Most of my autumns are sustained by Nyquil, Sudafed, Ibuprofen, vegetable beef soup, and peppermint tea. Although I cherish Fall—its colors, scarves, and general crispness (like the first time you see your breath in the air)—my sinuses get thrown on the seasonal altar every year. And year after year, as my throat goes raw and my skull swells, I breathe a sigh of relief. There’s such a palpable comfort that resides in this season. Fall is the season of change—new sweaters and a new box of crayons. A new football season and a new school year. But the same old head cold.
In beginning a new career, I would hardly expect that perennial nuisance to leave me be. So, a few weeks into the school year, I’m hit hard with pained sinuses and a general fogginess about my head. In the past, when I’ve been sick, I’ve been able to zombie my way through class or work. Now, on the other hand, faking it has become harder and harder. My attention span is significantly stunted when my head is full. The odds of spacing out are drastically heightened. Sound and vision become increasingly smeared beyond recognition. Everything becomes a tired blur and I feel like I’m living behind cellophane.
All of this compounds itself into a messy ball of muddled frustration and fatigue as one student walks briskly up to me ten minutes before the first bell. He comes out of nowhere, like an ADD-ridden apparition. His oversized black hoodie is faded and he pulls the sleeves over his hands, sometimes chewing on the stretched cotton. His close-shaved head glistens in the morning. His eyebrows are high on his forehead and his dark eyes bulge and dart about the classroom.
“What we doin’ today, Powers? Huh? Nothin’? Good! HAHA! Jus’ kiddin’!”
His face is an intimate matter of inches from mine. I blink lethargically and my dry mouth makes a smacking sound. “Um…” I close my eyes and squint hard.
“Seriously though, Mr. Powers, what are we doing?!” His “Mr. Powers” sounds more like “missapows” when he spits it out breathlessly.
His boisterously nasal voice squeezes its way into my right ear and sloshes around a bit, but mostly ricochets through the empty classroom, directionless and muffled. The heat vent on the ceiling is pouring hot air over me in slow motion, and I feel like my entire body is red and throbbing. I look at the blank and empty whiteboard, where the day’s schedule can usually be found and blink again.
“Hey! How come we can’t have like jus’ three classes? I’d go to P.E., English, no wait…” He counts it out on his long fingers. “I’d go like, P.E. and English and Science. No, wait. P.E., English, NO Science, and, and…”
His voice trails off as I notice another student with an anticipatory look on her face.
She asks, “Can I get what I missed?”
“Can I get my work I missed?”
“Um, what work? When were you gone?” I rub my eyes under my smeared glasses.
“HELLO!? POWERS! I was suspended, remember? I was gone? I need my work?”
“Yeah, l’m… let me check...”
As I sit down at my dusty and outdated computer, awkwardly tilting the screen, I strain to remember her name. Jessica, no. Jennifer. No, wait. Lupe?? Other students file in, as the school day approaches. The bell rings.
“Can you ask me later? I can get it for you later…”
Being sick is an easy excuse to use. People tend not to argue with it. People use the excuse every day. It’s used to get out of work, family gatherings, awkward dinner parties, and other unwanted engagements. But for the first time in my life, being sick is genuinely affecting what I do. At the end of the day, if I don’t feel healthier, I can honestly say that I haven’t done my best. That bothers me more than anything. The frustration of not being able to excel at something is far more distressing than the frustration of knowing I haven’t tried my hardest. The wall that being sick builds around me actually gets in the way of a job that requires me to be frenzied and frantic. There are elements, of course, that are still manageable. Some aspects of teaching seem to come so natural at times. Yet the minutia of teaching—the housekeeping and bookkeeping and jarring surprises—make me feel like I’m spinning plates (a task made increasingly difficult with a head full of mucus). The scary thing is that I don’t know if I will notice if a plate drops while my back is turned.
Some days are better than others, but it is clear that I need to find new ways to stay healthy. More hand washing, more vitamins, more juice, more sleep. Sometimes these needs manifest in the form of more coffee, more sleeping in, more getting to work later than planned, and more unplanned evening naps.
Regardless of my health or stamina—whether I like it or not—students will learn new words, copy their friend’s homework, fight for a 4.0, skip class, get dumped, fall in love, bring pot to school, get elected freshmen class representative, get in fights, dye their hair purple, make the football team, get suspended for bringing pot to school, get new cell phones, break their arm skateboarding, get kicked off the football team, get chosen as the student of the month, and show up way too early to talk incessantly at an unsuspecting and unprepared teacher.