Thursday, May 28, 2015

Contender For "Worst First Day of Teaching." Ever.

     Sometimes everything goes your way.  And sometimes you end up driving into a telephone pole.  After graduating from Eastern in the spring of 2003, I, like thousands of other would-be teachers, was on the hunt for a job.  I applied to almost every position imaginable, including a job in Benton Harbor where I would have been the only English teacher in the whole school, as well as one in Cedar Springs, the Red Flannel capital of the world.  Those interviews did not pan out, but a chance connection that my wife had through her job at the time got my foot in the door at Ypsilanti High School.  They were in desperate need of a teacher to fill in as a long-term substitute for one of their English teachers who was on maternity leave.  And I was just the person for the job.

     A series of substitutes had been teaching the class while a highly qualified long term person was sought out.  I was not able to meet the teacher who I was filling in for before I was scheduled to take over, but another very helpful teacher provided me with a textbook, the standard curriculum for the English 9 and 12, and lesson plan ideas.  She also told me that I would have "first lunch," and my wife Kayla and I thought it would be fun to meet at a nearby Panera to celebrate my new job on my first day.  With only a Friday and a weekend to prepare, I was very nervous.  I planned the lesson for the freshmen and, because the seniors had just started a unit which included the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., my plans with them involved "Pride (In the Name of Love)" by U2.  Nothing like playing a song from 1984 to show high schoolers how hip you are.  The students had seen a parade of new faces in front of the class as the school scrambled to find a long-term sub, so I introduced myself briefly, told them I'd be around for as long as their regular teacher was on maternity leave, and dove into the lesson.  I breathed a sigh of relief as the bell dismissing the third hour students rang.  So far, so good.  My student teaching experience had gone very well and I was excited to see it pay off.  Grabbing my keys, I prepared to leave and meet my wife for lunch so I could tell her all about my day.  Then, to my surprise, several students walked in the room.  I asked them what was going on, and they assured me that their 4th hour was about to start, not lunch.  Somehow, the teacher who had so dutifully helped me get ready to teach on my own for the first time had made a mistake:  I had lunch after 4th hour, not before.  Scrambling, I eschewed calling my wife and prepared to teach the kids who were streaming in the front door.  I'm not really sure why I didn't call her, but, then again, that's not really a surprise since I recall very little of what occurred during that hour anyway.  
     Here's what I have actual memories of:  struggling to get the U2 song to play, listening to the music with the students, walking back and forth in front of the classroom, and then waking up in the front seat of my car with paramedics by my side.  As I rode in the ambulance, I could not hash out what was real and what was not.  Was I dreaming these sirens?  Was I dreaming the fact that I had a job as a substitute teacher?  I was extremely confused and asked the paramedic to tell me what was really going on.  He said I had driven my car off the road and into a telephone pole.  I can only assume I did so at a relatively slow speed, since I was not in any pain and had no injuries.  The car was totaled, but that isn't saying much since it was an early 90's Grand Prix.  I told them about being diabetic, and that's when the reality of the situation crystallized:  I'd had an episode of low blood sugar unlike any I've dealt with before or since, and the result was that I was on my way to a hospital in the back of an ambulance.

     I immediately called the school once I was inside the ER, and gave the secretary the basic information about what had happened.  Thankfully, it was still lunchtime and there wasn't a classroom full of kids wondering where their teacher was.  The person I spoke to said she would take care of getting someone to cover the class for the rest of the day.  Shortly after, my extremely worried wife arrived.  Kayla had been concerned well before she was notified of the crash, because she'd been waiting at Panera with no word from me.  She had called me, but I had my phone shut off because I was teaching.  Her instincts told her that something was very wrong.  And something was, but, miraculously, despite everything, I was okay.  

     Between logical deduction and what I was later told by students, my wife, and paramedics, here is what happened during the hour and a half of my life that is a blank in my memory.  My blood sugar was dropping around the time third hour students left, because the amount of insulin I had given myself that morning was based on what I had eaten at breakfast and when I expected to have my next meal.  However, I did not feel any of the symptoms of low blood sugar (which, for me, include extreme hunger, slight confusion, and mild sweating) because of the adrenaline rush and stress of teaching completely solo for the first time.  My professional side kicked into high gear upon suddenly having students walk in when I was expecting to go eat, blocking out any awareness of what was happening to me physically.  When I asked the students to explain what happened, they told me that I was talking strangely and then put my head down on my desk for a while.  Unbelievably, not one of them considered that I might be experiencing a medical emergency.  Some of them actually left early, while the rest just waited around for the bell to dismiss them.  They said that I sat up a time or two, but had my head down when they left to go to lunch.  Then, somehow, I became alert enough to do the following:  get my keys, leave the building, find my car, buckle my seat belt (thanks Mom and Dad for enforcing that habit!), drive out of the parking lot, make a few turns, wait at several traffic lights, and finally, drive my car off the road and into a telephone pole, where some people golfing on a nearby course saw the accident and called 911.  I don't remember any of this because my brain lacked the amount of glucose it needed to record what I was experiencing.  The number of things that had to happen just right to generate these events and their improbably benign outcome is staggering to me no matter how many times I go over it in my mind.  I could have so easily been seriously hurt or died, or even worse, crashed into another car and tragically altered the life of another person or an entire family.  But instead, I lay in the ER waiting to be discharged as the sheer insanity of the day washed over me.

     I was physically fine and my car needed to be replaced, but the fallout from this near disaster had a few other wrinkles.  The most significant was the school's response:  because I left the campus without signing out in the office, I was suspended from teaching the day after the crash while the school investigated the incident.  The irony of this is, even if I had been completely aware of my actions as I left the school, no one had told me about the sign-out rule, so I wouldn't have done it anyway.  Thankfully, the building principal understood the situation, cleared my return with human resources, and I was back teaching on Wednesday.  I really can't imagine where my professional career would have ended up had this decision not gone in my favor.  

     There were two other long-term consequences worth noting:  I have never listened to "Pride (In the Name of Love)" since that day.  If it comes on the radio, I turn it off immediately.  The bizarre feeling of what happened in those hours, so much of it when I was in a state of altered consciousness, is triggered by even writing the name of the song.  At least it's not a tune I like that much to begin with-- and it hasn't stopped me from enjoying the rest of U2's impressive catalogue.  The other lasting impact was that on every first day of class with new students, I tell them about the fact that I am diabetic. Always better to be safe than sorry, even though a situation like the one described above would almost certainly never even come close to happening again.

     There are so many possible "morals to the story" here.  Pack your lunch.  Call your spouse as soon as you realize you'll be late.  Double check the school schedule.  Seat belts save lives.  I'll leave "don't trust a room full of teenagers to respond appropriately when something bizarre happens" off the list because, ultimately, the onus was and is on me to be prepared for a low blood sugar scenario while at work.  I'm just grateful that learning this lesson the hard way came in the form of an unbelievable story that, by the grace of God, I lived to tell.

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