The power of an hour

TomGillSchool

photo: Tom Gill (via flickr)

For as long as I have been writing this blog, I have struggled to find a theme or central idea for most of the stories. Sure, I could write about news events, or the interesting people I meet, but I want to try to focus on those things I’m most passionate about. I want to write in a way that will make readers a little more curious about my world and at the same time, give them a little insight into my life (as crazy as it may be).

This problem has rattled around in my head for the last few days and then today as I was running, it just hit me – write about the amazing things that happen in my classroom. No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, than I thought of recent Wednesday morning. From now on, I am going to take my own advice. I’m going to write about what I know. The posts here will be about the remarkable and often entertaining world of teaching and education – specifically, teaching high school English in a Maine classroom. And as they say on the crime shows, I’ll make sure to change the names (and perhaps genders) to protect the innocent.

I hope you enjoy my version of education today. – David Arenstam

Wednesday, February 11, 2014

F

or me, every school day is divided into four teaching blocks. Over the course of two days, we run through a complete schedule, eight blocks. On Wednesday of last week, most everyone in the school knew a late winter storm was moving across the southern part of the country and as soon as it hit the waters of the Atlantic, it would feed on the warm air and moisture and take an immediate left hand turn toward New York and New England. There was a good chance school would be cancelled on Thursday, or at the very least, we would come in late. To make matters worse, or better depending on your seat in the classroom, there was only one day left before February break. Kate_Chopin_portrait_T-P

With just two days until the break, and I thought we’d talk about the Kate Chopin and read some of her more famous short stories. My class is filled with seniors and for them, every day is one more step closer to graduation, and now that we have officially passed the halfway mark for the year, senior fever has firmly taken root. Anyway, we talked a bit about her life and I told them she was born before the Civil War and she came from a long line of independent women. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all widowed while they were still in their 20s and Kate herself became a widow at the age of 32. At the time of her husband’s death from malaria, or “swamp fever,” she was living outside of New Orleans with her husband, Oscar, and their six children. I let that sink in for a few seconds and then asked them to imagine themselves in that position, and then I reminded them, 1880s – no electricity, no Internet, no telephones, and for the most part, conversation and letters were the information highway of the day.

There were a few nods, a few smiles and more than one or two of the students muttered something about “no way.” I continued on. We talked for some time about her decision to become a writer after Oscar’s death. In a world and industry dominated by men, she was bold enough, brave enough, whatever the right adjective might be, but she had the will to step forward and submit her work. We talked about the impact it must have had on her, her children, and the rest of her family. But she was successful. I told them we’ll get to that later, but let’s finish up about her life. The end of her life came in 1904 when she was just 54-years-old. She was published and somewhat successful, but she died in her St. Louis home at a relatively young age.

There’s some dispute about whether she died from complications from a stroke, a brain hemorrhage, or an aneurism in one of the blood vessels that weaved their way through her brain. In any case, I told them the story (and yes, their teacher embellished a little) that just before her death, she went to the World’s Fair in St. Louis. She had been to the fair for the last three days, but on this day she had a strong headache. It was a hot August day and sometime in the early afternoon, in and amongst a crowd of people, she collapsed on the fair grounds.  The police and medical people in attendance attributed the fall and her illness to the heat, and after a short time in a medical tent, they sent her home. There’s a report that said she was feeling much better, but on the ride home she felt nauseous and had to stop her carriage twice to vomit. By the time she entered the home where she was born, she was dizzy and her head felt as if it were straining to expand.

Without eating or drinking, she removed her shoes, loosened her clothes, and took to her bed. My students are used to my somewhat exaggerated tales and they didn’t stop to ask any questions. I knew I had them – no one was talking and there wasn’t a single cell-phone in sight.

“Kate decided to call her son,” I continued on with the story. The telephone was recent invention, but St. Louis was one of the cities where they were widely used. She didn’t want him to worry and for some reason she felt it was important to call him. She told him about the collapse and said she’d see him in the next day or so.

Sometime later that night, she either had a stroke or the aneurism in her brain completely burst. She fell into a coma and within two days she died. The 54-years-old mother of six, newly celebrated author, was dead.

I paused for few minutes and then started again. “Imagine if that happened today with all the technology and medical advances that are available in almost every hospital or medical office,” I said.

“How many of you know what an aneurism is?” I asked.

There are almost 25 students in the class and not more than three of them raised their hands. I asked a girl near the front of the room to explain what it was. She looked at me for a second and then simply said, “it’s when there’s a weakness in a blood vessel and it blows up like a balloon.” She made a popping noise and held her hands in the shape of an imaginary ball in front of her face. When the loud, sloppy noise burst from her lips, her hands flew wide to the side of her face. We all smiled and a few of the boys made noises like they had been shot.

I didn’t know all the details, but I wanted to give them some perspective. “Today, with MRIs, X-Rays, CAT scans and all the rest, doctors sometimes find these before they burst. If they do, they may put a mesh or wire covering, a stent, near the area of the aneurism.” I sort of laughed and said it seemed like a more of a plumbing problem than a medical issue. If that happened today, and the doctors knew about it ahead of time, she might have lived a much longer life.

I was just about to go on to Kate Chopin’s story, “The Storm,” when one of the biggest boys in the room raised his hand and looked at me like he had something to add.

“I’ve had three of those and I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for those tubes,” he said. Everyone turned in his direction and waited for more. “When I was a kid, my mom got in a car accident. I was in the car and after, at the hospital, they took X-Rays of my head and found one,” he said. “I’ve had three of those operations.”

The rest of the class just looked in his direction.

In a moment of anything but brilliance all I said was, “Really.”   “Was I right about the science, the medicine?” I asked, hoping that I didn’t somehow offend him with the story.

“Yeah, the doctors said if they didn’t find it, if I hadn’t been in the accident, it would’ve burst in about a month.”

I didn’t know what to say, and somehow knew I didn’t need to add anything more. I quickly gave the students their reading and writing assignment for the night. I’d see them after the storm. They collected their books, their notes, and before I could add anything else, the bell sounded and they were off to their next class. During the next two days, I reread Chopin’s stories and with each word or phrase, I kept coming back to my class, to my student.

“I’m here because of the accident,” he said.

David Arenstam

About David Arenstam

Originally from away, but here to stay - Maine is my home and I love writing stories about the people and places from my end of the state. As a teacher and writer who’s seen more than half a century of life, I’m astonished by the people I now call neighbors and friends.