Stumbling Upon Hope
I can’t believe the day has finally arrived. What should I wear? No, I can’t wear that, they saw me in that shirt last month. Where are my pants with a zipper? I better leave enough time to do my hair….
Anticipation surges through me every four weeks when I hop in my car and drive to the podiatrist. Having a rare autoimmune disease, I’ve essentially been under house arrest since last March. My one thrill is venturing out to have calcium deposits scraped off the tips of my toes. Please don’t be jealous. We can’t all live my wild and glamorous lifestyle.
During a recent podiatrist visit, a woman whom I never met entered the exam room and introduced herself as the resident that would be assisting. Dr. Salam (not her real name) asked me to provide a brief medical history on what brought me to the office. I gave her the abridged version of my 1985 scleroderma diagnosis, the complications I suffered after the birth of my daughter and the subsequent 218 days I spent in the hospital where I lost the fat pads in my feet, developed severe drop foot, and was temporarily paralyzed. I quickly recounted the year of physical therapy I underwent to regain the ability to walk, the orthopedic shoes and leg braces I still wear… blah, blah, blah.
Upon examining my feet, Dr. Salam suggested that I soak them daily for 45 minutes and then apply moisturizer in order to lessen the throbbing pain.
“I know this sounds ridiculous,” I said, “But I honestly don’t have the time to soak my feet..I am teaching fifth grade remotely and typically work 14 hour days.”
The second I said I was a teacher, Dr. Salam stopped her examination and locked eyes with me. “Oh my gosh Mrs.Helfand, I think you were my brother’s fourth grade teacher!”
Moments later, we confirmed that indeed, I had been her brother, Shay’s (not his real name), teacher. I distinctly remembered him as a tall, lanky boy who struggled in school. He and his family were immigrants and Shay’s progress as an English Language Learner seemed delayed. He was incredibly disorganized with crumbled papers constantly cascading out of his desk and collecting on the carpet. Shay was one of those students that I poured my heart and soul into; giving him extra attention whenever possible. My successes with him were few and far between and most of the time I felt I was beating my head against the wall.
“Shay absolutely adored you,” Dr. Salam practically gushed. “ I remember he always made me attend parent-teacher-conferences with my mom so I could translate for her. Shay talked about you a lot at home. He really held you in very high regard.”
“Oh that is so nice of you to say! How is Shay doing?”
“Great! He works for the transportation department as an engineer.”
“Oh my gosh! That is absolutely amazing!” I blurted out, trying not to sound too shocked.
Dr. Salam laughed and continued, “I know! Shay was a complete mess for most of his schooling. My parents were so worried about him. He was always disorganized, but when he got to college it was like a light switched on for him.”
I went on and on about my memories of Shay from fourth grade and how thrilled I was to hear he was doing so well. We did the math and discovered that Shay had been in my fourth grade class during the 2005-2006 school year. I continued to happily recount my memories of Shay, but inside, my stomach clenched.
Shay was in my class the year I was pregnant with my daughter. He watched as my belly grew and shared in the excitement as the students gave suggestions on what to name the baby. Shay said goodbye to me the day before I gave birth as I smiled and promised my class I would bring the baby to the end-of-the year picnic so they could meet her.
I unknowingly made a promise to Shay and his classmates that I couldn’t keep. Days after my daughter’s birth, I suffered postpartum complications that spiraled wildly out of control. This led to a seven month hospitalization, nine major surgeries, the loss of two organs, and a myriad of other health issues, the remnants of which had landed me in the podiatrists’ office talking to Shay’s sister that very day.
Up until December 5, 2020, the day of my foot doctor appointment, Shay was suspended in my memory as a fourth grader who struggled with academics and was woefully disorganized. If Shay remembered me at all, it was probably as a teacher who left to have a baby and never visited like she had promised. Shay and I left one another in perilous positions, not knowing if the other would end up okay.
It seems so many of us now find ourselves in a similar place of uncertainty. We sit perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, wondering if things will ever be okay again. We marinate in misery, unable to allow hope to seep into our souls. If we look hard enough, sometimes we can find a chisel, chip away at the darkness, and believe better days are ahead.
For me, it was Dr. Salam who provided that chisel. Despite the warranted excitement I felt going to the foot doctor, I had overall been feeling pretty hopeless. At the time, no vaccine had been approved and I was staring down a dark tunnel of essentially living in my basement indefinitely.
I loved teaching my students, but working nearly around-the-clock to create engaging virtual content for fifth graders who could turn off their cameras and leave the “classroom” at their discretion was taking a toll.
Was the time and energy I was devoting to teaching worth it? Was I making any sort of difference in the lives of my students who had only ever met me through a computer screen? Was there any point to the hours spent grading, recording virtual lessons and audio instructions, preparing for live lessons, chasing down missing assignments, communicating with parents, and meticulously planning for small groups? As teachers, we rarely know if we’ve positively influenced a child. Educators just keep passing the baton forward, each teacher trying to chip away at the obstacles that stand between student success. We never really know if something we do makes a difference, but there is a tall, lanky, 25-year-old engineer out there who makes me think we do.