The End of Sanity

The day ended in havoc. My parents were trying to subdue me enough to get pajamas on me, brush my teeth and put me to bed. They were working with my psychiatrist from home to switch my medications. He would call every couple of hours to check on how things were going. Things were not going well. I had descended into a psychosis that would prove to be the end of sanity as I knew it.

It was preventable; it had all been preventable.

Earlier that day, I warned my psychiatrist and my mother that I needed to go to the hospital. However, for reasons having to do with insurance, location and transportation, I was not brought to the hospital – not yet anyway. That trip would come later when an ambulance took me in for traumatic injuries, frostbite and hypothermia. But I am getting ahead of myself.

As my parent’s readied me for bed, the belief that we were all in imminent danger took hold of my mind and would not let go. I believed that the house – or more specifically, the furnace in the basement of the house – was about to explode. You see, the house was a historic landmark built in 1914, and the heating system was nearly that old. So, on that cold, January night, heat percolated throughout the house like fire in the belly of a dragon as the house in turn, belched, gurgled and exhaled heat as though in the midst of some horrifying, fiery indigestion.

In the grip of my belief that the steam heat sounds were signs of imminent disaster, I ran downstairs to the basement to check the thermostat on the furnace. The gauge read 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I called both 911 and the workman, who handled the heating system to report our precipitous peril. The workman assured me that the temperature was normal.   However, 911 was ready to respond, which gave me great relief. Only, at the moment when the person on the other end of the line asked for my address, I lost my nerve, and hung up. When that person called back, my mother got on the line and explained that “my daughter has psychiatric problems,” and that “no, it will not be necessary to come.” No one came.

My parents tried to get me to put on my pajamas, brush my teeth, and go to bed. I followed their commands but the conviction that the house was about to explode never left my mind. Later that night, when my parents were sleeping, I awoke to the smell of smoke, which was likely an olfactory hallucination. Not knowing I was in the midst of a delusion, however, I removed the shutters from the family room window, broke the glass with my elbow, stepped out onto the second story balcony, and jumped.

I continued my quest to find help. I searched the backyard and saw a light on near the coach house, where I lived. However, earlier that afternoon I had gone to the coach house to get a change of clothes and had locked the door behind me. That escape route was a no-go.

I then spotted a light shining like a beacon from the porch of my neighbor’s house. I headed toward the light. Only with my first step, I sunk to the ground in pain. My right leg crumpled beneath me as I realized I had landed on an iron grate and not soft padded snow. I had no choice but to crawl on hands and knees to my destination.

One of the coldest nights of the year, the 14 degrees below zero wind whipped through my cotton-thin pajamas. I made my way through thigh high snow drifts, passed through the blanketed boughs of bushes, crossed a brick driveway, and climbed five steps up to my neighbor’s porch. The cold settled into my bones.

I knocked and cried out, but no one answered the door. The world slept that night – deaf to my cries for help. The real trial had only just begun. Waiting. And so I waited. And waited. My fingers began to turn white. I tucked my feet under my pajama bottoms so my toes might escape that fate but to no avail. By some miracle, my mother had given me pajamas with a hood. I tucked my head and ears beneath it. The warmth overwhelmed me. But I was not to escape unharmed.

As the night wore on, I took in the scene trance-like as a thousand winters passed before my eyes. Heading toward unconsciousness, I made one final effort to call out for help. Still no answer. However, I noticed a light in the sky and renewed my efforts. Within the hour, day broke, and my neighbors opened their door to find me frozen and broken on their stoop.

They wrapped me in blankets. Though I could not see or hear them, I could feel their presence. They saved my life. Sane or no, they saved my life.

Just How Golden is Silence?

Silence is golden. It’s so cliché and yet probably, at some point in our lives, we’ve all encountered moments when we have believed with every ounce of our being that indeed, silence is golden. When we’ve been in a noisy elementary school lunchroom, needed quiet time to study, or been surrounded by people who like to hear themselves talk. In these instances silence IS golden. However, in my efforts to be a better critical educator, I have come to the conclusion that silence is not always so ideal.

Now that I have become more mindful of how I respond when students make judgmental comments, I have realized that my silence is often misinterpreted as agreement. I have tried to be more cognizant of how I respond, especially now that I know that my silence betrays what my inner self longs to say. The trouble begins when I am caught in the moment and am unable to craft a sensible, meaningful, compassionate response. I seem to be unable to think on my feet, and I end up flustered, tripping over my words. The Lord blessed me with many gifts, but spontaneity of speech is not one of them. In fact, it usually follows that after I speak, I become worried that perhaps my silence would have been more “golden” than the inadequate words I uttered.

Let me recount a recent experience to give you an idea of how my fear of saying the wrong thing often paralyzes me into saying what amounts to virtually nothing at all. I was taking my second grade students to their computer lab class one Friday, and the class before us wasn’t quite finished yet. As we stood outside waiting to be invited in to the computer lab, my students noticed that they had a substitute teacher for computer lab time.

“Aww, Ms. Morgan isn’t here today,” I heard some students whisper to one another.

A couple of the boys in my class, however, were quite pumped to have a young male substitute teacher, and they made comments about having never had a “boy teacher” before. It seemed as though the suggestion of a male teacher in the classroom was somewhat foreign to them. In a quiet voice, I reminded them that we had plenty of “boy teachers” at our school, and I started to name off our principal, PE coaches, and others when I was rudely interrupted by one of my students who commented that the only boy (adult boy that is) at the school was the janitor.

In an attempt to help him – and his classmates – understand that we can learn from people in all kinds of positions, I asked, “Well, can a janitor be a teacher?  Can you learn something from your janitor?” To which the boy offensively replied, “Yeah, I learn something from my janitor every day. . . that I don’t want to be one!”

Of course, his classmates laughed and snickered at his comment, while I found myself aching to interject something meaningful. But I was at a complete loss for words. Why was I, a seasoned teacher, not able to say something that might cause this young boy and his classmates to re-examine their belief systems? Was I afraid I might say the wrong thing? Was I worried that it would lead to a risky discussion? I’m still mad at myself for not having the perfect “comeback” to the boy’s snide remark. My belief system was screaming at me on the inside because what he said was hurtful and judgmental, but why did I struggle so much with what to say?

In retrospect, I can think of all kinds of things I could have said to inform my students about things we can learn from our janitor: how to fix desks, how to work a walkie-talkie, how to use equipment to safely move large objects, how to keep spaces clean, how to be sanitary, how to schedule jobs, how to earn the respect of others. The list could go on and on. But that’s just it. The lessons aren’t nearly as powerful after the fact. I’ve discovered a need for myself as an educator. I need some training on how to be a more critical educator and what to do when I find myself wading through the murky waters of social justice issues. I want to prove to myself that what is golden is not silence but an ability to speak words that transform the minds of students and allow them to see situations differently. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” I couldn’t agree more.