecting my voice for hours on end; and finally, I utilize my right shoulder when writing a magical lesson on the board. All of my joint replacement surgeries occurred during June or December due to school vacations.

Knowing how important each contact hour is to the learning process, I have always elected to return to the classroom in record time. Quite honestly, after each surgical procedure, I needed my students as much and perhaps more than they needed me. This symbiotic relationship has enriched my life and filled my soul throughout many painful periods.

On many occasions, I have felt a particularly swollen joint scream for attention, and after dosing myself in Ben-Gay, I have walked into the classroom anxious to share a literary piece with my students. It is the mere act of partaking in this ageless educational ritual that makes me fight to remain in the classroom. Hearing their views and their reactions to a literary piece, whether positive or negative, creates a fiery, healing force within my body. An army of endorphins is produced to protect and defend my joints from the immediate battle. But what about the greater war? After the day is over and I have taught for three to four hours in a row, how do I muster the courage to limp to my car and drive home?

Conventional wisdom promotes that teaching has little to do with physical ability and everything to do with your intellect. This popular notion is not exactly accurate. I have fought a long, arduous battle just to remain in the classroom. But exactly how did the young girl with old bones find her life’s calling? After I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, I set out to find a job in the field and instead landed in a classroom. It was not a traditional path by any means, but it was my path. One day while in between jobs, I was asked to substitute a class. Never before had I experienced such an emotional rush of excitement and panic at the same time. It was an adrenaline rush that fed my body. I was, for lack of a better term, hooked. A few months later, I enrolled in a teacher preparation program and eventually graduated with a master’s degree in education.

However, it was not smooth sailing; it never is when an autoimmune illness shares your body. My first graduate classroom was assigned on the second floor of an archaic building without an elevator. After a full day of teaching, I drove to the university’s campus to become the student once again. After two weeks, it was simply unbearable; I couldn’t move my legs up the stairs. I remember feeling utterly and completely helpless. I sat at the bottom step and audibly sobbed without caring who heard. It was my breaking point, but not for long. After I withdrew from my class, I underwent my first joint replacement at the age of 29. Throughout recovery, I fought because I knew I was going back the following semester, and I would not stop until I graduated. Two and half years later, I ended my graduate work just as I began with another surgery. I walked across the stage to receive my master’s degree in a sling. A few weeks before, I pulled three wrist tendons during an impassioned lesson on Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Everyone has their own reality; this is mine. I have fought and continue to fight merely to remain a member of the teaching profession.

Now, after over 25 years in the classroom, many doctors have suggested I stop teaching and apply for disability. It would give my body an opportunity to heal and allow the new biologic drugs to halt the destruction of my joints. Time and time again, I have refused to heed their suggestions. A few times, I have had to scale back and teach part-time as an adjunct instructor, but I have never taken more than my two summer months off. I simply could not fathom a lifetime without a lesson to plan, papers to grade or the opportunity to affect others’ lives. It is the numerous relationships forged throughout those 180 school days that keeps me defying the odds and returning each fall. Of course, my students fuel my passion to create engaging and thought-provoking lessons, but it is those cherished moments outside the classroom that carry more gravitas. Getting to know people from all demographics and empowering them through the power of writing to find their own voice. Being able to give the gift of my time to a student who needs help with a piece of their own writing is deeply enriching.

After all, I believe those who choose to become teachers answer to a greater communal calling for the betterment of society. Despite the low wages, we return each year because teaching is not our job; it is our innate calling. Just as arthritis is a part of me, so is teaching. Somehow the two will have to co-exist within my body. When people ask me what I do for a living, I will smile and simply, yet proudly, say, “I teach.”

Originally published: July 23, 2016
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