Crossposted on Tikkun Daily
by Lauren Reichelt
Meet Mr. G. He's been teaching high school in Santa Fe.
- Mr G.
You might ask,"Is that a neck brace
Now that you mentioned it, yes. Mr. G. is
wearing a neck brace.
This is the story of how, after an excruciating year of teaching, Mr. G. discovered he'd been standing at the blackboard with multiple neck fractures.
And stage 4 cancer.
He kept teaching until he was unable to stand on his feet.
Mr. G. grew up in Gary Indiana, which he calls "the South Side of the South Side." For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago, the South Side was where most of the housing projects were located.
Gary, a steel town, was not known for its lovely, fragrant aroma or its charming little cafes.
Mr. G.'s father was a Mexican immigrant and a steel worker who died when Mr. G. was still young. "The Union took care of us," Mr. G. told me. "My older brothers and sisters got scholarships to great schools through his Union. His survivors' benefits through the union were enough for our family to live on."
Most of Mr. G.'s siblings attended the University of Chicago. I met Mr. G. at St. John's College (a rigorous liberal arts school in Santa Fe whose Great Books program is based on the old University of Chicago Great Books curriculum). We were both Johnnies from working class Chicago. Mr. G. was the roughest, toughest student at St. John's. Most of our classmates came from upper-middle class homes. Their parents were lawyers, doctors, accountants, or corporate CEOs. Mr. G. was the only Johnny who was the son of a steel-worker.
After graduation, Mr. G. started law school. He quickly switched to education because he didn't like arguing, and he preferred a therapeutic approach to life's problems. Mr. G is a strong proponent of public schools. He especially wanted to make a difference to the children of immigrants. Up until last year, he taught math in Spanish to high school students who have emigrated from Latin America.
Most of his students come from Mexico. Most speak very little English.
Mr. G. encourages students to visit after classes or after school if they need special help. He leaves lots of time for questions in class. He teaches everything from remedial math to Calculus. He takes a personal interest in his students' lives.
It shows. When we went together to see fireworks a few years ago in Santa Fe, carloads of students flagged him down, yelling, "Mr. G! Over here! Good to see ya Mr. G! Que pasa!"
Mr. G. incurred the wrath of his school administration to preserve the integrity of bi-lingual education and to keep his class sizes small. When the principal ignored him, he turned to the union for help. "It was crazy!" he said. "They were packing 50 kids into each class. It doesn't make sense to assume that 50 adolescents are going to learn at the same pace and all sit quietly in their seats hanging on my every word. It just doesn't work that way!" The union sent an arbitrator out. Eventually, the administration agreed to limit his class size and to stop packing so many students into classes that teaching could not occur.
"I'm grateful to the Union," Mr. G. told me. "The Union looked after my family when my father died. We all got educations...all
of us! Without the Union, my classes would have become a joke! I can't provide kids with any sort of personal attention fir the classes grow too large. I can't teach at all if they are too large. Oversized classes are nothing more than warehouses for unwanted students."
Then his back and neck started to hurt to the point that he couldn't lift a box or write on the board. He asked his students to help out by moving objects for him. When he couldn't stand anymore (and I mean that literally) he went to the doctor. After a few visits, his primary care physician discovered multiple fractures in his back and neck.
Nobody knew what caused them. He was ordered to undergo tests, and learned he had unusually high amounts of calcium in his blood and urine. That's because his bones were disintegrating. Mr. G. was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incredibly aggressive form of bone marrow cancer. He had reached stage 4. "I was wondering why I didn't feel well," he laughed. "Basically, I was teaching with a broken neck and cancer." He would have to quit immediately and undergo a complete bone marrow transplant.
Mr. G.'s grateful students pitched in. Some of them came over to clean house. Bone marrow transplant recipients are especially susceptible to infection, and their houses must be spotless. Mr. G. was never neat. But his students wanted to express their gratitude toward him for always being there, even when it cost him.
Mr. G. believes he is alive today because of his teacher's union. "My insurance covered my transplant," he confided. "I wouldn't have had medical care without the Union."
Lauren Reichelt is the director of Health and Human Services for Rio Arriba County in Northern New Mexico, and blogs on health care issues for ePluribus Media and Daily Kos as TheFatLadySings.
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