Thursday, May 06, 2010

`The Art of Bearing Natural Calamities'

I attended a meeting on Wednesday in which we discussed my student in terms cognitive, behavioral, medical, academic and human. The purpose was to evaluate her status in a public high school. I shared a conference room with her parents, two teachers, the school nurse, the school psychologist, an occupational therapist, and a speech/hearing therapist. My student, almost nineteen years old, cannot speak, cannot understand speech, wears diapers, is fed through a tube in her stomach and will never have an occupation. Being in class five days a week with other kids and conforming to classroom routine is for her a victory, perhaps the grandest she will ever know.

The meeting was cordial and free of surprises. Only the psychologist spoke in jargon and remained in professional character, clinical, unbending and remote, accompanied by a veneer of sensitivity and warmth. Her smile was a rictus. Even with the medical history of this damaged child on the table, she sounded a note Mencken characterized as “moronic Kiwanian optimism.”

With diplomacy, self-control and candor, my student’s mother spoke. All the paperwork substantiates an obvious clinical conclusion, she said: Years of seizures have ravaged her daughter’s cognitive capacity. She once looked with curiosity and attentiveness at books. No longer. She once laughed and moved when hearing music. Not now. She doesn’t recognize the sound of her name or the people in her life. “She has lost a lot,” the mother said, raising her eyes from the table to the psychologist.

I subscribe to only one magazine, The New Criterion, and the May issue arrived on Wednesday. Most welcome is the return of Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) to a literary subject, “A Shared Wretchedness” (subscription required), an essay exploring the congruences of Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson, two of my favorite writers. Daniels is a retired psychiatrist but writes with insight and compassion of the torments both writers endured:

“…both responded to their poverty with a prickly insouciance born of pride; both were extremely ambitious yet knew prolonged fallow periods of indolence; both suffered serious ill-health for much of their lives (indeed, disease of the ear hardened the hearing of both); both had relations with the female sex that were far from straightforward or uncontorted; both strove to be religious but were tormented by doubt and were unable to achieve a trouble-free and unquestioning faith; both, despite their forbidding exteriors, were generous to the poor; both were terrified of going mad; both often used wit to wound.”

Both were, in effect, unable to fain professional amiability and glibness while remaining icily aloof. I thought, of course, of the psychologist. Daniels, as always, is generous with quotation, and his citation from The Rambler #32, published July 7, 1750, reminds me of my student’s mother:

“So large a part of human life passes in a state contrary to our natural desires, that one of the principal topics of moral instruction is the art of bearing natural calamities. And such is the certainty of evil, that it is the duty of every man to furnish his mind with those principles that may enable him to act under it with decency and propriety.”


Shelley said...

I don't know if I'll recover today from reading this, but thanks, and thanks also for the quote, which I've copied. Speaking of the psychologist, by coincidence the most recent episode I put up has to do with a teacher who's less than sympathetic to a deaf pupil. I think their own burdens make people that way sometimes. Not passing on our own unhappiness is surely one of the principles Johnson spoke of.

zmkc said...

Another lovely post. Where does 'Kiwanian' come from, what does it refer to?