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Janice's Lesson

Posted: 2006-08-03

Steve's wife Glenda Jo says: Steve wanted to share with you a story he wrote based upon a conversation he had one of his students, he refers to as Janice for the story. It is entitled, "Janice's Lesson." I really encourage all of you to read this story and would welcome any comments for discussion for Steve to read. I met "Janice" today at the WOO and she said the story was "right on target" and she would keep it for the rest of her life.

Glenda Jo and their son Justin welcome words of encouragement. Hit the "Write to Susan" button on the left side of the screen and they will get your comments.


Monday evening, July 24, 2006

Just last week, I wandered into the WOO computer lab to greet our morning students and our beloved instructor, Jerome Beasley.

The lab was intensely quiet as youthful students were glued to their terminals. Each terminal was occupied by a student working intently on GED programs, surfing the Internet, checking out the latest hip-hop song lyrics, perusing personal web pages, or writing e-mail. As always, I said "hello" to each student individually, though hardly a youngster turned their head, absorbed in exploration and discovery. I leave a student alone only after I squeeze a smile out of them while greeting them. The younger students like the way that I call out their name as part of an encouraging cheer greeting. For example, Renard is "Rah'na'rd!" in a deep husky voice. "Hello!" doesn't break Renard's attention, but when I call out "Rah'na'rd!" he turns to me and asks, "Say my name again, Steve." Not until I get that smile of recognition do I move on to greet and annoy the next student.

Greetings accomplished, I was about to leave the room when Janice says, "Steve, I would like to talk with you and ask you a question."

I pulled up a chair, already imagining that she was inquiring about the length of her studies for the GED, or when she could take the test.

The computer lab is small, so individual conversations are actually quite public.

She looked me straight in the eye and said, "Steve, I was listening to you and people around here and it sounds like you are going to die. Are you dying?"

Well, to be honest, I was taken aback by Janice's inquiry.

I always promote candor, but there I was speaking to her, but in actuality speaking with all of the other students who were in the lab at the same time listening. And, you can bet that all ears were on our conversation.

As I looked her in the eye, I saw her tears begin to well up. "My Mom had cancer too."

(The way I was raised up, "cancer" was invoked as a whisper, not something spoken of right out in the middle of a full room.)

"What kind of cancer did your mother have?"

"Same as you, colon cancer."

"Your mother doing?" I asked.

"Oh, she died. That's why I'm worried about you."

(Still trying to protect myself, I muttered sarcastically: "Well, this is certainly very encouraging," and Jerome returned an uneasy smile)

Finally my humanity was rallied. I searched for my bearings.

"Janice, I am so, so sorry. When did your mother pass?"

"Not even a year ago."

I extended my right hand to hers, and she extended hers back like a hand shake. For just a moment, I held her hand in between both my hands, "I am so sorry, Janice. What can we do to be of comfort to you? I am really so sorry that you lost your Mom."

"I don't know, I'm trying to get over it. But when you don't come in, I worry and I ask Corey what is going on, and if you have died or something. I keep thinking that you are going to die too." Janice's eyes were very saddened and bulging with tears which did not flow.

Actually, at the time Janice approached me about this, my medical diagnosis was not as bleak as it is today. So, I told her, "Janice, the cancer I have is serious, but I am fighting it. And, it is not going to take me out like the flick of a light switch. If you don't see me here some mornings, it isn't because something bad has happened to me. I just may have a doctor's appointment or something. Trust me, you and I, and the rest of our class, still have lots more time to spend together."

Janice's concerned face started to morph into a content smile.

"Good, because I just don't want to lose any more people in my life right now."

I could feel some of the other students shaking their heads in agreement.

Janice kept her heart-broken smile, still a glisten in her eyes. Seemingly genuinely satisfied with my explanation, Janice turned away and went back into the writing composition which she was working on at her computer terminal.

Jerome looked at me, nodded his head silently, and we shared a common unspoken understanding that death is the constant companion of our students. They are not spared by age like Jerome's and my generation has been. Death is all around today. There is even a cottage industry called "RIP shirts" which enlarges and transfers portraits of the dearly departed on the front of a shirt or the back of a jacket to honor and mourn the dead. Many students wear them. The older faces succumbed to illness, and the younger faces often met a violent end.

There is so much cancer, illness, and disease associated with poverty, especially the lack of access to proper cancer screening and staging. Around the WOO neighborhood, by the time most folks get to the hospital, the disease has advanced too far out of control, and death is knocking at the door. I have met very few cancer patients from this community in treatment. Most are headed toward hospice, because they were objectively denied access to quality treatment.

Janice's initiative put me on the spot at first, actually leaving me feeling a little bewildered ("I cannot believe that I am having this conversation and in public, no less.").

Soon, I too felt relieved with the honesty and rawness of our conversation. Janice is still reeling and wounded from the loss of her Mom. My situation rekindled her wounds and she needed to talk. Janice offered me the gift to comfort her. And her candor forced me to stare my cancer in the face rather than avoid it. Janice's inquiries left me with a genuine peace of mind, and she imparted a beautiful lesson to me that morning. We are all one, and we all need each other to cope with the harsh realities of our lives. Once again, Janice affirmed that education is happening when we are "...teaching with and LEARNING from the whole person."

As Glenda Jo has written about our coping mechanisms under our roof these days: there are no secrets or hushed words here. Just the raw truth. Come what may.

Thank you, Janice, and I am so very very sorry about the loss of your mother. I can just imagine as a parent though, how proud you must have made your mother feel as her daughter. And, I also imagine that Janice's mother would be very heartened to see her daughter continuing her studies and education today. The possibility of closer bonds are there. I have the unappointed honor of witnessing Janice's progress in behalf of her mom.

Steve O.

(the medicated light night thoughts of a heretic curmudgeon basking in denial)

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