Can You Live With a Brain Injury? A Confession 12/16/2018

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A number of years ago I had my brains bashed in by a police officer.  I had done nothing wrong.  I dropped a co-worker (not a friend) off at a train station after a late Christmas/New Year’s party for our rather small staff.  I was the head of the English Department, a far less impressive title than it might sound (I never thought it sounded like anything other than a teacher who has to lead waste-of-time meetings).  In fact, at this particular school (my second throughout my abbreviated career), there were only three of us who taught the subject, and the other two had one period in between the primary classes they taught.  It was a small, rather noble program we all worked within.  It was a very intense and difficult job where we taught both 8th and 9th grade English and Math classes, along with the standard other primary subjects, to about 150 students who were a year behind, for non-academic reasons.


We will get to what happened to my head in a little while, because I wish to expand on the responsibilities (and occasional joys) I used have in my life before it was so abruptly changed.


The non-academic reasons these students faced had a wide range of experiences, some mistakes on the school district’s part (immigrants placed in the wrong grades because they were considered less capable than they turned out to be), others plunged into the horrors of poverty-stricken urban life (as a young child one of the students watched his father beat his mother to death with a hammer.)  The remaining situations were more understandable, ultimately, the fault of the students (one girl, aged 15, was at the time I had her in class, pregnant with her third child).  But they were generally smart, if troubled, kids, and most of the time they were a lot of fun to teach.


Some of the students were sullen, or angry, or just did not care about their future.  But this is in no way different than any other school, anywhere, throughout America and, no doubt, everywhere else in the world.  My job, other than providing them with the opportunity for greater understanding of the world, was to draw them out of their frequently bitter, and usually traumatized shells.  I was the English teacher and, in either the 8th or 9th grade sessions, I taught every single student in our program.


The job of an English teacher, if done correctly, encompasses any and every subject of both academic and social interest.  Most English teachers, of course, are arrogant control freaks, demanding their own stuffy perspective from everyone they encounter.  Sometimes these people are smart, and almost always they are angry, timid, or bitter, their lives having wound up here instead of the once higher dreams they had had for themselves.  Often these were the people who were bullied in school, and their entire agenda is based upon an idea of revenge against the modern-day bullies that are nominally under their control.  There is a pettiness to English teachers, usually, as they follow a very strict regimen of statistics and poorly articulated lesson plans, with the end goal being a certain average score for their classes on standardized test scores.


I didn’t teach that way.  My lesson plans tended to be complex narratives articulating an independent idea that was so overwritten that the administrators simply could not read it.  I wrote it far over their heads, peppering it with words they had no reason to understand, and such an ambitious document, complete with references to every single required academic standard, every single day, in every lesson, allowed them to scan the document for the numbers, and move on to the next one, satisfied.


In the classroom I was always on stage.  I played different characters from class to class to class, using the second time I had some students in the far more academic 8th grade classes as bait, confusing them a little as I integrated a bipolar stance, both satisfying and confusing everyone.  This was personally exhausting, but kept even the most detached student interested in what was going on; in what I might do next.  They thought I was crazy.  They considered me very smart.  I was nearly everyone’s favorite teacher.  This allowed me to teach them what I believed the most important thing they would ever learn.


I taught them to find their voices.


The papers I had them write were generally far less about the literature, and more about how their personal experiences have formed them.  Nearly everything was a writing prompt, an attempt to get them to expose themselves a little, to be honest about exactly who they are, and to give them a deeper understanding of the person they wished to become.  We had these required meaningless little openings we called “Pre-class assignments,” which was the first thing they would do upon entering class, seeing whatever question I wrote on the board and writing a few words on the topic.  To me these were very important.  They would set the tone for whichever direction we were going that day.  Similar to what I do here, I focused on some very specific topic, usually provocatively, and interested, offended or caused the students to laugh at the brashness of what I wanted to discuss.


Usually I spoke on social issues or current events, not looking to convert anyone to my way of thinking, but in an effort to collect their divergent beliefs.  I would ask about abortion, about racism, about the vagaries of politics that teenagers generally have absolutely no interest in.  I would go after popular culture, technology, the importance of science and history, and the general state of the world as we all saw it.  Delicately I would ask them about religion, about the importance of faith, about out-of-context quotes from the various bibles, and what they thought happened after we die.  I have an interest in physics, in the cosmological reasons for the world, and stated repeatedly that black holes were the engines that moved the universe.  There were even debates on sports–in those days Kobe versus LeBron, or Kevin Durant as the next best thing.  Basketball was central, because no one really liked baseball other than me, and football is not my strong sport.  None of us cared about hockey, and interesting boxing matches were getting increasingly few and far between.


I would do entire units on genocide, or conspiracy theories, or how the world might end.  In more recent times some of my former students have contacted me on Facebook and told me that I was “the first person to tell (them) the truth about (themselves).”  I was very blunt, very honest, and I allowed them to swear both in their papers and out loud.  I didn’t care.  They couldn’t offend me, and it was a losing battle anyway.  Besides, allowing it took some of the magic away that they experienced with other teachers who made that rule number one in their classes.  Not caring caused it to diminish.


Anyway, all that was gone after I was assaulted.  I hadn’t even done anything wrong.  My subsequent lawyer defined it as “wrong place, wrong time, wrong person.”  Here’s a brief rundown on what happened, culled together by vague flashes of memory and the organized testimony I worked on with my attorneys:  After my co-worker left the car and walked into the train station, I saw the flashing lights of a police car behind me.  This was a rough part of town (it has since been gentrified, allowing us to sell our house for more than twice what we paid for it), but shit, I was city folk.  I’d lived downtown for more than twenty years.  I was properly jaded.


The car pulled up behind me.  What the fuck?  Two officers got out.  Respectfully I waited.  I was sober.  I was in a sports jacket and tie.  I was a high school teacher.  I hadn’t done anything wrong.


The officer tapped my driver’s side window with his club, an ominous sign to be sure.  The first thing he asked me was, “Got any heroin in the car?”


“Uh, no . . .” I responded.  It turns out I was at one of the top supply corners in the entire city.


“Get outta the car.”  I complied.  While this one questioned me, the other, a big motherfucker, way too old to be in uniform in a drug den, clearly having done more than one thing wrong throughout his career, began rifling through my car.  He tossed papers and insurance cards and registration certificates, bills from auto shops and several packs of gum all over the place.  My interviewer asked me, “Got any contraband?”


“No, but I am a type one diabetic.  I have an insulin pen in my inside pocket.  May I get it out and show you?”


He nodded.  I went for it.  The big thug, who no doubt saw and heard this conversation peripherally, raced out, grabbed me, then began repeatedly slamming my head into the metal roof of my car.  I briefly lost consciousness and did not remember the next three days.  I have no idea how I got home.  I did not go to the hospital.  My wife tells me that I was crying and shivering incoherently.


Somehow I went to work on Monday.  I have no memory of this.  On Tuesday, around third period that morning, one of my favorite students came up to me and shook me and said, “Mr. —–?  You been sitting on a desk starin’ at the wall for like . . . twenty minutes.  You okay?”


I left work shortly thereafter and went to the hospital.  I never returned to work.  I did not remember the student’s name who roused me.  I did not know where I was.  I am not even sure that I told anyone I was leaving, or just disappeared, leaving the school without someone to cover the next five periods.


I forgot my daughter’s name for a while.  I did not recognize my wife, although I sensed she was important.  My son I recognized, as well as my dog, who was the most sympathetic.  I spent four days in the hospital, undergoing a series of increasingly uncomfortable brain scans (an MRI, if it is not open aired, which this one was not, is like shoving your grapefruit-sized head into a tight space exactly its size; if you are not claustrophobic, which I already was, you will be after this test.)  Everything was a blur, and filled with terror, and I was suddenly booked for endless doctor’s appointments with neurologists and neuro-psychologists and shrinks and people giving me conflicting pills, and physical therapists, and my whole life became an endless waiting room, and I did not seem to be getting any better.


At home I was constantly in a confused, frustrated rage.  Two people would talk at the same time and my head felt like it would explode.  This persists to this day, and my children are now argumentative teenagers.


The worst–the absolute worst thing that has come out of this for me is that my children never got to know me.  All they have seen since they have been old enough to remember is a shattered husk who can no longer function in the larger world, and who sits here, snidely condemning everything with the hopes of being rational about my criticism.  The writing itself is really a form of self-therapy, an attempt to regain clarity about the circumstances we all must face in this world without descending into tantrums and irrational rage.  This is much more difficult than you may think.  It is very hard, sometimes, to maintain a singular thought (for those of you who may have read a number of these pieces, you may find the occasional jarring inconsistency to my thinking, which remains no matter how hard I might edit.)


The worst thing about a head injury is that it can turn even the most arrogantly self-confident person into someone plagued with doubt.  It is less the permanent damage, those daily struggles and frustrations that all of us deal with, some better than others.  It really is the emotional response–the self-loathing, the hopelessness of never being able to thrive again.  This is what happened.  This is where so many of us damaged and deranged individuals find ourselves, forever frustrated, believing ourselves entirely ruined and not worthy of going on.  Serious psychiatric conditions can develop, brain chemicals not flowing as they are meant to.  We often feel like dying and sometimes even believe we are already dead.  We hallucinate, hear voices, descend into uncontrollable paranoia and sadness.  Life like this is often hell, not just for yourself, but for everyone forced to endure you.  I can no longer count the number of times my wonderful and loyal wife has threatened to divorce me.  It would probably be better for her, and the children for that matter, if she did.  Then I could sink into the broken snuff that remains of my life and feel free, no longer a burden, trapped inside this computer and confessing deep and terrible things.


This is the most personal account I will probably ever give here, on Recording Editorial History.  Even this, of course, is an editorial, my beliefs on the condition I will forevermore suffer through, and how I imagine my own helpless misery impacts the others who are slowly ceasing to care.  This is not a suicide note–I am far too arrogant to ever consider such a way out.  But it is the rant of a terribly depressed person who fears that his whole life has been wasted.

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