After 25 years of driving, I forgot what to do at a red light. It wasn’t that I was distracted or in a hurry. My brain was desperately searching for the answer – brake! I had done it a thousand times before at red lights. It was second nature, an ingrained part of knowing how to drive. What had caused me to lose such a basic thought process? Chemotherapy. Those amazing drugs that saved my life were now wreaking havoc in it. But that’s not the point.
What matters is that it lead me to the most amazing revelation. Is this what it feels like to do something over and over and not be able to commit it to memory? Is this panic similar to the feeling my special needs students say they get in the pit of their stomachs when, once again, they don’t remember what they were just taught? I am walking in my students’ shoes!
It’s been written that empathy is sympathy put into action. As a special education teacher, responding to the needs of students as unique and individualistic as snowflakes in a sea of white was my job. Before chemo, I sincerely tried to empathize with my students and their families, offering support as best as possible with knowledge and best practices. Now, I offer me.
To my students’ parents I empathize with the exhaustion, monetary stress, and family disruption. To my students I empathize with the frustration and challenges of a memory that sometimes cheats me out of the most basic information. And to my colleagues, I appreciate and admire their patience, with me and with our amazing students.
There is an Indian proverb: “Oh Great Spirit, grant that I may not criticize my neighbor until I have walked a mile in his moccasins.” Maybe we should all try to take a stroll in each other’s moccasins once in a while.