Sam was a first place winner of a 2021 NJCTS Scholarship Award.
This was the essay he included with his application.
This wasn’t my intended greeting for a newly diagnosed 4th grader named Dylan. Nevertheless, my Tourette thought otherwise. I prefer more professional greetings, but the brief laugh gave Dylan a break from his anxiety. I considered it a win.
After all, we were both anxious while scanning the navy brick cafeteria, loaded with rows of empty plastic chairs, all facing the wood stage; the spot that would have terrified me in fourth grade. However, this small Manalapan School was my reason for missing PreCalculus. So I took a breath. The students began filling their seats. Surveying the talkative students, they summoned memories of my friends before I taught them. Then the bell rang, and my mic went live.
Two weeks prior, the presentation opportunity appeared in my inbox. Seemingly, it looked like all my past presentations. However, these students were different. They didn’t understand how I could announce “FISH”, arm jerk, and stick my tongue out without any control. They didn’t understand the cause. These students, just like my friends seven years ago, didn’t understand. But what they did understand, was the Pledge of Allegiance.
The students, still quite chatty, took out their notebooks. I instructed them to write the Pledge of Allegiance, except I also made them tic. When I clapped, they tapped their desk corner. When I stomped, they exclaimed their teacher’s name. They rewrote every third word, all while being pressured under time. These students experienced one minute living inside my brain.
Not one student wrote the whole pledge. Yet for the first time, they all understood.
“FISH!” Not a single person noticed my tic. They did not watch me tic, but they watched me teach. They learned more during that one minute than the entire presentation. And when they learned that their own classmate had TS too, no one judged. No one considered him different. The only changed expression throughout the whole school cafeteria was Dylan’s, who smiled from earto-ear. I considered it a win.
Tourette Syndrome is not easily understood. No exact cause is known. No cure exists. No one symptom exists that all people with TS share. Even living with TS, I still don’t fully understand the disorder.
I never understood why a tic explosion occurred every time the fire alarm went off. Or why they caused delay during exams. Or why they created a daily struggle that every day, I became forced to overcome.
Watching the crowd of students applaud upon my presentation’s conclusion revealed that while teaching, TS didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that I stuck my tongue out and jerked my neck and announced “FISH” a lot. It didn’t matter that the students didn’t fully understand TS. All that mattered was that they did understand one fact:
I have Tourette. Dylan has Tourette. Tourette doesn’t have us.
I was no different than the other students, except I ticced. So what? Many students possessed special needs, food allergies, and a multitude of other struggles.
Fourth grade me didn’t understand this. Tourette seemed drastically worse. I felt ashamed talking about TS, or even allowing people to see my tics. I occupied Dylan’s shoes when a Youth Advocate for TS came to my school. In that moment, I discovered the gift that I contained with TS. I embraced my gift to not distract students, but educate them. I utilized this gift to stand in front of a navy brick cafeteria, loaded with rows of filled plastic chairs, and teach.
Now, I know, that is a win.