The Rest of the Story

The Rest of the Story

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

The Rest of the Story

Jennifer would have caught my attention even if she hadn’t stopped to talk that afternoon. The first couple of weeks in my writing class are always a bit unsettling. The students are a blur of unfamiliar faces, most of them freshmen trying to acclimate themselves to their new environment. When Jennifer approached me with a question after the second day, I was grateful for the chance to connect at least one name with a face.

Her writing wasn’t perfect, but her effort was. She worked hard and pushed herself to excel. She was excited to learn, which made me enjoy teaching her. I didn’t realize then how much she would also teach me.

One Friday afternoon, a few weeks into the semester, Jennifer stopped by after class. She wasn’t clarifying an assignment or asking a question about a paper I’d returned.

“I didn’t make it to career day yesterday,” she said quietly. “I was at the health center the whole day.” I gave her a sideways look, startled. “I’m fine now,” she reassured me with confidence. “It was just a virus.” Then she was gone.

Two nights later, her father called to tell me that Jennifer would be missing a few classes. She had been hospitalized with meningitis. I heard from him again a few days later, and again after that. Her condition had worsened, he said, and it appeared she might not finish the semester at all.

Jenny remained hospitalized, ninety miles away from home. Her mother stayed by her side, camped out in the corner of a cramped hospital room, sleeping night after night on a chair. In the middle of the night, while Jenny slept, her mother sneaked out—but just to duck down the hall for a quick shower.

Grandparents, ministers and long-standing friends all made their pilgrimages to the hospital room. Jenny’s condition grew worse, not better. I was terrified when I saw the pale, emaciated girl who had only ten days earlier radiated life and warmth in my classroom. When her grandparents arrived, she spoke the only words during our visit. “This is my college writing teacher,” she announced proudly, in a tiny voice. I remembered what her father had said in his first phone call: “School means everything to Jenny.”

A week later, Jenny herself called me to tell me she was on the road to recovery. “I’ll be back,” she insisted. “I have no doubt,” I told her, choking back tears. But around the same time, news reports announced the meningitis-induced death of another student at another school. Jenny sank back into her hospital bed.

Then, five weeks later, I walked into my classroom to find Jenny in her seat, smiling as she talked to the students around her. I caught my breath as her rail-thin body approached my desk, and she handed over all of her missed assignments, completed with thought and excellence. The strength of her will to overcome shone out of her pale, weak, eighteen-year-old face. It would be a few more days, though, before I learned the rest of the story.

Jenny’s suitemates, Maren and Kate, were just getting up the Sunday morning that Jenny was dragging herself into the bathroom they shared. She had a horrendous headache and had been throwing up all night. Forty-five minutes later, as the two were leaving for church, she was still there. Maren had a bad feeling about Jenny and asked her Sunday school class to pray for her. When they returned to the dorm three hours later, Jenny was still violently ill. Concerned that she was becoming dehydrated, they decided to take her to the emergency room.

The two girls lifted Jenny up and carried her out to the car, then from the car to the hospital. They spent the next seven hours at their friend’s side, tracking down her parents, responding to doctors and trying to comfort a very sick eighteen-year-old through a CAT scan, a spinal tap and myriad other medical tests. They left the hospital when Jenny’s parents arrived but were back the next morning when the doctors confirmed that the meningitis was bacterial. By noon, they had the whole two-hundred-member campus Christian group praying for Jenny.

I credit these two young students with the miracle of Jenny’s life. That same semester, just an hour away on another college campus, two students found a friend in a similar condition—motionless and deathly ill. Instead of getting him to a hospital, they took a permanent marker and wrote on his forehead the number of shots he had consumed in celebration of his twenty-first birthday. Their friend died of alcohol poisoning. Jenny finished the semester with a 4.0.

I remember being asked as a college freshman who I considered a hero. I didn’t have an answer then. Since that time, I’ve learned that I may have been looking for heroes in the wrong places. Ask me now who I admire, and I’ll tell you about a couple of ordinary college students I know.

Jo Wiley Cornell

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