by Sandra (Nipper) Ratledge
~ a true account written in memory of my friend Brenda Farner ~
Long before special services teachers began writing individualized educational plans (IEP's, for short in educational jargon), there were simply special teachers. They taught every subject to every student on their rolls regardless of a child's disabilities. One and all, big and small, short and tall, all fit into the confines of the classroom. Some students, paralyzed by polio before availability of the Salk vaccine, entered school each day on crutches or canes. Yet many others bore hidden handicaps. Most of the time, their struggles remained “invisible” to classmates, but not of course, to watchful eyes of the guardians known as our teachers. These we sometimes called “Mama” by accident and then, with red-faced embarrassment, endured a giggling gaggle of classmates. Such happy accidents created amusing comic relief for long division lessons. No one was more relieved, however, or secretly more pleased – as betrayed by her smile – than our dear teacher Miss Elsie Taylor.
Those were days when teachers “made do” with whatever materials they could make or muster in order to accommodate student needs. There were no large print texts for the visually impaired or alternative materials for the learning disabled, etc. All students were issued the same books that were often used more than a decade. Books never bore expiration dates in those days, and school systems were not restricted by text adoption cycles. Teachers were simply grateful for books and blessed if the class had a few dictionaries.
Technology for elementary grades in Athens City Schools consisted of a map, a globe, and math flash cards. Classrooms contained one long chalkboard, chalk, eraser, yardstick, and a wall-mounted pencil sharpener. Each was also equipped with a bulletin board for displaying student work and posters. Furniture included a teacher desk with drawers and student desks sufficient for enrollment. Early elementary students used a small cloak room in a back corner; other classes had lockers on the back wall of the classroom; and teachers stored their belongings in a metal cabinet. Radiators kept us comfortably warm in winter, but hot weather grew oppressive with only transoms and open windows for ventilation. Such was our shelter for the year, and thankfully we called it home.
What important records or tools were tucked inside the teacher's desk? That we never knew because we never touched it. However, while standing beside my fifth grade teacher's desk one day, I glimpsed a huge spoon and wondered why she kept it inside her drawer. For certain, I had never seen so big a spoon or one that shone with such a soft patina. In fact, I had never seen a silver spoon! Of course, I dared not question the contents of a teacher's desk; but later in the year, we all learned its purpose. That was the unforgettable day Miss Taylor jerked open the desk drawer and whipped out her own special services tool-of-the-trade, the big silver serving spoon!
That was the day I learned there are special students with special needs. Then, I first realized not all of us are born equipped with equal abilities or possessed with the same mechanisms for coping. I was ten and in fifth grade that 1958 – 1959 school year at North City Elementary School in Athens, TN. It was also the day I understood beyond doubt why everyone in our community, and especially in my own family, revered Miss Elsie Taylor as such a special teacher.
An unsettling event that afternoon jolted us to painful awareness that one amid our twenty-six was plagued by a hidden physical handicap. This disturbing episode was imprinted indelibly in my mind. Miss Taylor always assigned my seat either in front of or beside Brenda Farner. At the time, I never even considered her purpose in so doing and certainly never objected, of course, because this girl made such a good neighbor. She was always well-behaved, pleasant, polite, and kind. Now a retired teacher myself, I look at our old class photo (click to view, then scroll horizontally and verically) and readily understand our teacher's purposeful seating arrangements. She placed me near Brenda knowing that I would make a “good helper.” Instinctively, she knew I would prove not only alert and watchful about her affliction but also very protective. All this I failed to comprehend until later.
Suddenly in mid-afternoon on that particular day, Brenda fell from her chair and rolled onto the floor beside me. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least. A giggle or two across the room caused some to question if this were “staged.” From my vantage point, however, I saw that she was seriously ill. Her eyelids quivered; in fact, her whole body shivered and shook as if freezing cold. Fearfully, I glanced back and forth between her writhing body on the floor and my teacher jerking open her desk drawer. Armed with her tool, Miss Taylor wielded that silver serving spoon like a soldier carrying a bayonet into battle and rushed toward the stricken child. None of us students understood what was happening and sat there quietly aghast.
White froth oozed and then vomit spilled from Brenda's mouth onto her dress and the floor. Carefully, our teacher placed the tablespoon so that its bowl cupped her tongue. Urine puddled upon the floor as the unconscious child continued to jerk and flounce. Only a few others were fully aware of all her symptoms and predicament. As soon as possible, our teacher hurried to an adjacent classroom to request assistance. Together, the two teachers placed her limp arms around their necks, lifted her up, and carried her out of the room and to a wheelchair.
Meanwhile, students sat silently immobile – seemingly glued onto their seats – all too stunned to speak! I was the only one so emotionally distraught that I could scarcely still myself or abide the silence. I looked around at my classmates' shocked expressions, and finally asked, “Well, aren't we going to do anything to help?” No one moved. No one uttered a sound. “There's got to be something we can do!” Stone silence resumed. “Aren't any of us going to help Miss Taylor?” Still, all remained stiff and solemn. So, I answered myself declaring, “Well, I will! I can't stand it!”
Up I got and out I charged. Half way down the hall, I met my teacher whereupon, I asked with tears welling in my eyes, “Oh, Miss Taylor, I'm so sorry I'm out of the room! But is there anything I can do to help you or Brenda?”
Visibly shaken, but beginning to regain composure and somewhat relieved, she answered, “Yes! Yes, you can! Go down to the gym; go through the stage door to where the couch is. We've laid her there on the couch. Mrs. Clayton is with her right now, but she has a class soon and will need to leave. Brenda's asleep, but she needs someone to stay with her. Watch her, and let us know if she has another attack.” I dashed down the empty hallway to the stage room and remained there watching her vigilantly until school was dismissed.
Other teachers and even Mr. Robert Benton, the principal, stopped to check on her. I reported that she had slept the whole time. After the 3:30 dismissal bell, I returned to class for my notebook. At the classroom door, I remember asking Miss Taylor, “Will Brenda be OK? Do you know what's wrong?” From her reply, I learned the meaning of epilepsy and epileptic seizures, which was what had occurred.
“Sometimes,” she explained, “ these convulsions can be so violent that patients obstruct airways by partially swallowing their tongues. The silver spoon was to prevent her from swallowing her tongue and choking to death.”
“Is there no medicine or anything to help her?” I continued to question.
“Oh, yes, there's medicine!” she snapped quickly. “There is medication that prevents those attacks completely!” Then she leaned down toward me, and I remember her beautiful blue eyes glistened and glazed as her usually serene expression contorted with indignation. I was privileged to be her student for both fifth and sixth grades, and never did I see her more irate. “She has a prescription for medicine, and there's NO NEED for her to suffer like this! NOBODY should have to go through that!”
Though I failed to understand fully, I was afraid to probe further, but Miss Taylor understood the situation completely. Like today's special services teacher, she had been aware all year that this student was epileptic and subject to seizures. That was why she kept the silver serving spoon in her desk drawer – ever ready for a sudden attack. She also knew why Brenda lacked medicine, and that knowledge had triggered her righteous anger.
My friend was absent the next few days. I was concerned and assumed she was too ashamed to return. I talked with the other girls and encouraged them to treat her very kindly. When she did return, I welcomed her back and assured her that we all missed her. We became trusted friends afterward, and I was forever her ally. No one ever teased or taunted her, not as long as I was in earshot, and no one tangled with me.
We finished our elementary education through eighth grade at North City School and then entered high school at McMinn County High. She was a little older than I because she had been retained in earlier grades. No doubt illness and subsequent absenteeism factored into her retention. I was aware of her struggle with math and some other subjects. At any rate, we had no classes together during our freshman year. We rode different school buses and thus lost touch. I never heard that she experienced subsequent epileptic seizures during school hours. Whether she suffered more attacks at home or elsewhere, I never knew. That she had problems coping with her condition was obvious. That she was unhappy and depressed, I always knew. Just how distressed, just how troubled, just how tormented, I never suspected.
Never did I imagine the far more shocking tragedy that befell my friend. The Daily Post-Athenian, our local newspaper, printed her obituary one day during our freshman year of high school. Since we both lived in North Athens, news about her spread with bullet speed. Dear, sweet Brenda braced the butt of a loaded shotgun between her feet, held the barrel up, and blew her brains out!
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