[Hospital Teacher is the pseudonym of a third-year teacher now in her second year as a hospital school teacher in Manhattan.]
The saying goes: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But I say don’t forget about it either. Sometimes it’s the small things that make a big difference.
For the past year and a half I’ve had the opportunity to teach on the pediatric oncology floor at a major hospital in New York City. I work with kids of all ages and cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. What unites all of these children is one very devastating reality: cancer.
Some mornings I come to work and hear screaming even before the elevator door opens. The children are often in pain and reacting to the numerous horrible side effects of chemo-therapy. Mouth sores, nausea, loss of appetite and extreme fatigue are all a part of the treatment process.
Where do I come in? As a hospital educator my job varies case by case, but at best I hope to provide some sort of distraction, normalcy and control to patients and their families. The most memorable moment from my first week is how eager some children were just to write their name and date at the top of their paper. The last thing I expected from a nine year old battling leukemia was to tell me that she expected biweekly spelling exams. The next to last thing I expected was a high school student on the intensive care floor to sit up through three Regents exams and pass with flying colors.
This job has given me a whole new perspective. The children here will say the most profound things. During a read-aloud, on the way back to their rooms, or even from their beds, the children whisper of “small things.” Last spring one little boy asked me what it felt like to hold your breath under water. Another time a little girl and I made a dress together because she had always wanted to. These whispers of little things – swimming, dress-making, driving a car, being sent to your room, eating a Frosty, even wearing shoes – are all hugely important.
Children are resilient and brave. I could not pick just one child who has been the most inspirational. The cruel juxtaposition of a child’s innocence and a deadly disease is very hard to deal with. However, learning happens all of the time, all over the world, in many diverse settings. Helping children to learn in this setting has been a truly magical and unique experience. I am thankful for teachers everywhere for making education a very “big thing.”