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I was born in 1951. A few months after my birth, it was discovered that I had a heart defect that would need surgery. Before I was old enough to have the surgery my father died. As there was no real safety net back then, my mother and I lived with three different families until my fourth birthday. The federal government was beginning to build housing projects and my mother and I were able to move into our own apartment. This particular project was well planned and included an elementary school for the children from the housing project. It was a small school with one class for each grade from K-6. Because the entire population of the school was poor, we had a nurse and a counselor.
I began attending the school in first grade. The school provided us with a very close knit community. All of the teachers knew us. Because the staff had the same lunch time, the teachers were close and had the time to share important information about the students. The entire staff knew about my heart condition and made sure that I followed all doctor’s instructions.
By the time I started fifth grade, the teachers had begun to notice that I was showing symptoms from my heart defect. They knew that I was seeing a cardiologist but that my mother had not agreed to the surgery yet. Since my father had died when I was so young, my mother was afraid that I would die having the surgery so she kept delaying the procedure. The school nurse became concerned when the teachers reported to her that I had become visibly symptomatic. She was aware that the method used to correct the defect had to be done before I started puberty or else it would have to wait until I had gone through puberty. The school nurse, counselor and principal got together and called my mother in for a conference. Each in their own way made my mother face the fact that by not allowing the surgery to occur, she was already risking my life. By the time they finished talking to her she agreed to set up the surgery. Years later my mother told me that the principal had a private chat with her and promised that he would be there to support her during the surgery and during my recovery. I had the surgery in May of fifth grade and returned in September for sixth grade with a healthy heart.
I am sharing this personal story because I believe it represents the best of what a school should be. Teachers worked together to help their students. A nurse and counselor were part of the staff to help with medical and emotional issues. The principal knew what was going on in his school and backed up his staff. And most importantly, the school community knew that its students dealt with a myriad of issues outside of school and worked with the whole child.
This is my thank you to the entire staff of East Falls Elementary School for saving my life and for putting me on a path to pay their good work forward during my teaching career.