- Posted June 7, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Living with a chronic illness
Not Too Disabled to Fight Bullying
Back in third grade I witnessed a fellow classmate get bullied. Kids taunted and ignored her because of how she appeared. She looked sickly. Her condition rendered her weak—too weak to run around at recess or participate in phys. ed. Mean children sentenced her to endless teasing. Her crime? Having an illness.
One day everything changed.
“Susan died,” reported our teacher. Those two words opened the eyes of my heart. For the first time, I ‘saw’ Susan. I noticed her physical suffering. Her emotional pain. Her loneliness. I lost my chance to befriend her.
That experienced played a big role in my career choice: special education. College training equipped me to improve the lives of vulnerable children.
My first teaching job (in 1976) involved working with multi-handicapped children at a residential school for the blind. Although they had intellectual disabilities, they could express frustration about how people responded to them. Able-bodied individuals ignored them as though they didn’t exist. Other people helped them do everything, assuming they were completely incapable. They yearned for people to see them differently. To look past their disabilities and see THEM: human beings with feelings and desires. I planned role-playing activities to help my students respond to ignorant reactions.
When I became a parent in 1980 it was my turn to yearn for others to see differently. Our first son had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Teachers and friends only saw his hyperactivity. Not his superior intelligence (144 IQ), his inquisitive nature, or his forgiving spirit. Throughout Chris’s school years he endured bullying. I experienced the sheer helplessness and frustration of educators’ inability to protect my child.
Becoming a school administrator in 1995 gave me insight to the problem of bullying. I was one of two administrators who started a school that grew to 1,000 students by the fifth year (not aware that I had MS at the time). But preventing bullying proved to be a greater challenge.
In 2001 I became an elementary teacher. I felt compelled to elevate my second graders’ understanding of disabilities. I involved them in sensitivity training. Those activities were designed to help my young students see others differently. To promote an understanding that people with disabilities share the same emotions and desires.
Bullying continued to be a source of frustration. It impacted the academic performance of victims. Protecting my students seemed impossible because attacks occurred outside the classroom. Bystanders were reluctant to report incidents. My passion to protect the most vulnerable grew stronger.
Then an illness interrupted my teaching. MS threatened to sever my career. In 2003 I suffered an exacerbation that rendered me totally incapacitated—unable to perform my duties. It hit in December around the time when my students were rehearsing for their Christmas program. An MRI revealed lesions in my brain. Too numerous to count! A neurologist told me I had MS.
“I’m going to prescribe IV steroids. Sometimes patients are hospitalized during those treatments,” the doctor told me.
“I can’t miss school. My students won’t understand. I don’t want them to worry,” I replied.
After some negotiations with my doctor and the school principal, I got permission to keep teaching. A substitute was assigned to assist me.
I helped my students understand MS by having them act out the central nervous system. Several students played the role of antibodies. Even those eight-year-olds understood how a body fights germs. They enjoyed watching live ‘antibodies’ use giant erasers to wipe out cold germs. Then I instructed the antibody actors to wipe out healthy germs in the brain. As they pretended to wipe out healthy germs, the students’ smiles were also wiped off their faces. They realized the implications.
Their questions required honest answers.
“Mrs. Chandler, is there a cure for MS?”
“No. But there are treatments. I get shots every other day.”
“Do they hurt?”
“Yes, but I’m grateful because I have a loving husband who gently gives them to me.”
“What’s it like to have MS?”
“Mostly I’m tired. More than regular tired. If I say I feel like a wet noodle do you know what I mean?” I asked.
“Yes, you feel kinda floppy,” answered an insightful girl.
The lesson ended with a list of ways they could help me. They felt empowered.
Unlikely heroes from my past helped me deal with painful and debilitating symptoms. Memories of my former multi-handicapped students inspired me. Their undaunted words echoed in my mind. I ‘heard’ their voices of encouragement saying, “Don’t give up.” Their joyful resilience inspired me. The teacher had become the student. The students taught the teacher by ‘showing’ me how to face challenges with determination. How I cherished their example!
After three years MS had begun to threaten my career. Fatigue made it increasingly harder to meet the demands of teaching second graders.
This doesn’t seem fair. I’ve dedicated my whole life to improving the lives of children. I love traveling with students in their quest for learning. I refuse to let MS keep me from teaching. I’ll find another way.
Teaching at the college level proved easier. That’s where I shared research about how bystanders are too intimidated to report bullying. Statistics on PACER’s website demonstrated to them that bystanders can prevent bullying.
While instructing my college students, I could sit. But even that became too hard to manage full time. The necessary research and planning taxed my scar-cluttered mind. Brain drain would quickly set in. I felt my students were being shortchanged by my corroding cognition.
MS, you’re not the boss of me. You will not silence me! I WILL find a way to impact the lives of children.
MS forced me to redefine teaching. I formulated a new concept of a classroom.
There’s gotta be a way for me to teach. My students don’t have to be contained to one classroom. I’m determined to go on protecting the vulnerable. If I write a picture book, I could reach many children. I’ll have a classroom without walls.
It didn’t take long to identify the story line. I asked myself, “What’s the most important lesson I could teach? What’s the greatest challenge facing educators?”
Bullying was my immediate thought. That gave birth to the picture book Heart Eyes: Beth and the Bullies. I found a way to teach countless bystanders.
In the story the central character, Beth, sees others with heart eyes. She spots a boy being bullied and notices how fast he runs away. Her insight provides a creative solution to the problem.
Beth echoes my message to see others differently. To protect the vulnerable. She inspires readers to act as detectives. To be on the lookout for children being hurt, harassed, excluded, or ignored. Her compassion compels witnesses to become peacemakers. She shows how one person can be a catalyst of change.
“How long did it take you to write the book?” a friend asked me.
“I think I’ve been writing it my entire career.”
Ironically, my greatest gain resulted from loss. Had I not been forced to leave teaching, I wouldn’t have written the picture book. My disability enabled me to make a greater difference. Writing has given me a voice.
Thankfully, I still have opportunities to go into classrooms. To share my book or assist fellow professors.
My husband helps me overcome my challenges. For 37 yrs. of our marriage he’s supported me. He accompanies me when I travel to speak, even to Hungary and Romania. I call him my flag pole. Without his support, I’d be a crumpled pile. He helps me wave my banner high. So I can do my part to prevent bullying. We’re ‘Team Chandler’ working together to proclaim my message.