My student lives in an eight-unit group home two miles from our high school in a wooded neighborhood of ranch-style homes with SUVs parked in most of the driveways. The house is almost conspicuously inconspicuous, shrouded in cedars and firs. The school nurse and I drove there in the rain for a meeting with the staff, a nurse and someone from the state.
Five hours earlier my student had suffered another seizure, eight days after the last, and had not come to school. When I saw her mid-morning Wednesday she was seated in a recliner, legs crossed, watching television. She saw me, smiled and wagged her arms, heaved herself from the chair and ran in my direction. She embraces no one voluntarily, not even her parents, but the recognition was gratifying. This was the first time I'd seen her away from school.
The house was clean, a conventional middle-class dwelling but deceptively spacious, organized around a common room and two long hallways. Her room looked like one in a college dormitory but neater. No Dickensian horrors here, no squalor or neglect. The staff appeared hardworking not hard-hearted, working stiffs and professionals alike. I couldn’t hope for better in my dotage.
Last weekend the generously learned Stephen Pentz sent me back to William Cowper (1731-1800), whose work is always on my desk. Today we would say Cowper had a severe affective disorder. He suffered periodic depressions and tried suicide at least three times but experienced spells of elevated recovery which he judged miraculous, evidence of God’s grace. Despite these respites, Cowper wrote in “Lines Written During a Period of Insanity” that he was “Buried above ground.”
My student, almost nineteen years old, will never speak let alone write poetry, and her diagnosis, ring 14 chromosome disorder, is far more severely disabling than even the violent roller coaster Cowper rode most of his life. In an Oct. 12, 1785 letter to his cousin Harriet Hesketh he writes:
“Dejection of Spirits, which I suppose may have prevented many a man from becoming an Author, made me one. I find constant employment necessary, and therefore take care to be constantly employ'd. Manual occupations do not engage the mind sufficiently, as I know by experience, having tried many. But Composition, especially of verse, absorbs it wholly ...”
Optimism about my student is fatuous and I even try to steel myself against hope. I dislike happy talk and pity is self-congratulatory. It keeps you from the more important work of making sure a kid is safe and reasonably happy. Like Cowper, I find Composition useful in sorting out these things.