Monday, October 22, 2012


One of my most favorite lessons when I taught World History went like this (I admit up front, I found this idea in a book – I only wish I was this creative!):

When the students settled down, I would tell them that before we got started on the day's lesson, I wanted to have a brief discussion about a new grading system that I was seriously considering implementing in my classroom. I wanted some quick feedback from them, then we'd get onto the day's business. Here’s how the new system would work: after every test, I would take all of the individual grades and average them. Every student would receive the average grade as his or her final grade, essentially eliminating individual grades and replacing them with a single group grade. The kids would immediately react, and I would say, "OK, OK, if you want to talk more about this, let me just write some of this down." I would make two columns on the board -- Advantages and Disadvantages of the new system -- and we would brainstorm answers for the columns. Sometimes I felt badly that I was tricking them and I even got nervous about my acting skills. Ultimately, however, it was worth it because the conversation was beyond fascinating.

Usually the majority of the class hated the idea of the new grading system. There were always a few students (no surprise, usually the ones who got good grades) who led the charge against the system. I always had to be very careful that no one made any personal insults (e.g., “Billy will drag us all down!”) and luckily, I never remember it turning to that. But when the Advantages side looked much shorter than the other, I asked the class to really push themselves to consider this other side. Not that they had to believe it, but I wanted them to think about it.

At the time, I was an evening student at Suffolk Law School. Three nights a week, I would drive into Boston for class. I remember one night, shortly before I was planning to give this lesson, that I was stopped at a red night near Government Center. A homeless woman was standing on the side of the road begging for change in a coffee cup. She did not look well. And she was pregnant. When I needed to push the grading system conversation forward a bit, I described the sight of the pregnant homeless woman for my students. I asked them to think about that unborn baby. Would that baby have all of the opportunity, or food, or shelter that they did? Did that child deserve some help? When the child reached high school, would she deserve to be in a classroom with other students invested in helping her because those students' grades relied on her success? Did it matter that he didn’t have a place to do his homework because he was lucky if he even found a bed to sleep in? Did she deserve to be graded the same way as a fellow student whose parents could afford hours of private tutoring? I told my students that I was playing devil’s advocate and that I was not trying to convince them one way or the other. I was almost completely honest when I made that last claim. But my students probably knew me enough to know that in my heart, I felt for that unborn child, and unfortunately, the conversation didn’t usually have much of a debate flavor after that.

Finally, I would explain that we just debated the advantages and disadvantages of communism. I would note that we could have had the same discussion about restaurant wait staff pooling tips. Having worked as a waitress for years, both at places that pooled tips and places that did not, I knew that too would be a similarly fascinating conversation. Then I would assure the class that we would not be changing our grading system. A collective sigh usually fell over the class – always my proof that our children are raised capitalist at heart.

In a different time, or a different part of the world, I’d fear for my safety after posting about the lesson above. Even now, I worry that I could offend some people, and for the record, I do not support or promote communism. But I do love the debate that it conjures up. Because that debate makes us think about our values, and ultimately, our commitment to other people that we may not even know.

* * *

Yesterday afternoon, out of absolutely no where, I got a terrible nosebleed. Thank goodness, Teddy was visiting my parents at the time, having needed a change of scenery to a different sofa. (His foot was much better but we were trying to keep him off of it for one more day. Today he played over an hour of street hockey with the neighbors so I guess he’s fine. Relief.)

When Annabel saw the blood, she immediately went into the freezer and got me “Bumble Bee,” our little soft ice pack shaped like a bee that we use almost every other day for the kids when they bump themselves. “Mama boo boo,” she repeated over and over. I’m OK, baby girl, just a little boo boo on my nose.

Record that clip for my Oscar campaign because despite my light-hearted tone, I was terrified. The blood poured out, and then came what I thought for more than a second could have been part of my brain (yes, I’m joking, but what the heck was it?!?). Brian was scared too, and after consulting the trusty symptoms sheets, he said we needed to page Dr. Bunnell if it didn’t stop. When it was still gushing a few minutes later, we used the pager number for the first time. Even though it was a Sunday afternoon, I didn’t feel guilty. I was too scared for any other emotion.

Dr. Bunnell called back within three minutes. Seriously, that guy is amazing. He spent about fifteen minutes on the phone with me, asking me dozens of questions. While we were talking, the bleeding stopped. He told me everything would be fine but given the nosebleed and my answers to some of his questions (e.g., Yes, my gums bleed too...) I needed to come in in the morning to have my platelets checked. Dr. Bunnell wanted to be sure that my platelet count wasn't so low that my blood wouldn’t clot properly. He assured me that it was likely just fine, but like usual, he wasn't taking any chances.

Of course, my Mom rearranged her busy workday and drove me in to Dana-Farber first thing this morning. As always, Brian was so upset he couldn't come. But I knew if the results called for any follow-up, he'd be there right away. 

The lab was totally packed, even more than usual, and the waiting room felt like we were all anxious to board a 747 that was late to arrive to the gate. After over an hour, one of the many lab techs finally called “Tara S.” Once I got back to the lab, I waited another 20 minutes or so because the technicians’ handheld devices were not printing the vial labels properly, which was precisely what was holding everything up. The nurse was so apologetic about the long wait, and I assured her that I didn't mind at all. I really didn't. My Mom and I were having a fine time chatting in the waiting room (and joking about the mob scene), and plus, I didn’t really have anywhere else I needed to be (except home watching the second episode of Homeland, Season One…I watched the pilot last night and Wow, it was good).

Very soon after the nurse drew my platelets on the second floor of the Yawkey building, I was called into an exam room up on ninth floor (the breast oncology floor). Danielle, Dr. Bunnell’s wonderful PA, came in to see me not long after that. She told me my platelets were fine. I was so relieved. She went on to explain some of the science behind it and by her tone, I started to think there was bad news coming. I had to interrupt and ask, “So is there a ‘but’ coming here?” “No,” she laughed, and I encouraged her to continue. But to be honest, I was too distracted by my feeling of relief to listen much more. 

I learned over these last few days that platelet transfusions and blood transfusions are not all that rare for chemo patients whose blood counts get too low. I’ve thought a lot about this and mentally prepared myself for one. And in that process, I came back to that discussion I had with my classes years ago.

As my Mom and I drove in today, I asked her if they could give me the blood of someone I know if I needed a transfusion. I was so weird-ed out by the idea of getting the blood of a perfect stranger. I’m not at all scared that it’s infected or anything like that – I completely trust that it is not. It’s just that I thought it would be so weird to have a stranger’s blood running through my veins. I felt I’d be less of me and more of someone I didn't even know.

But as I thought about this more tonight, I have completely changed my mind. In the end, I don’t think receiving someone else's blood would be weird at all. I think it would absolutely incredible. Because it's amazing to think that a perfect stranger took time out of his or her day to donate blood, to give something that can’t be produced in a factory (at least I don’t think it can) to someone he or she will never meet. For nothing in return. (I've given blood a handful of times before, but never religiously like one of my good friends, David, who is a wonderfully dedicated donor.)

Then my mind wandered even more. It wandered onto organ donation. From the day I got my very first driver's license, I have been proud of the little “Organ Donor” stamp that it bears. I sure don't like to think about a tragic end, but I sure do like the idea that my decision to donate my organs could turn that tragedy into someone else's greatest triumph. I don’t mean this post to be a plea for others to get the same stamp, or an appeal for readers to donate blood. I know there are plenty of legitimate reasons why people choose not to do these things. Rather, I mean this as a huge Thank You to the people that can do it, choose to, and take the time to carry it out.

I always worked really hard so that I could get good grades. My parents gave me everything I needed, and more, to succeed. If I was presented with that new grading system back in high school, I probably would have had an internal panic attack (unless it was in Mr. Badoian’s class, in which case I would have welcomed it). No, cancer has not made me a communist. (For proof, the one time that we did not valet park at Dana-Farber (Brian’s idea, not mine), we drove through what had to be the physicians’ parking section. The cars were niiiii-ice. And Brian said it best – “They deserve every nice thing they have and more.” I agree completely.) 

Trust me, I want people to have huge incentives to discover cures for cancer and every other disease.  While I sincerely hope those incentives are driven by more than just money, I am fine with the reality that money helps motivate most of us, albeit to varying degrees. So while cancer has changed me, it has not turned me to communism. Cancer has, however, made me think more and more about the people who have or will donate all of the important things that I, and countless others, may now need. I know that people don’t donate blood or get that organ stamp ever knowing the name or the face or the family of the person whose life they may save one day. But trust me, those people are out there. And we are eternally grateful.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post. Being a donor is so satisfying (and easy)! I gave platelets at Dana Farber every other Friday for 5 years before moving to Chicago. The experience was truly a gift to me. It forced a multitasker with an over-active brain to chill out. Having both arms (literally) pinned down allowed for few activities. I caught up on just "being". And the process takes about the time a movie runs ;) I am honored to have been able to give this very small gift to the valet-parkers at DF.

    Red Cross donation sites also do platelet donations (my dad donates through the Red Cross). Check American Red Cross site out to find more info:

    I also want to encourage people to consider joining the bone marrow registry. I donated samples of bone marrow 10 or so times for a study being conducted at Dana-Farber. I imagine a full donation would be more painful than what I experienced, but it's not as scary as the bone marrow donation legends suggest. You can learn more about it by going to I joined the registry subsequent to my marrow donations, but I believe necessary tests can be done without marrow sampling.

    Thanks again for a fantastic post, Tara!