Week Two of Re-Entry Begins

The first thing I want to say is that I actually feel half decent right now. It is a bright spring morning, and I am in a small, comfortable room proctoring the AP chemistry exam (Noble gases! Six point oh two times ten to the twenty-third! As temperature increases, pressure decreases! My education was SO not lost on me.) for exactly TWO very intense students, the kind who like to skip ahead on filling in all the little bubbles instead of waiting for the proctor to read the instructions step by step. As a result, some labels ended up in the wrong places, but we fixed that.

I feel OK. I could teach a class without having a panic attack right now, I think. But the weekend… not so much. I didn’t leave the house once. On Saturday I barely left the couch, and on Sunday I barely left the bed. I read a ton and slept a lot. I worried a little about the decision I need to make, but probably not as much as I SHOULD have worried. Because it’s a big one…

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Re-Entry: Day 3

So I made it two and a half days into my readjustment to work before I totally melted down. To be honest, I thought I would last longer, and I’m both disappointed and scared.

On Monday, I felt shy and sneaky. I arrived at school when I knew that the whole student body and faculty would be in the chapel for morning meeting. I chatted with the secretaries, turned some paperwork in to the business office, and stopped by the IT department to update my expired password to the school server. The IT guy who helped me is also covering one of my classes, so we caught up on how the kids are doing. He’s young and enthusiastic and SO excited to be teaching the class. When I thanked him for taking it, he said, “No, thank YOU.”

Be careful, buddy, I wanted to say. With that attitude the next thing you know you’ll be 36 and rifling through your dirty laundry room for the least dirty pair of dirty sweatpants so you won’t smell too terrible at the grocery store. Just PLEASE tell me you’re not teaching the class for free, as I probably would have done at your age.

The process of changing my password took about 20 minutes (all technologically bureaucratic tasks  must take at least five times as long as you would think they should), and I made it about 14 minutes into the process before my eyes started glazing over and my shoulders started hurting and slumping. This can’t be happening, I thought. I have to make it at least to 9 am before I collapse.

Next I went over to the building where I teach and have an office. I slinked in a back entrance and was at my desk in my office before the students and faculty arrived from morning meeting. My office is in an out-of-the-way location, so no one saw me except a couple of the maintenance guys, who stopped in to welcome me back [and as someone who was regularly berated and screamed at by the maintenance guys at one of my previous schools, their warmth and kindness in a) knowing that I was gone in the first place, and b) being honestly happy to see me come back was genuinely touching]. I sat down at my desk and began reading Julius Caesar. Why Julius Caesar? No reason. I just wanted to read something and take notes on it so I could start to feel like an English teacher again.

I was there a good long while. My attention drifted in and out of the Shakespeare, and at some point I put that book down and picked up A Streetcar Named Desire. After an hour or so my officemate stopped in. He’s a good friend and didn’t know I was coming back this week, so we hugged and chatted and caught up. Then he left to go teach, and I went back to my reading.

You know how when cartoon characters get angry, their bodies start to fill up from feet to head with some kind of red substance? You know they’re about to burst when the horizontal line of redness starts to reach the top of their head. Well, this is often how my headaches come about, except that instead of starting at my feet they start in the middle of my torso – and they manifest themselves not as redness but as tightness and throbbing and pain. At this point the line of pain was at my shoulders. I knew that it would just keep rising all day and that I was going to have a mighty headache by the end of the day. I was worried.

Around 10:45 my assistant head of school emailed me and asked me to meet her in the faculty room so we could talk about the candidates who would be visiting for interviews later in the week. The faculty room? I thought. You mean, like, with faculty members in it? I nervously headed over there. The first thing that happened when I stepped in to the room was that a colleague saw me, stopped what she was doing, crossed the room, and locked me in a gigantic hug. She was really and genuinely happy to see me, and it felt good. When we started to chat, another teacher – from my English department – heard my voice and called me over. We hugged; then I settled into a couch and we started to catch up on news about kids and classes.

I am always leery of people who say that the environment at their workplace is “like a family.” My stock response to that comment is “If we treated our co-workers the way most people treat their family members, we’d all get fired,” and for the most part I believe that. There is a certain danger to becoming too emotionally comfortable at work. But my return to work did feel like a return to the unconditional acceptance that we associate with family. A few others, including the assistant head, joined us there in a moment and we caught up on news and made plans to interview candidates.

I was happy. But the pain line had risen to my ears. Not officially a “headache” yet, but close.

I ate lunch with a small group of colleagues. By the end of the meal the pain was in my temples and throbbing. The headache had officially begun. But I was diligent. I had said I would be at school from 8 am until 2:45 each day so I could get an honest sense of how the routine of work would affect me. So I settled back into my office after lunch but didn’t even try to go back to reading. I diddled around on the computer and chatted with my office mate. I visited one of my classes, and they gave me a card they had made. “We made this like three months ago,” they said, “but we never sent it.”

I left at 2:30, totally overwhelmed by pain. I didn’t feel safe to drive home. At one time this was a very familiar part of my routine: getting on the highway with lightning bolts of pain flashing in front of my eyes and just hoping to make it home before someone swerved or I lost my ability to focus on the road and hit a tree or ended up in Webster Lake. I don’t remember climbing the stairs or going to bed, but I know that I woke up three hours later feeling less pain but more discouraged. I couldn’t even make it through a day of reading and talking to people without collapsing in crippling pain. I was awake for a few hours and then went immediately back to bed, slept all night, and was still worn out in the morning.

On Tuesday I was scheduled to watch a candidate teach at 8:20 am. Then I was free until 11 am, when I had an hour set aside to interview this candidate. My plan was to go home right at noon and take it easy in the afternoon. On Tuesday I couldn’t even try to hide from students and colleagues the way I did on Monday. All day long I bounced from hug to hug like a creature in some G-rated video game. At one point I turned to the candidate and said, “Really, people always treat me like this. I am a really nice person to work with.” I saw many of my students and advisees, and over and over again they kept asking, “Are you coming back?” “That’s the plan,” I said, aiming for the least dishonest form of evasion I could find.

And then there was today. I woke up feeling as if it were February 2 all over again, and all I wanted to do was crawl into my groundhog hole and peek out occasionally – just long enough to say HELL NO! and disappear back inside. All I was scheduled to do today was cover a class for a teacher who was out at a family funeral – and I knew that I needed to turn in more paperwork to the business office. I had said I would be there at 8:00 am as usual, but I didn’t get there until about 10. I returned some library books, turned in the business paperwork, chatted with a colleague for a while, covered the class, and got the hell out of there at 11:30.

Then about an hour later I emailed my boss to say that I can’t come in tomorrow.

I am in pain all over. My brain feels as if it is full of wet cotton. My rib cage throbs. I can’t read or follow the plot line of a TV episode. I don’t want to eat or drink anything. I couldn’t muster the energy to do laundry or go to the grocery store. I can’t even sleep – I just lie there in total silence and stillness and am aware of my own sadness.

I don’t know what to do.

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Some Larkin…


He sighed with relief. He had got the job. He was safe.

Putting on his gown, he prepared for the long years to come

That he saw, stretching like aisles of stone

Before him. He prepared for the unreal life

Of exercises, marks, honour, speech days, and games,

And the interesting and pretty animals that inspired it all

And made him a god. No, he would never fail.


Others, of course, had spoken of the claims

Of living: they were merely desperate.

His defense of Youth and Service silenced it.


It was acted as he planned: grown old and favourite,

With most Old Boys he was quite intimate –

For though he never realised it, he

Dissolved. (Like sugar in a cup of tea.)


–Philip Larkin

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Oh, and by the way…

My acupuncturist made my ankle skewer go away. Even better than that, she showed no sign of finding the fact that there was an invisible kebob skewer in my ankle surprising, implausible, or humorous, and she didn’t even suggest that it might be a good idea to enter into a computer that I was constipated. She just nodded, took my pulse, looked at my tongue, stuck some needles in my elbow, and walked away. And an hour later, no more skewer. Because my acupuncturist is just a badass like that.

It almost makes me feel guilty for making so much fun of moxibustion.

I said ALMOST.

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I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Day 88 of Medical Leave

During the first two months of my leave, every time I left home I did so in full secret agent mode, planning the outing carefully to make sure I stood absolutely no chance of running into anyone I knew. During my school’s spring break in mid-March I barely left home at all except to go to the acupuncturist and the doctor; I assumed I would find my colleagues, my students, and their parents everywhere I went. During those early weeks and months, I would never have made a mistake like the one I made yesterday.

I needed to go to Target for things like cat food and toilet paper, so I went to a local shopping center where my school sometimes takes the boarding students on weekends. If this were February or March, I would have been totally paranoid about meeting people from school, but yesterday I didn’t even think about the possibility. I was eating lunch in a restaurant near the Target when I heard someone call my name. It was a student that I know casually from school, although I’ve never taught him or worked with him directly on a club or activity. I looked up when I heard my name and immediately felt my face unfolding into a smile; I was really happy to see him. I joined him briefly at his table and began asking him questions about how things were going. He more or less ignored my questions and interrupted me to say very emphatically, “OH MY GOD, YOU NEED TO COME BACK! YOUR STUDENTS REALLY MISS YOU!” It was nice to be able to tell him that I would be slowly reintroducing myself to the routines of work beginning this week.

There was no reason that he needed to reach out to me or implore me so urgently to come back to school; he did it because he honestly meant it. Now, I have received notes and get-well cards and emails from students and colleagues, and I know that there are many people out there who are wishing me well. But I have a long habit of not assuming that I am especially well-liked. Now, I have no desire to start a pity party here, so I’ll leave out the details – at least some of which are products of my own insecurities rather than anything based in reality – but a variety of life experiences, both as a child and as an adult, have led me to expect that most of my interactions with the world will be “professional” in nature: polite and cordial and respectful but without friendship or the expectation thereof. And to be honest, this has not been a terrible way to approach the world: I’m sure that this expectation has allowed me to sidestep problems at least as often as it has led to loneliness and alienation. But an expectation it is and an expectation it remains, and yesterday I was reminded once again how surprised I can be by genuine, uncensored expressions of warmth and friendship.

Tomorrow I will return to work – not to teach, but just to reenter the routine of work and see how I respond. I’ll turn some paperwork in to the business office, chat with the office staff, have some coffee, and then sit in my office and start thinking about doing some curriculum work or lesson plans. On Tuesday we’ll have a candidate interviewing, so tomorrow I’ll look over his resume and try to remember how to interview someone. My office is in an isolated location, so I could probably make it through most of the day without seeing too many people if I chose to, but I hope to be able to drop in on a few of my (former) classes and chat with students in the library later in the day.

All my life I have had a fear of being seen in places where I am not expected. Just as I would have been mortified to meet a parent at the grocery store on a Tuesday morning in the early weeks of my leave, I am nervous about reappearing at school tomorrow just when everyone has gotten accustomed to my absence. I know that most or all of my encounters tomorrow will be positive. But there’s always that question – does ‘positive’ mean polite and professional, or will there be some element of real friendship and warmth in people’s eyes when they see me return? That’s what I’m scared of, I think, and what I’ve always been scared of: that moment of initial recognition, before people have time to censor the emotions in their eyes.

But enough. I’ve just eaten dinner. I’ll read with the cats for another couple of hours. Then I’ll take my melatonin, brush my teeth, and investigate in the unfamiliar territory of the closet for items marked DRY CLEAN ONLY. I’ll go up to the attic and dig out the bag of bras. I’ll set the alarm and set the backup alarm and charge my cell phone and make sure the dishes are washed and put away. And then I’ll wake up in the morning and see what happens.

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Cat Whispering – Day 85 of Medical Leave

My cat Cleo’s new favorite place to sit is right on top of the envelope containing the paperwork from my doctor that will enable me to go back to work on a limited basis next week. She really spreads herself out on top of the envelope so I can’t see it. Maybe she’s trying to tell me something.

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Back to Square One: Day 84 of Medical Leave

If you want to know how I feel today, just scroll back to the beginning of this blog and read the entries from the beginning of February. I have little bruisey spots all over my face, head, and neck (not real bruises – just little fingerprint-sized spots that hurt to the touch the way bruises do), and pain radiates down both arms whenever I raise them to do anything (like type this post, for example). My ankle (i.e. the skewer) is so bad I can barely walk, and my whole body is tingling with some kind of weird electricity. Both sides of my rib cage are throbbing and I can’t move my head without pain in my neck. I’ve already had two naps today and woke up from each more tired than when I went to sleep.

SO discouraged. 😦

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