“How many fingers am I holding up?”
That modest question was posed to me by a student in my 7th period class a little over a month ago. Only it wasn’t a game or a joke, nor was it some clever part of my lesson that day. I hadn’t planned to hear it, just as the student hadn’t planned to ask it, but it was a serious question.
He asked because I had collapsed. I was on my back in the middle of my classroom and he needed to know if I could see straight. Thankfully, though we would playfully disagree later, I answered correctly. It was three.
A few minutes before I successfully counted his sharp-cornered fingers, everything was normal. All 30 of my students were turned towards the twelve giant whiteboards that cover the walls of our room. They were factoring. Doing a damn good job at it too. Near the end, as I nonchalantly tilted my head to survey a piece of work on a nearby board, the walls instantly rushed to life and the room whirled uncontrollably. It was like an unfriendly 60-mph merry-go-ground, except without the horses, lights, and music. The abrupt velocity of the spinning rocked me. I had no time to grab a nearby desk and barely uttered a word before the side of my head smacked against the floor.
An intense case of vertigo had mercilessly shoved me to the ground.
I stayed down for a few minutes. I had to. The walls, and now ceiling, continued to sway. I closed my eyes for comfort.
Slowly, after about a minute, the room started to stand still again. I overheard a kid say that I was playing a joke. After all, I did unexpectedly contract a severe throat virus just a few weeks prior. Someone soon realized that I wasn’t joking and that’s when I was forced to count fingers. My concerned student held them up four feet from my no-doubt expressionless face. I never imagined that counting three fingers from the hand of a teenager would be so satisfying, but it was. Almost cheerfully, I managed to sit up.
He cautiously helped me to a neighboring seat. As I gathered myself, I looked around and noticed that the majority of the class was still glued to their boards. They were so immersed in the work that they hadn’t even noticed my collapse. I was still dazed, but deep inside, pride welled up. I was slumped in a chair, confused, with a golf-ball sized lump forming on my head, yet my students were assiduously lost in their work. Though brief and distressing, looking out at them at that moment was special. It was fulfilling and sustaining. I will always remember it.
As a student sprinted out of the room to grab my assistant principal, I tentatively reached around to turn off the background music that I had playing through the SmartBoard. Other than the handful of students who were aiding me, it was then that the majority of the class peeked over their shoulders and noticed that something was wrong. I was the center of an anxious huddle. As the kids unhitched themselves from the boards and grabbed their seats, it was evident that this was unfamiliar to us all. The buzz that filled the room just a few minutes earlier was now replaced with uncertain silence. With raised brows and gaping mouths, worry was painted all over their faces as I tried to explain what happened. Although clear and coherent, my words zigzagged and missed every ear in the room. I was at a loss. Thankfully, after about my third muddled sentence, my AP arrived and the kids were ushered out just before the bell.
Other than the lump on the left side of my head, I actually felt fine about 10 minutes after the fall. Nevertheless, I left school early, paid a visit to the hospital, and, per doctor’s orders, stayed home the next day. I emailed my students, even those not in that particular class, to let them know what happened. I needed them to know that I was OK and that I missed them.
Upon returning to school, I was humbled by the torrent of concern and support from my students and school community. It seemed that everyone in the building knew about my fall, even those who I don’t teach or know, and they were all coming up to ask me how I was doing. I received many warmhearted emails and notes. We share the building with a different school and one of their teachers even checked in on me. I felt overwhelmingly and undeservingly cared for. These uplifting interactions will stay with me for a long time.
It’s been weeks since I fell, and I’ve had no dizziness since then, but I’ve often thought about that day. I’ve thought about how none my students, in all of their years of school, have ever seen their teacher lying flat on their back during class. I’ve thought about how teachers are the implicit leaders in a classroom, and how problematic it could be for a student to witness their leader, their mentor, their guide, lose his ability to stand upright. I’ve thought about, having now unwillingly brought this experience to my students, how unsettled it makes me feel.
Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how fitting it all is. Given the business-like nature of school and the supremacy of results, vulnerability is not a welcome part of what we do. My stolid, paperwork-driven school system, which includes an impersonal curriculum and a lifeless 27-pages booklet, among other things, works against the humanism that is at the center of all teaching and learning. We’re there physically, but this machinery chases who we are out of the room and down the hall. I’m told that my whiteness, my maleness, my passions, my flaws, can’t influence what happens in room 227. We talk a good game about growth mindset, are quick to cite research and put up posters, but in the end, with so much on the line, being imperfect is a weakness. It’s hard to be human and function like one in the classroom. In my search for meaning in such a stale, emotionless system, in my belief that teaching is my calling, these thoughts weigh heavily on me. I interrogate them, pick at them, hoping I can discover and deliver my authentic, human self to my students each day.
Well, it’s safe to say I was human that day in 7th period. My vulnerability was so appropriately displayed. There was no multiple choice question to hide it, no “Do Now” to take the attention off of it. I was there, on the floor. All of me. And my students bear witness to it.
Two days after I fell, when I returned to my students, I couldn’t hold any of this back. A health scare forcibly ripped me from them and where I belonged. I was emotional. I stood erect and apologized to any of them who may have been affected by what happened, but mostly I expressed my deep gratitude for their kindness, compassion, and readiness during one of the neediest moments of my life. I told them that this shared experience has bonded us for life, which it will. Having been through this together, there’s a unique closeness that pervades our room now. I relish it.
Looking back, I could have never predicted where something so scary would happen to me. But if I could have, and being around family was not an option, I would have chosen my classroom, right where it happened. For it is there, of all places in the universe, surrounded my students, and continually swept away by learning and personal growth, where I feel most alive.