We humans define ourselves in terms of what we can DO. With CFS you have an existential crisis, cause you think, “If I can’t DO, who or what AM I?”
I walk to the wooden cubbies in my school’s front office to pick up my mail. Usually my box is stuffed with notices, pamphlets, messages from the guidance department, invoices, catalogues, book samples – so much stuff that there’s an overflow box for the Humanities Department on the floor. But I can’t find my name. It goes from Lassiter to Meyers. There’s no Lefelt.
What’s going on? I’ve been working in this high school for 25 years, checking my mailbox every single day. Good morning, I say to the other teachers crowding the office.
They smile vaguely, surprised to see me there. I approach Edie, the secretary I’ve known forever. I can’t find my name, I tell her. I’ve looked and re-looked. She flashes her warm smile but doesn’t answer. Then I remember that I haven’t been receiving my salary checks for a long time. She explains that she’s called the business manager and superintendent many times, but no one seems to know anything.
I try to see the principal, but his office is empty. I stand bewildered. Lost.
I wake up from this recurring dream, feeling like one of the “disappeared” in Argentina, where so many victims of the military junta vanished without a trace. Who am I?
I’d been part of this school community for my whole professional life. I’d taught every course in the English Department: all levels of 9th and 10th grade English; electives like Lively Arts, Poetry, Modern Novel and Satire back in the 70’s and 80’s; most recently Creative Writing and Advanced Placement English. I’d become the writing guru.
One year, when Highland Park decided to move the 7th grade from the middle school building into the high school building, parents rebelled and insisted they’d only agree to the switch if I were the 7th grade English teacher. I was flattered but furious; I wanted to teach upperclassmen, not the little middle school pishers with their raging hormones and concrete thinking and I cried when the principal, who had the right of assignment, gave me the news.
Then I actually came to adore this group of kids, many of whom I taught in grades 7, 9, 11 and 12. I still communicate with some of them. Thank you, Facebook.
I had a reputation in the community for being hard but effective. Some students loved me; some hated me. A sophomore, Kerrianne, tormented me daily with her refusal to do anything in class but curse at me. But Nancy bragged to her mother about how she loved Romeo and Juliet and knew all the dirty jokes because she had Mrs. Lefelt for English. Many wrote me letters from college thanking me for teaching them to write and to love reading.
I advised Dead Center, the literary magazine, which won all kinds of awards, including the much-coveted “Superior” rating from the National Council of Teachers of English. We met evenings in my basement and I baked chocolate chip banana muffins with wheat germ which the staff ate and teased me about the next day in school (she made us healthy muffins!). I started a student-run writing center named a “Center of Excellence” by NCTE. I trained these students during the day in a course I originated and developed called “Writing and Responding.”
The year I retired, the student-editors of the literary magazine wrote the following dedication:
A seeping auratic something with a sense of roughness, the airtight realization that this is now. Ours is a magazine dedicated to magic, to spirit,to Carol Lefelt.
Her gift is the appreciation of a single moment. She has a reverent voice, a majestic voice, a wistful, calming voice. She has a wicked sense of humor, rocking the classroom, subtle, ironic, furious. She knows freedom. She taught individuality.
Though she retired this year, since 1974 Mrs. Lefelt has shocked us into honesty, challenged us with creativity, and inspired us with passion. We emerged from her class with a shining sense of wonder. She taught us rhetoric, style, voice; she demanded purpose. She reveled in freshness of language and originality of thought. Just when we thought we were finished, she’d take her pencil, go through line by line, tightening. We complained, we rewrote, we developed respect for the craft.
Mrs. Lefelt loves poetry, but she owns the memoir. Emotions, narrative, truth in fiction: we sketched our lives, she helped us ink them. In the same way, armed with little more than a word processor and rubber cement, Mrs. Lefelt both revitalized and revolutionized Dead Center during her seven years as advisor. Her editions emphasized the grittiness of the writing and the virility of the art.
Our magazine, textured by memory, echoes Mrs. Lefelt’s respect for the real. . .
Overwritten? Well, surely. But I was good.
I’d feel warm, comfortable. I fit in. I belonged. I had a career. I had a mailbox with my name on it.
I saw parents all over town. In the supermarket and the beauty parlor and the B-B-Big convenience store, people stopped me and asked, “Aren’t you Mrs. Lefelt? My daughter talks about your class all the time!” Steve, the Superior Court Judge, became better known as Mrs. Lefelt’s husband in the homes of Highland Park. I’d taught some of his law clerks. “Are you related to Mrs. Lefelt?” they’d ask him.
I miss dreadfully the sea of eager and intelligent faces I stood before each day. I miss the hilarity, the warmth, the excitement, the probing of a good class; the creativity and honesty of good student writing; the crafting of engaging and challenging lessons; the more personal and private discussions during individual conferences.
In 1990 I became Supervisor of Humanities, which included, at various times, English, Social Studies, Art, Vocal Music, Instrumental Music and the drama program. I didn’t like being a supervisor; I preferred teaching kids rather than hassling with colleagues, but I felt stuck inside the regimented 8 period day, with the same classes in the same order, and I was burning out from all the student writing I took home to respond to and all the lesson planning, so I welcomed the chance to vary my days and focus on something different.
I taught two classes (the highlight of my day), and the rest of the time visited other teachers’ classrooms, wrote observations and evaluations, conducted teacher conferences and department meetings, ordered books and supplies, attended “leadership team” meetings, met with the curriculum coordinator, and led workshops and in-service programs.
Many times I entered the front office where some stranger sat waiting for something: maybe a job interview or a meeting with an administrator to demonstrate a new software package to enhance scheduling or record keeping. I’d known everyone else in that room for years. Unlike this outsider, I was a part of things, an important part. I’d feel warm, comfortable. I fit in. I belonged. I had a career. I had a mailbox with my name on it.
The Flu Shot
At 55 years old, I just faded away.
Then came the cold January morning, the broken heating system, the day off, and the flu shot.
When I finally couldn’t struggle to continue working anymore, I rolled around in my sickbed in fear and panic. Fear and panic from this unnamed illness but also from suddenly being no one, nothing, severed from all my routines, from the people I’d related to every day for 25 years, from the connections I’d made. Who was I now?
My colleagues, ready to start new phases of their lives, celebrated their retirements with special evening dinner parties and lots of hoopla. I was too sick for that. At 55 years old, I just faded away.
I forced myself to attend an after-school farewell party. The Superintendent had assured me I wouldn’t have to stay long, and so I searched my closet for something to wear, since I had lost enough weight that everything looked baggy. Feeling scrawny and wobbly, I walked into the high school cafeteria to enthusiastic greetings from many colleagues but didn’t have the strength to get around to everyone.
After the preliminary chatting and cake-eating, came the speeches. Hey, wait. I didn’t know that I’d be sharing the spotlight with the math teacher who had just died from cancer. Ohmygod. One long detailed eulogy from the superintendent. Then another from her husband. Then from her department colleagues. Not only was I longing for my bed, but I began to feel like the afternoon’s marginalized anti-climax as everyone remembered Letty Bachenheimer‘s long struggle, her determination, her love of teaching.
After all the sniffing back of tears, the Superintendent turned to me. She made a sweet and flattering speech, as did Steve Heisler, my colleague, friend and around-the-block neighbor. They presented me with a few retirement gifts, and then waited for me to say something. Speech? I had to talk?
I have no memory of what I babbled but I know that I failed to thank people for their kindnesses, especially the ones who had taught my classes for the semesters I had been missing. After a 25 year career, I blew the final minutes with some impromptu drivel that glossed over my very real and complicated feelings. For all the years since that afternoon, I’ve regretted that I hadn’t thought to prepare something. There’s a lot I should have said, but at the time, I was so uncomfortable and ill I just wanted to go home. I was in lockdown.
I drive by the school building now and feel little connection. There’s my parking spot; here are the windows of the classrooms in which I taught; that’s the door to the hallway of what used to be the English wing where kids would hide to smoke a joint in the 70’s. I’ve gone inside a few times to see drama productions. There’s the front office; there’s the drinking fountain, the nurse’s office; over there’s the pencil drawing of Bill Donahue, the principal who was murdered by his former student who was also his daughter’s boyfriend in ’87.
But that was in a former life that I can barely conjure on these pages, a sequence of days and weeks and years that added up to something meaningful but now distant and indistinct.
For years the opening of school in September brought an especially powerful depression. But I’ve mellowed with time, and I’m grateful to no longer feel such deep September sorrow and estrangement.
I am also grateful that I actually had a fulfilling career for so many years, unlike many whose disease started when they were too young to have established themselves. I’ve watched videos of youngsters like Jessica (“The World of One Room” !), Sazra (“The M.E. Diaries”), Claire, and Ben. CFS/ME so tragically trapped, restricted and isolated them when they were teenagers. Imagine the profundity of their loss.
Because I worked for 25 years, I also have great health insurance from the state of New Jersey in addition to Medicare, along with a pension. How amazing is that?! Again, so many sufferers younger than me do not have these benefits.
I try to remind myself of this “luck” in my darkest moments of self-pity. Sometimes it helps.