It started out like any other day. I was running a little bit late, but that just means I wasn’t quite as early as I usually am. As you know, I like to beat the traffic and get to work when the building is still quiet. I set up the tea station, make my copies and get all my duckies in a row before people arrive. This way I am not multi-tasking, which I’m incapable of anyway. Also I can do my prep with mindfulness and later pay full attention to each person who wants to chat with me before classes start.
When I walked through the classroom door, everyone was seated already. They were talking and reading newspapers. I greeted them all. I felt good. I felt cheerful. But soon I noticed that I was having trouble focusing. I couldn’t concentrate. I felt an odd feeling in my body. I realized my thoughts were racing, and my heart was going pretty fast, too. My breathing was too rapid.
My first guess was that this was the result of nearly a month of not meditating. (You know how new relationships can throw you off your routines at first.) I knew I had to slow my breathing down. I felt really funny. So rather than continue asking the students how they were, I plopped down in my chair behind the desk (I almost never sit during class) and closed my eyes. I just started taking deep breaths. I felt an urgent need to quiet my mind so I could–hopefully–focus on the task at hand: teaching the class. Everyone quieted when they saw their normally vivacious, smiling teaching doing something she’d never done before.
In about a minute I opened my eyes and looked around. I felt a bit better. I wrote “meditation” on the board and we had a little impromptu discussion about verb-meditate, noun-meditation, adjective-meditative. The most pious Muslim woman in the room, who has the lowest level of English mastery of all of them, was the only one who seemed to understand what I was trying to convey. She said that she rises every morning before dawn and watches the sun rise from her 23rd floor balcony. She does this every morning. It centers and calms her. She didn’t say it, but I know she also prays.
I thought that might be the end of it and that we would be able to continue with the lesson. I tried. But before I knew it, something else odd was happening. I felt rage rising in me toward one student in particular… a student who is very high maintenance. He has multiple disabilities and requires a lot of help. Sometimes other students help him; sometimes I do. When he started in with his usual list of extra demands on my energy and time, I snapped at him! Then I couldn’t believe what had just come out of my mouth. What the hell? Have aliens invaded my body? What’s going on??? It was when I started peeling off my cardigan on this 45 F morning that I finally clued in.
I was having my second ever hot flash. I don’t know if I was pre-menstrual or not since there is no regularity to that anymore. Mood swings. It all started to make sense. I went out in the hall to take a drink from the fountain and again started to lose my ability to think or focus.
I couldn’t teach.
When I popped my head back through the door, one especially sensitive and caring woman noticed I wasn’t myself. I whispered to her a hint at what I thought was happening. “I’m going to be 50 in July,” I said. She knew what I was getting at. That’s how she is: very bright and very caring.
“What can we do to help?” she asked where the other students could hear her.
I do not easily ask others for help.
But I was desperate. And I felt incapable of continuing the lesson.
“Well,… let me think. Ok. I’m going to put some discussion questions on the board. Could you all put yourselves in discussion groups of 3-4?”
Okay, I thought. Pick one student and try again.
“Samir, would you help everyone get into groups?”
It’s something we’ve done a million times. They know how I do it. They know where to move the chairs. They know not to put all strong students together or all Arabic speakers together, nor all Mandarin speakers together.
I turned my back to the class hoping Samir would take the baton I was handing off.
Samir asked one question; I don’t remember what it was.
“You decide,” I said. “I trust you. Just do it.”
I turned back to the board to do the one thing I felt cognitively capable of: copying questions from my lesson plan sheet to the white board.
When I turned back around, the eleven students had divided into three groups. Each group had one of the three strongest students taking the lead, helping the lower level learners understand the questions. I heard Samir saying, “No pencils! No dictionaries!”
Hell, I’ll bet the students I can never get to set down their pencils and electronic dictionaries will listen to their peers! This is better even than when I do it.
A feeling of deep gratitude and relief swept over me. I was able to walk out, stroll down the hall, get a drink of water or anything I needed because the class was under control. That’s when I realized I was about to weep.
The students debated the discussion questions until the end of class. I thanked them over and over. One came up to me and said to let him and his family know if I needed anything at all.
“You’ve already helped me. Thank you,” I said.
“No, I don’t just mean here in class. In your life. If you need anything at all, just say it.”
This is the blessing of a class that has bonded like a family. Other teachers (and there are other teachers going through this very same thing this year) have to excuse themselves, call in the Teaching Assistant to supply, and go home. My students take over the teaching!
I spent the lunch hour cocooning (after receiving moral support from my sweetie via Facetime and from two other instructors going through their own hormone-driven issues) and by the time my second class began, I was in better shape cognitively. I was still feeling a bit rough around the edges, but knew that I could get through it because my afternoon class of only 9 students and I are equally close and bonded.
I was not, however, prepared to deal with the new T.A. when he showed up to “help” me, as the schedule dictates he do every Tuesday. I tried hinting that I was feeling a bit stressed, but he didn’t get it. So I placed my hands on his shoulders and turned him toward the door.
“Are you kicking me out?” he asked.
“Yes, please find another class to help today.”
I really couldn’t believe I’d just done that. I am usually so careful with others’ feelings. But I knew exactly how much energy and patience I had left; it was just enough for the lesson and no more.
As soon as he was out the door, I told my students, using gestures, simple language and Google translator (menopause is إنقطاع الطمث in Arabic) what was going on with me. They were very supportive. We let our hair down and had a fun, relaxed lesson on prescription medicine bottle labels. Once again, I got through the day because of the quality of relationships I have with my students.
When three o’clock finally rolled around and I had locked up the class, I just felt such deep gratitude. Had my brain come back online in time, I could have thanked them.
I’ll thank them tomorrow, I thought. Although I wanted nothing more than to be home in my comfy sweats, a tee shirt and maybe a glass of Moscato in my hand, my first thought was to pick up a big thank you card and address it to all of my saviors. Then I knew what I wanted to do.
As I drove through the Arab quarter, I looked for a particular word on shop windows. I’ve learned a bit of Arabic from the students. I pulled into a 2-hour parking spot when I saw the word and went inside the shop. I came out with their largest box of baklava.