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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

My Agents

As a teacher I have a lot of other teacher friends. I do not, however, have one teacher friend with special agents. I have two.

To be completely honest, I don't even remember how or exactly when my two homeroom students appointed themselves as my agents, but I do know that this would be an exceptionally rough year at school without them.

This whole MS thing (at the risk of sounding obnoxiously repetitive) has gotten significantly worse. In fact, it seems to be getting worse on a daily basis. I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say my priorities have once again shifted (or narrowed). A year ago my daily goals were threefold: to improve as a teacher, to exercise my dog, and to swim. Currently my only goal is to maintain enough independence to keep my job. When I'm at school I am granted at least eight blissful hours of reprieve from my otherwise constant self-loathing on behalf of this damn disease. Teenagers don't allow for such self-indulgent activities; they require constant attention (generally, in one form or another, all at the same time). So from 7:45 - 4:00 my internal monologue resembles as unbalanced washing machine: it is frenetic, overstimulated and unable to rest. There are quizzes to grade and lessons to plan and power points to create and students to counsel about all things non-academic and administrative memos to read and parents to call and papers to edit and....you get the point. Self-pity on behalf of MS does not factor into my daily thought process. At least not until the bell rings. Then my internal monologue resembles more of a broken clothes dryer -- tumbling around and around in circles, wasting energy and never even drying the clothes. It's sort of a mind-numbing type of silent panic that centers on the number of things I need/want to accomplish that my body simply will not do.

It is generally right as the frenetic internal monologue is replaced by this deluge of negativity that my agents show up. And it is almost impossible to fully submerge myself in self-pity mode when they're in my room. To protect their anonymity I'll refer to them as Agent I and Agent K. Agent I is a fair-skinned, blond-haired 16-year-old, slender white girl. Agent K is the opposite: darker skin, braided hair, dimpled cheeks on a not-so-slender black male body. They're an unlikely pair, and for whatever reason this makes me love them even more. Originally, I think they appointed themselves as my agents in order to earn service hours (a prerequisite for graduation in Baltimore City). They'd wash the boards, straighten the desks, pick the paper balls off the floor and stack the books on the counter. I, in turn, would add another hour to their service-learning log and thank them profusely. Somehow, though, between September and now my agents have evolved from student-helpers into personal God-sends (especially ironic considering my current relationship with Him).

I cannot figure out why this has happened.

Sometimes they meet me in the parking lot in the morning. Agent K drags my wheelchair out of the back of my Honda Element, and Agent I puts my backpack and lunch bag on the back. They wheel the chair over to the driver's side of the car and -- once I'm in -- wheel me up the ramp. This makes me sound exceptionally lazy, but the truth is, the walk between the front seat of the car and the trunk is getting harder every day. I sort of shimmy along the side of my car, grasping the side as best as I can for balance -- I refer to this as my spider woman routine because the side of my car is such an integral part of the process. If I attempt to move forward without a proper grasp, I fall -- it's happened on more occasions than I care to admit. When I see my agents in the parking lot in the mornings, the fear of falling in front of students or flipping over in my wheelchair with my heavy bag on the back is delayed a few hours. Once the three of us get into the school building, Agent K fishes my coffee mug out of my lunch bag and hands it to another student who fills it with two cups of green mountain deliciousness that keep me awake through at least second period. We then head into the main office where I sign in while my Agents grab my attendance folder and check my mailbox for me before we head towards the back of the building for a ride up to the third floor via the school's elevator (which looks exactly like a smaller version of the Holocaust Museum's model gas chamber). About ten minutes after entering the building, the three of us finally reach my classroom.

No matter how early I attempt to get to school, I am inevitably one of the last people to arrive in the room. And even though it's always before 8:00 and I'm grumpy and overtired and preemptively overwhelmed with the day etc., there is something about my classroom and the kids in it -- doing homework at their desks, or attempting to copy each other's work without me noticing, or sitting on the radiator talking and laughing and complaining about teachers, or asking me forty-seven inane questions before I even reach my desk -- that always makes me feel like my day is going to be okay.

And usually, depending on the level of irritation that my eighth period class leaves me with, it pretty much is. Especially when it ends with my Agents.

Now, five months into the school year, their hours of "service" to me must exceed 100, and even if I write them the two most glowing college recommendations in the history of college recommendations, I still could not ever adequately express my appreciation to my Agents. They still straighten my room and wash my boards, but they also accompany me to my car and help me with my wheelchair and heavy backpack. At my car, Agent K waits for me to pull myself out of the chair and begin the twenty-minute process of getting myself situated in the driver's seat. He pulls the heavy bag off the back of the chair and places it behind the driver's seat while Agent I hoists my chair into the back of the car. A few weeks ago it was rainy and cold and Agent K's brother was picking them up on an adjacent road at the other end of the parking lot. I offered them a ride across the lot and they both climbed in. They were completely situated, seat-belted and everything, and I was still unable to get my stiff legs to bend and get into the car. (After school my legs are particularly problematic -- sort of like having dead tree trunks attached to my body. Tree trunks that want nothing to do with bending/leaving the ground etc.) Agent K noticed the struggle and offered to help. I responded, "What are you going to do, pick them up and force them into my car?" He shrugged, got out of the passenger seat and walked over to where I was still trying to pick them up off the ground. He then grabbed both legs and picked them off the ground. This motion sent me flying backwards -- so I was lying upside down across the front seat of my car. It also sent me into a fit of laughter. I grabbed the steering wheel, pulled myself up, and directed Agent K to bend my legs before picking them up. He did. The two of us finally got all of my limbs into the car and I drove my Agents the whole fifty meters to their ride on the adjacent street.

Which brings me to the day before winter break. The afternoon routine was nearing the end: Agent I heaved my chair into my car and, as I sat half in and half out of my car telling them to have a fantastic Christmas and New Year's, Agent K stated the obvious in the form of a rhetorical question:

"You need help with your legs?"

Have I mentioned that this part of the afternoon routine is just moderately embarrassing?

"Um, no, I can get them."

Agent K continued, "Right, well I can too."

So I let him help, the three of us giggling at the ridiculousness of the situation. Agent I was giggling harder than usual. Defensively I chided her,

"You know this is ridiculous to me too -- most people who can't get themselves into their own cars don't work!"

She stopped laughing.

"I know, Ms. Hooks. You're an inspiration."

With that, Agent K finally got my legs to bend, I arranged them under the steering wheel and said something that I say too often,

"I love you guys."

I say it so frequently that I question its perceived value, but I meant it so much that day that I was worried I would suffocate with my love for them.

We said goodbye and I backed out of the parking spot. Then, filled with more love and gratefulness than this damn disease allows me to acknowledge very often, I cried the whole way home.