A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Sunday, May 17, 2015


Ann's voice kept cracking as she read to me the close of Mel Ryane's memoir Teaching Will. Ryane ran an elementary school Shakespeare Club that started with twelve members and closed ten actors in a tear-jerkingly successful performance of Shakespeare's Mid Summer Night's Dream. Ryane’s memoir may be the best on teaching that I’ve read. (High praise.) Suffused with the humor, self-doubt, and joys of teaching, Ryane's memoir reminded Ann and me of our own teaching: we worked hard and worried a lot. We had some successes and some failures. We knew that some things were out of our control. We lost some students, either literally or spiritually, and we were cheered as others made it through tough times.

Teaching Will was no Dead Poet's Society, and neither Ryane nor Ann nor I were Robin Williams. We were all real teachers dealing with real kids, putting our hearts into what we hoped would make a difference. Ryane, Ann and I share the passion of working with students, but our content differs. Before Shakespeare Club, Ryane loved acting and Shakespeare; for Ann, Calculus is a beautiful thing, and for me, writing and reading can provide hope for a different future. For us all, there was humility in learning what we could and could not do, and grace in the moments when students transcended us and our teaching.

The friend of a childhood friend, Ryane inscribed our copy of the book with her name and this exhortation: "Read, write, give" with a long squiggle after it that she must have learned from the kids in Shakespeare Club. I like Ms. Ryane. We’re peeps.

Ann and I loved the book from page one, as Ryane got the humor of teaching right from the beginning. Once the kids learn her last name, they use it repeatedly throughout the rest of the memoir. "Ms. Rayne…Ms. Rayne…Ms. Ryane…."I remember wanting to change my name during my first months of teaching because students called it out so often that I got sick of it. (Then my student Jonathan decided that my first name was Rachel, and he yelled, "Rachel!" to me from all over campus. He thought I was ignoring him because he was using my first name--inappropriate in this Dallas private school. My name is Mary, so I was ignoring because I didn't realize that he was talking to me. When I told him my name was Mary, he wouldn't believe me, so I got a new name without even trying.)

Ann cried with joy, as she often does in lovely moments, throughout the last two chapters. I'm not such a weeper as Ann: either in joy or in sadness. When I graduated from mental health therapy after seeking emotional help when I was coming out, my therapist told me that I should cry regularly (I can't remember if it was once a week or once a month.) She told me that crying is good for mental health, so if I hadn't been crying, I should watch a sad movie. (Ann has only to watch a Coca-cola commercial.)

After brain surgery, I remembered my therapist's exhortation, and sometimes I cried, but I haven’t cried so much as I’ve settled into my new life. However, I have tried to be better about crying, which I think means being real with myself. If I were to get a grade in being real with myself, my grade would certainly be higher than it was before I came out, but I'm pretty sure I'm still not an A student in this way. I'd still fail in the weepy category.

Yesterday, I presented to twelve women in a Care Management class about what's it's like to be a patient. I had known one person in the class, Rebecca, before my presentation, so I had asked her what she would like to know. She had told me, "I want to know what it's like to walk in your shoes…And how you might have used a care manager."

Rebecca and I agreed that patients walk in non-slip socks, not shoes, so I tried to share something of my experience by having them walk in my socks, a metaphor for the loss of control and identity as a patient. Each of the women in class obligingly donned a pair of socks that my most resourceful Value Village friends had gathered for me. My socks had been grey, but many of theirs were bright colors. Mine were non-slip on the bottom only, so I had to put them on correctly (a challenge after brain surgery), but many of these socks were non-slip all over, so a patient didn't have to put them on correctly as there was no "correct." Excellent improvement!

I shared with these women my experiences and my thinking much as I have on this blog. I emphasized the importance of listening. (One person asked how to improve doctors in this skill…if you're a doctor, please take this on.) I also talked about the support I've had, the many surprising gifts from slowing down and seeing the world from the perspective of someone without quite so much privilege, and my frustration when people with power stood in the way of my ability to live what would be a meaningful life to me.

When I left the class, I reflected on the presentation and thought of things that could have been better like I always did when I was teaching. This time, however, there's not a next day for me, so I'm sharing my thoughts with you.

When I talk with others, especially health care professionals, I am so aware  about my health issues and disabilities and the cultural tendency to feel sorry for me and/or to think of me as an exception because I insist on living a meaningful life that I emphasize the upside of brain tumors, and I wonder if I don't say enough about what's been hard.

In reflecting, I especially thought about how I have grieved my losses, about the sadness and the awareness of the person I was who is no more. That grief has faded over time but has never completely gone away, and sometimes it re-emerges with surprising force. I should have talked a least a little about that. Because grieving--and a new sense of vulnerability in the fragility of life--are certainly a part of this post-brain tumor experience.

I am lucky to have people in my life who don't just tell me to buck up when I'm sad, but who honor that feeling of loss in me, too. I should have said that.

Another therapist, this one my post-brain tumor therapist, encouraged me to create a ritual that recognized my losses as well as the gifts, so Ann and I wrote both the losses and the gifts on rocks we had gathered in a bowl in out dining room. Sometimes, now, friends add their own losses, and I have added the names of people I've loved who have died recently (including my childhood friend Brian, who died of cancer last week.)

Grief has been a tough part of healing. At times, I have had the sensation that my world is spinning, a physical sensation of being groundless, of being out of control. 

I don't know what it means that I didn't talk about this grieving when I talked with the Care Management class. I wish I had. 

It's lovely on the sunny side of the street, but the dappled shady side of the street has its beauty, too. And then there are the absolutely dark places that I have walked through but have never gotten lost in. I need to learn to talk about the darkness, too. I need to weep and talk about weeping. 

I could especially share this darkness in this group that was listening, such a gift. And thus, (like John Donne at the end of "Valediction: Forbidding Morning"), I end where I begun :

Teaching Will is a really good memoir because it embraces the joy and the sorrows in teaching without minimizing either. It's neither saccharine nor pitiful. Maybe I can learn to be like that. 

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