“Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it (Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter).”

One of the worst days of my teaching career had nothing to do with teaching. It had to do with learning. There was a student in my freshman class, and she was beyond shy. She was mute, just about 99.9% of the time. She was a pretty girl, with long blond hair, and a thin bone structure. I wondered why she had no friends, never spoke in class, barely replied when spoken to. She got under my skin a bit. Not because she was so shy, but because I couldn’t reach her.

During an informal meeting with a guidance counselor and two fellow teachers, I learned the cause of Sarah’s silence.

The counselor said in a hushed tone, one reserved for this purpose, “Poor girl, her mother is dying from MS.”

My heart and lungs and stomach seemed to plummet to the floor. It had found me, even here. “Her mother can’t even speak, her whole mouth is numb, swollen I guess. They expect her to die soon … poor Sarah.”

Fight or flight? I wanted to crawl under the table, shove my head into the rug like a human ostrich. I wanted to throw up my insides, sprint to the parking lot, and never return. But instead I sat, silent and paralyzed, looking down at my gradebook. How could I, of all people, have missed this? How could I have questioned her silence? Her defeated stare? I felt like a traitor to Sarah, and more importantly, to her mother, who needed me to understand. I’d failed them both. When you have a disease that others fear, it causes you to fear it even more violently. As if their fear multiplies your own. People serve as fun-house mirrors, reflecting your disease back to you in exaggerated proportions. Never allowing you to let your guard down.

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