Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/14/2009

More contemplative than usual. You tell a student you are Epileptic.

Not just any student. The one who emails you to tell you he missed class because he had a seizure and felt rotten all day. That one. Is it fair to play favorites? Of course not. Is it fair to let a student know you understand? Why not? Is it fair to round up the football players in your classes and have a special class session during Fall Break to help them get caught up?



They are not, surprise, unintelligent. They’ve been treated as classroom buffoons because they’re “only” athletes. They’ve never been challenged to think. They are not bad students. Teachers and schools have failed them. Most teachers hate them.

What’s education all about? Making a bunch of very young people masquerading as adults toe some imaginary line in order to teach them “responsibility” or some other “grown-up” virtue? What if they can’t be responsible yet? What if, under all that worldly Post-post-post-post-Modern sophistication, they are nineteen-and-twenty-year olds groping along, looking for a way to live in this complicated world?

“Do your work!” I keep telling them. “I’m not going to check all of your daily assignments. I’m not your Daddy.” As if that’s going to help them grow up or, even less likely, learn to think.  

Omigod. I’m about to launch into a “When I was your age..” When I was their age, the most complicated technology we knew was the new Xerox (yes, Xerox, not Cannon, not Dell, not you-name-it) machine

what will they think of next?

what will they think of next?

in the University’s new library. Imagine, a machine that would copy a page out of a book, a homework assignment, a musical score. What will they think of next?

I had a car, too. 1956 Ford, not Fairlane. Pale yellow. Ugly. Bought with a loan co-signed by my dad. So I could drive to my church organist job in San Bernardino. Dad should have known back then that I was in some kind of deep do-do that was keeping me from living in the real world. I couldn’t get the payments in on time. He knew. The bank told him. No one mentioned it to me until it was too late. I felt guilty all on my own. Was it TLEpilepsy or the drinking I was already doing or bipolar disorder or just plain cantankerousness?

The same questions I’m still asking–minus the booze for 23 years. I played the organ tolerably well. At least I have a bona fide Bachelor of Music in Organ Performance. I don’t know about that now. The pipe organ (Steuart Goodwin, Opus 1) in my living room is supposed to help me restart that engine. Play a recital. I know the program: Hindemith Sonata II, two of the big chorale preludes from the Bach Clavierubung III , the Bach Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, a couple of Brahms chorale preludes, and the Mendelssohn Sonata III. In that order. Heavy stuff. All of which I’ve played (most of it from memory) at one time or another. 

My playing is too idiosyncratic, ponderous, personal to perform Bach the way it’s “supposed” to be. I take the Albert Schweitzer approach: there’s a tempo at which you can play this piece of music after twenty years in Lambaréné in West Africa healing the sick and practicing Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben (“being in awe of life”–the first great ecologist); find that tempo and play it. I used to have an autographed photo of Albert Schweitzer that Dr. Leslie P. Spelman gave as a graduation present after he rejected me as a student in my junior year because I was too undisciplined. Then he became my mentor and (dare I say it?) friend. He was a Quaker. He helped me understand the evils of war in time for anti-Viet Nam War activities. I don’t know what happened to that photo. It’s long gone. I do, however, have the volume of the complete works of Orlando Gibbons with Dr. Spelman’s signature in it that he bought to study composition with Nadia Boulanger when he was an organ student of Joseph Bonnet in Paris.

 That’s what education is all about. Isn’t it? I’ve always had some pride in the movie “Good Will Hunting” because it was filmed at Bunker Hill Community College where I taught from 1986-1994. Music. The movie is too sentimental, but I have some fond memories of those students. One of them found me on Facebook and wrote me a glowing tribute. The reason I teach–not the tribute, but knowing that I was a positive influence in a student’s life.

 Through all of this I was struggling (except I didn’t know what it was until it was almost too late to salvage a life) with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. And Bipolar disorder perhaps–although I think the jury is still out on that regardless of what Drs. Bennett, Montgomery, and Bret think. The designer disease of the decade. I AM pretty much a mess. My therapist cringes every time I say that. But my being a mess is like the room I’m in right now (see the picture in my posting of October 12). It’s a mess, but it’s functional (I’m writing, am I not?), and it is full of strange and wonderful stuff, most of which is not useful and whose purpose I have long since forgotten. But it’s INTERESTING stuff. Which is more than I can say for the kinds of rooms cutie Nate Berkus designs.

Who wants to be spare? orderly? Who wants not to have demons? Who wants to fit some pattern? Who wants someone else to design his living room or his life?

Imagine this pale yellow

Imagine this pale yellow

My late ex-Mother-in-Law wrote to her daughter and me in about 1970, from the mental hospital where she had received shock treatments for her “manic depression.” The card said simply, “We needed one person in charge of another, and here we have one person in charge of another.”

I don’t want one person in charge of another in my life. That happens in mental hospitals (I know from experience). But I do cherish, because the best parts of my thinking were formed by them, a few remarkable people who taught me most of what I know that’s of any value. If I’m muddling through my life always trying to break through the fog of TLE (and BP disorder, maybe), it’s because of those people (others besides my “teachers,” too).

So I tell an epileptic student that I’m epileptic, too, not to give him special treatment, but in hopes that being a real person, not a fixture in the institution, will give him some of the strength he will need to get on with his life in spite of (or perhaps because of) the great obstacle the universe has chosen for him to overcome.


  1. It’s hard to be sure what real influence you have with a student until quite some time after the events. I’ve had previous students contact me again some time after I taught them to tell me how much they got from my classes; it makes up for the times where I have a class that seem to be total automatons and nothing is behind the eyes. I’ve recently started tutoring a young Chinese girl in maths and science(which are not my subjects but her problem is the langauge not the concepts) and when she has a lightbulb moment of sudden understanding, it’s wonderful!
    Being more than just another teacher(who are all the same, aren’t they?) can only help.



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