2: That Clinging Love

2: That Clinging Love

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

That Clinging Love

How mutable are our feelings, and how strange is that clinging love we have of life even in the excess of misery!

~Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

My mother’s two weeks in Intensive Care kept death at bay temporarily, but the Stage 4 cancer that had invaded her bones necessitated interventions that seemed like science fiction. I was teaching Frankenstein to my tenth grade classes at the same time that we were keeping Mom alive by pushing the edges of science.

As my students grappled with Mary Shelley’s vocabulary, I had my own learning curve in the hospital. Each school day for those two weeks, I discussed the scientific morality of Frankenstein, while I took notes in the hospital on the new language of transfusions, chemotherapy, scans, and acronym after acronym. No teacher likes to admit that she’s distracted past the point of effective education, but I was. In class, I’d start pondering CAT scans and lose track of which topic we were covering.

To comfort my mother, I drove to the hospital during my off period, which backed up to lunch, and returned for sixth. Since I’d just given birth six weeks prior, I had no sick days left to take off from school, and we were so broke I couldn’t afford to take an unpaid day.

One Thursday, however, my mother clung to me. She wanted me to stay for the next round of poisons they would run through her veins.

“Don’t go.” Mom squeezed my hand.

“I’ll come after school,” I said. “I’ll just stop home and feed the baby first.”

“Bye, Kristie,” a nurse said, adjusting the morphine above Mom’s IV. Since I spent more waking hours at the hospital than I did at home with my new baby — and almost as many as I did with the teenagers at school — they knew me here. When I glanced at the clock above the nurse’s head, I cursed. I was going to be late for my next class.

I drove ten miles over the speed limit and parked in a spot reserved for guests. When I pushed open the school doors, I heard only muffled noise from classrooms, while the hallways buzzed only with fluorescent light. That meant the final bell had rung at least five minutes ago.

I could be fired for being so irresponsible. Teachers had been sued for leaving classrooms unattended. I ran up the concrete stairs, cursing my post-pregnancy weight gain beneath each out-of-shape breath.

“Yeah, but is it Victor Frankenstein’s fault?” A popular slacker wearing skater-tight jeans stood in front of my British Literature class, writing his classmates’ answers on the whiteboard. He couldn’t have cared less about academics, but he liked poetry because he wanted to be a rock star. He wrote music about having to leave his whole world behind when floodwaters forced his family out of New Orleans.

I stood in the doorway, panting, and let him continue. In an understated but effective style, this young musician continued the conversation about how society creates monsters in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The rest of the students, who could have been lighting fires or getting each other pregnant during this unsupervised time, listened intently.

Bless them.

I’ve never tried to play the superhero in my classroom. I grade papers; I maintain discipline; I solve problems. But I don’t do superhero. My kids know that I lose my train of thought even when my mother isn’t dying nearby. They know I can’t help but laugh at inappropriate teenage jokes. (I try not to laugh, I swear.) They know I cry every time we read the last chapter of The Things They Carried.

“I got this,” my student said.

“Well, then I’m heading back to the hospital,” I said. My class laughed. They could handle dark humor, not to mention frank discussions of life and death, science and responsibility. They could access compassion.


I clung to their loving understanding.

~Kristie Betts Letter

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