Ten years ago on this date I was recovering from a head injury and teaching struggling readers when I got news of the terrorist attacks. I’ve written before of the head injury I’d received only 3 months earlier, and while I’d improved a great deal from the initial trauma, I was still nowhere near my former self.
During the past months I’d relearned to read and comprehend again, though my stamina was weak and I’d easily get headaches. I’d studied the school yearbook before returning for preplanning in an attempt to relearn the other teachers’ names, and by now I could remember almost everyone. I still had difficulty finding the words I needed to express myself, but I’d found words came more easily if I relaxed and tried not to become self-conscious about my awkward pauses. I was able to multi-task and hold internal dialogue with myself, two actions that served to make me feel more normal. Overall, I had hope that I was on the mend, and that I might heal completely and return to my former self, although with no prior memory I didn’t know if I’d recognize myself when I got there.
And then 9-11 happened. The television was filled with images of the towers falling, dust-covered people running, family members holding photos, and hospital workers waiting at the loading docks with sheet-draped rolling chairs for the victims who never came. I donated blood when we still thought people would be pulled from the wreckage. I sat crying in front of the TV, broken hearted but unable to change the channel. In those first days it wouldn’t have mattered – there was nothing else on. TV pundits declared the end of humor and irony. Flags appeared on every car, and people I didn’t know talked about the tragedy in the grocery store and restaurants. It felt like the nation’s heart was breaking, and we all drifted through the hours heavy hearted and dazed.
For me, however, the tragedy had an unexpected result as I found myself drifting backwards, the cognitive progress I’d made virtually disappearing. Suddenly I found myself forgetting everyone’s names, unable to express how I felt, and uselessly searching for words I’d learned months before. My head hurt more often, and I spent time staring off into space with no internal thoughts, something I’d not done since weeks after my accident. It felt like I’d taken several steps forward only to have the immense sadness and stress of 9-11 take me backwards.
Now that I’ve fully recovered I realize what an important lesson I learned during that time. When truly learning something as if for the first time, the importance of one’s environment can’t be overstated. Fortunately for me, everyone understood how the sadness affected us all. But our students, whom we expect to comprehend textgs or utilize new vocabulary, might be under very similar stress to what I was feeling; although it might be from a source no one else knows – an impending divorce, the death of a beloved pet, or a parent hauled off to jail. How many of our students do we feel may have learning problems when in reality they are experiencing the same cognitive stress I was? How many of our students experience this stress at home on a daily or weekly basis?
It comes down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . In stressful situations the body prioritizes, and survival wins every time. Learning something new takes a back seat. Stress, whether from anxiety, depression, or extreme sadness, affects our ability to learn. This applies to classroom-induced stress as well – teachers who create stressful environments for their students, either intentionally or unintentionally, change their students’ abilities to learn.
After 9-11 the country gradually began to heal, and I did too. We all were left with lessons learned from the experience. As for me, I learned of the delicate balance that exists between our heads and our hearts.