I once had a student named George who had Tourette’s. He sat in the back of my Calculus class so as not to disturb other students.
It couldn’t be helped.
He would make these odd little sounds as if he was lifting a heavy object. His body would convulse. Every now and then his voice would get very loud and he would have what sounded like an unintelligible argument with himself.
Another student came to see me before the first exam to ask if George could be tested in another room. She was embarrassed to make the request but feared that his outbursts would make it too difficult to concentrate. I understood her concern and talked to George.
Conversations with George could be difficult. It obviously was a great inner struggle to express himself. He understood his classmate’s concern and said he would feel more comfortable taking the exam on his own in my office.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s like there’s a ticking in my head,” he said. “It takes so much energy for me to control the ticking and the talking out loud that I can’t concentrate on the math.”
“What about in class?” I asked.
“When I take notes I have difficulties,” he said.
I asked a student I had had before if she would mind sharing her notes with George. One of the offices on campus had some special paper so that she could take her notes and a copy would be imprinted on a second sheet. At the end of each class Janine quietly tore off the bottom sheets and handed them to George.
The change in George in class was immediately obvious. He twitched less, he made less noise, and he was better able to listen to what I was saying at the board. Listening, taking notes, and dealing with the ticking was too much. He couldn’t do all three.
I don’t pretend to know what someone like George has to live with. I don’t even pretend to have adequately represented his situation. But I thought of George yesterday as I was driving to meet a friend for coffee.
I got in the car and backed it out of the driveway. As I shifted into first I flipped on the radio. The Browns’ pregame show was on. Nothing much there. I flipped to another station and began crying uncontrollably. I turned off the radio and it slowed. I turned it back on and it started again. There was nothing special on the radio.
I thought of other times when I’ve broken down like that recently. There are times when something specific triggers a memory of Elena or a feeling of loss and sadness. Those I understand. But I’m beginning to think that my grief for Elena is like George’s ticking. I can control my outbursts but it requires effort. Most of the time I’m not aware of the effort it requires.
These holidays have been exceptionally hard. From Maggie, Kim, and my birthdays to Halloween, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and Christmas. Each one requires a certain amount of concentration to get through.
We have friends and family members who understand this and others who don’t. At Halloween they wanted to make plans for Thanksgiving.
“We just need to get through this week,” Kim would explain. “We can’t even begin to think about that right now.”
Some people understand and some don’t. They don’t feel the ticking. They don’t know what is required this year to just make it through some of these days. We sometimes snap at someone who is just trying to help but is pushing too hard. You have to help us on our own terms. Find out what we need. Take notes for us. It doesn’t have to be a big and public gesture. Quietly tear off a sheet and hand it to us.
With George, I had him come to the small classroom next to my office to take his first exam. I watched as he shook and raised his voice. Halfway through I looked at his paper. He was not doing well. I knew he knew this material.
“Go to the board,” I said.
He did. I asked him to explain to me the first question. “What would you do next?” I asked him. He told me. He explained all but the last question perfectly. He made a standard type of mistake on the last question and was not able to complete it. I marked it as I would any other student and told him his grade for the exam. He thanked me.
For each of the remaining exams, George would show up in my office and we’d walk next door to the classroom and he would take his exam on the board. I wouldn’t clue him in as to whether what he’d just written on the board was right or wrong. It was painful to watch as he would sometimes erase what had been a correct answer in favor of one that was not longer right.
After his final, George stopped in my office to thank me.
“I want to take you to dinner some time,” he said. “I just got my driver’s license.”
I explained why it would have been inappropriate for me to have accepted and wished him well. I thought a lot lately of this man who couldn’t control his outbursts while he was concentrating on other tasks. I’ve thought of him driving while trying to remember the directions to someplace unfamiliar.
I thought about it in the car yesterday while driving and listening to the radio. That second little stimulus that kept me from controlling my ticking.