A to B: Why I Got into Education - Lean on Me
The long holiday weekend began with ominous news for me of a cancer diagnosis and ended with a more detailed confirmation. Tuesday morning questions and uncertainties swirled about in my mind as I trudged back to school; the concerns of the 120 16- and 17-year-olds I work with each day as a public high school American history teacher were far from a priority.
Seven hours later, at the end of the day, I had been transformed. No students knew my diagnosis, yet the excitement, exuberance, and energy of my classes of adolescents lifted me. I felt upbeat just being around these young people.
But a dilemma came with that diagnosis: Do I keep this to myself? Do I tell no one at school? My building principal and union president knew and were supportive, but I had asked them to respect my privacy. What about my students?
I resisted sharing my diagnosis. Images flashed through my mind of a rough chemotherapy leaving me exhausted and with little dignity. Would the "whatever generation" even notice, or care, as they passed through my class?
A month after the diagnosis, with my chemotherapy treatments about to begin, I obliquely mentioned, just before the bell rang, that I would be missing one day a week for a while for what I referred to as "treatment for a medical condition." That was my description of my chemotherapy schedule. As I expected, most students appeared not to notice.
However, one girl, I'll call her Stephanie, lingered after class and asked to speak with me. I knew that she had traveled extensively with her father in search of treatment for his leukemia. A cancer diagnosis is very isolating for the person receiving the diagnosis and his or her family. No one else can quite fit into your shoes. For Stephanie, my intentionally bland description -- "treatment for a medical condition" -- was more than words. It was tangible pain for someone close to her and fear for herself. With tears in her eyes, she said to me, "Mr. Clark, are you going to be all right?" I was touched by her concern and strengthened by her tears. I was also honest in response: "I am not sure."
Since that day, Stephanie and her parents have been a source of support and encouragement, from cookies baked by Stephanie quietly left on my desk at the end of the day, to a Livestrong bracelet from her mother, to a short written note of encouragement and comradeship from her father.
More important, Stephanie and her parents taught me to reach outside myself a bit. I soon found refuge in a Friday afternoon yoga class with a small group of teachers held in my school building. I enjoyed the irony; a huge edifice of steel and glass offering a place for quiet. My colleagues in the class were not aware of my diagnosis, but the opportunity for physical rejuvenation while in a sort of meditative cocoon gave me strength.
Now, almost 10 months since the diagnosis, I continue to pursue the chemotherapy prescribed by my oncologist as well as less traditional paths such as acupuncture and yoga. Did an empathetic student help me medically? All I can say is that as I write this in December 2009, my cancer, while not curable, is treatable, and I am again teaching a full course load in a large public high school -- my 40th year in teaching.
I have continued to reach out in ways that have been beneficial. My adult son visited in order to be at my side while I was going through a session of chemotherapy. I have connected with former colleagues I hadn't seen in so long they really did seem to be from another life.
My teaching elucidates benchmarks toward adulthood for a generation of young people. In the case of an adult benchmark of my own, a cancer diagnosis, the young student, Stephanie, helped me that day much more than I have helped her.
— David Clark teaches high school American history to all ability levels, including Advanced Placement, in West Chester, Penn.
Illustration: Jeff Hopkins