Slice of Life
A few years back the faculty decided that we wanted more time and opportunity in settings like Monday Morning Meeting to talk about some of the things in life that define us, or that have made a big difference. These might be experiences, or values, or relationships, lessons learned. All of us think a great deal about these matters in our personal lives— they take up a lot of emotional and intellectual space—and Paideia should be a place where some of this can be shared. It’s a way of learning important things from each other, a legitimate part of what should be the larger curriculum of the school.
Over the years teachers and students have volunteered to discuss one aspect of their lives important to them. A slice of their life. Let me give a few examples: one teacher once spoke about why sports were so important to her growing up and still are; another talked about life in a English boarding school. Students have talked about an equally wide range of topics, such as everything a boy learned working afterschool with maintenance, or overcoming social fears, or the joys of hunting live game with a bow and arrow.
By Paul Bianchi, Head of School
I was a sophomore in college, 19 years old. I was not a crazy person, but I was driving myself crazy with a classic sophomore slump. I had most of the symptoms: stress, existential angst, and lack of direction now that I had previously directed so much of my life getting to a college like Harvard.
I was not used to asking for help, but I knew I wasn’t helping myself at all, so like the teenage boy of my generation skulking into a drugstore to buy condoms, I skulked into the college counseling center and asked for an appointment. I met with Dan Fox, an assistant history professor who for some reason was also a part-time therapist. After the first session with Dan, I realized with a little disappointment that I was not entirely cured, so I signed up for the next week, and then, again, the week after that.
Dan and I had been meeting for a couple of months, and while I wasn’t feeling much better, at least I wasn’t feeling any worse. One day I was yakking away at Dan, and he was fiddling with his pipe, cleaning it, filling it with tobacco, --doing all the things that therapists are supposed to do-- when I said something to the effect that maybe I felt a certain way because I had grown up handicapped.
Bingo! Dan was a low key guy, but I could tell right away from his reaction that I had finally said the right thing, stumbled on what he had probably been waiting for me to say for months. He put down his pipe, paused, and said. “Do you think maybe we should talk about that… it might be important.”
We should talk about it? I never had talked about it, never talked about being handicapped. When I was five years old I had contracted polio, only four years before the Salk vaccine became available and wiped out the disease in this country. I had grown up with the paralysis polio had left me with: there were long hospitalizations, physical therapy, crutches, partial school days in first and second grade, an operation in the eighth grade that made me miss the entire school year. My parents were able to take good care of me, and they also had the good sense not to over-protect me. But in our family we never talked about my handicap. It was like the elephant in the living room, something everyone knows is there but no one mentions.
I’m not sure why we didn’t talk openly about it. I might have been worried that talking about it would make my condition more real, or more permanent. Maybe my parents felt that talking about my handicap would make me feel worse; also, maybe they, like me, didn’t know what to say. What do you say about an elephant in the living room? “Sorry about that elephant in your living room….Sure is big”?
But, of course, just because it wasn’t talked about didn’t mean that we, especially me, weren’t thinking about it and living with it every day. I had gotten used to hiding under the bed on this issue, and after a while hiding became a habit. Of course, the trouble with hiding under the bed is that it’s really dark under there, and sometimes scary, and not that much fun. You can’t move--you’re stuck, stuck under the bed, stuck hiding.
It was good for me to start talking with Dan Fox about the effects that polio had on my life. Being handicapped was not, I thought then and I think now, the only story of my life, but it was important, and until I understood it better, understood what I had gone through and still lived with, it would loom too large. Like that damn elephant, it was taking up too much space.
Being notably and noticeably different from other kids when I was growing up, I spent a lot of energy figuring out how I could be included, how not to be left out. When I was 13, I had a series of operations. I remember looking at the City of Boston outside my hospital window and thinking “crap, those people out there have lives and they are doing things; I’m stuck in here watching dust particles drift around in the afternoon sun and bad soap operas. I want to be out there.”
If I had a more solitary temperament and liked spending time with myself, maybe reading or collecting stamps, I might not have minded as much, but I’ve never had that temperament. I like to be in the middle of things, or said differently, I don’t mind being alone as long as I have a lot of people to talk to.
When you’re different, there’s a risk of being marginalized. I became very good at developing the skills to make sure that didn’t happen, to make sure that I wasn’t sidelined, left out. For example, I couldn’t play on my 6th grade softball team, of course, but you can guess who was the manager of the team. Every time there was an election—all the way through high school-- I was elected a class officer, often class president. The combination of my personality, my organizational ability, plus the sympathy vote worked in every election. In order to decrease the chances of being excluded in everything happening around me, I became an expert at paying attention to group dynamics.
When there is something different about you, it is hard to know what difference that makes. Let me say again: when there is something different about you, it is hard to know what difference that makes. One of the things I did to figure out what difference it made for me was to watch closely the reaction of other people. Sometimes the reaction of people is subtle and hard to read; sometimes it is so obvious that one would have to be comatose not to notice it.
For example, when I applied for my first teaching job, the director of personnel at a snazzy suburban Boston school system said that he would not hire me because he believed that high school teaching would be too physically strenuous for someone with my delicate condition.
“But I rode a bike around Cambridge all year round for 4 years”, I countered.
“The classroom is different”, he said.
“Gee”, I thought, “who knew that teaching history was more exhausting than riding a bicycle in a New England snowstorm?”
Of course, the personnel director wasn’t really worried about my physical condition. He just didn’t want someone who looked like me spoiling his image of Brookline High School. I guess he worried that I would be bad for his morale. His response to me would be illegal nowadays, and I could sue the school system and get rich, but that was then, and this is now.
Sometimes people are taken aback by someone different, and they say things that just don’t come out right. The writer John Hockenberry, who is a paraplegic in a wheel chair because of a motorcycle accident, recounts the time when he was rolling his wheelchair down the aisle of the airplane, and lifting himself up to get into his seat. The lovely flight attendant observing him and feeling the need to say something, finally asked sympathetically “Do you often think about killing yourself?”
One can be more forgiving about the reaction of children than flight attendants. A few years back I was standing in front of the teacher’s lounge talking with someone when a girl 6 or 7 years old from the lower elementary tapped me on the arm.
“Hi, Lindsay”, I said.
“Paul,” she said, “I’m really very sorry about your legs”, and then she ran off to play.
Then there was Charlie, the guy who ran the mail room at the graduate school I went to. The school had an annual Christmas party and Charlie made a strong alcoholic punch for the whole school to welcome in the holiday season. The punch was called The Velvet Hammer. Some of us were still drinking The Velvet Hammer after the party, sitting on a back stairway when Charlie, who drank even more than everyone else, looked at me and said “You know, Paul, you’re a pretty good guy. You came up a little short in the leg department, but you’re still a pretty good guy.”
Once I was able to talk about my handicap, it helped me gain some perspective on my life. De-mystification is the word now commonly used. I could understand little things like why I hate to go to doctors and do my best never to—been there, done that.
More importantly, I understand how it has probably influenced my personality. Some colleagues and members of my family have been known to suggest that I like to organize things, or to use their less flattering word, “control” things. That probably comes from growing up not being able to control aspects of my life, or being controlled by things I had no power over. I am better at letting go of control than I used to be, and if I live to be 185 years old, I might even end up close to a normal person.
There are some aspects probably more positive than avoiding doctors and being a controlling person. When one of your central worries growing up is that you will be excluded, will be kept out, it can help you develop more empathy for others who are excluded or who have reasons to fear they may be left out. You know the feeling personally.
But I also feel that it is important, or important for me, not to be too certain about what caused what in my life, not to be too deterministic. We are all complicated people, and who we are –what we think and how we behave—come from a lot of places. History teachers tell us that there is hardly ever one cause that explains everything. That is also true of our personal lives.
I don’t spend time every day thinking about the disability that polio left me with. I work and live around it. The handicap is part of my story, but it is not all of who I am. Mostly I think about what’s happening around me at any given moment, the same I suppose as everyone else. I think about this school all the time, about my family, about how to do things I like to do and think are important, how to be with people I want to be with.
I don’t feel sorry for myself and I don’t think I ever have. It’s not that I have unusual courage. On some matters I can be quite cowardly. I just don’t happen to feel pitiful or engage in self-pity.
It probably helps that I have and have had a good life—I have a great family, I’ve been healthy except for the polio— which maybe is like saying “Except for that Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?”, --but except for polio, I have been healthy; I have a successful marriage, one of the best jobs imaginable, and I do something every day that I find fun and worthwhile.
I did come up a little short in the leg department, as Charlie from the Harvard mail room so eloquently put it, but lots of other parts of my life have worked out well. The impact of the polio has been a slice of my life, but not all of it. I grew to understand that once I could talk about it. The experience has made me a big fan of talking through problems. The elephant is gone from the living room.