Mrs. George
  by William L. Rush

 

    I first met Mrs. George, the teacher for Dr. J. P. Lord's new high school, in a small room designed for one teacher and one student.       

     The room had been converted into a classroom for four teenage boys.  Three of us were in wheelchairs and one walked with a cane.  Those of us in the class had a variety of medical problems.  The student with the cane was legally blind.  As for the three in wheelchairs, one was the victim of a gunshot wound in the head, one had muscular dystrophy, and one had cerebral palsy.

      I was the one with cerebral palsy.  When I tried to vocalize, Mrs. George kidded me by saying that it sounded like the mating call of a bull moose.

      Each of us had different academic and emotional needs, ranging from preparing for college to preparing for death.  Mrs. George did everything she could to help the first class of Dr. J. P. Lord High.

     Mrs. George, in her fifties, was about five feet tall, had graying black hair (which turned a lot more gray by the end of the school year), olive skin and a high-pitched voice.  She had a habit of talking too fast, and she ended her explanations with, "Do you see that?"

     She greeted us the first day of school with a cheery, "Good morning, you guys.  This room was thrown together at the last minute, but I think we'll do okay.  This high school is the first of this kind in Nebraska, so we are pioneers.  Pioneers have to put up with a few troubles.  I understand all of you know one another except Bill and David.  David, this is Bill.  He has cerebral palsy.  He left school about the time you came, because this school didn't offer high school then.  Bill, David is a Hawaiian transplant, and he has muscular dystrophy.  He'll be nineteen on May 6.  We'll have a birthday party with dancing girls."

     I wondered if she knew what muscular dystrophy was.  I knew that David wouldn't last until his birthday.  He already had more birthdays than most suffering from this disability.  Already his lungs were affected, which meant his breathing would require effort all year.

     "Now I'll get you started on what I want you to do.  I have expectations for all of you, do you see that?" the new, idealistic teacher stated.

     When she came to me, I was classifying rocks to fulfill a requirement in earth science.  Sitting down beside me, she said, "I hear you have been taking correspondence courses from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and haven't gotten very far for the past three years.  I know these courses are bear-cats and take a lot of time.  But I will help you with them, and we will shoot for graduation next spring.  Also, I'll feed you lunch if that's okay with you.  I know you would rather have one of those young chicks that are just out of college, but you're stuck with the old hen.  Do you have any questions?"

     "I don't think David will make it to his birthday.  His lungs are too weak, and these winters are hard on anybody," I spelled out slowly on my letter board with a stylus attached to my head, commonly referred to as a headstick.

     "You and I know that, but he doesn't know that.  Just as you want that diploma, David wants his nineteenth birthday cake."

     Mrs. George was true to her word.  I completed courses and started new ones at amazing speed.  However, David worsened during the holiday season.  He was afraid to go to sleep at night for fear that he wouldn't wake up.  So Mrs. George let him sleep in class saying, "We have hospitals across the street, and if we have to visit them, we can be there in five minutes.  So, David, you are safer here than anywhere else."

     Once when David was having trouble breathing, she had to massage his chest all afternoon.  While she was doing it, she said to the physical-therapist aide standing by with oxygen, "David is helping me build up my tennis arm, so if you see a five-foot woman with bulging biceps on the tennis curt, it will be me.  This is fantastic exercise!  Do you see that?"

     One day we were discussing some dull subject for my world-history course when she said, "When I'm working with the other two guys, I can't keep an eye on David's breathing so I'll leave it up to you, Bill, okay?  If he slumps over, make one of your bull-moose noises to get my attention.  He doesn't look good, does he?  But we'll keep him in school as long as possible.  At least his mother doesn't have to watch over him when he is here.  Now we should be able to finish this damn history course in March, if we are lucky.  This is a dry course, and I'm sure you're fed up with it, because I am!"

     Frequently, when he was gasping for air, David would look at me and say, "I'm all right, Bill.  I'm all right.  Thanks for watching over me."

     Fortunately, my bull-moose yell was never needed.  The vigil, however, matured me greatly.  I watched David, and in doing so, I became aware of his desire to live.  Seeing him fight for every breath he took, I suddenly knew the value of living.  So when I had to do some boring research, I didn't mind, because at least I could do it without worrying about breathing.  I think this was the lesson that Mrs. George was teaching me by having me keep an eye on David.

     April 10 was David's last day of school.  That night he took a turn for the worse.  He was rushed to the hospital, where life-support machines could maintain his breathing.

     On April 15, 1975, I had planned to visit him after school.  But that morning I found a handwritten note beside my typewriter saying, "Don't go to the hospital tonight; David died in his sleep.  I didn't want to tell the other guys, because today the school is going to the circus, and there's no reason to spoil that.  We will mourn him together.  J. George."

     Although Mrs. George couldn't make David's dream of a nineteenth birthday come true (God knows she tried!), she made my dream of a high-school graduation come true.

     As I sat on the stage on a warm May evening in 1976, listening to the commencement song, "The Impossible Dream," the words seemed to fit the lady dressed in yellow, proudly watching me receive my diploma, because she "dreamed the impossible dream" and made it come true.