Front of the
When Brad Cohen began
compulsively clearing his throat at age nine, his camp counselor gave
him the nickname Froggy. When he progressed to a loud whoop or bark several
times a minute, he was no longer viewed so affectionately. It would be
several years before Cohen discovered he had Tourette syndrome, a neurological
disorder that causes uncontrollable vocal and motor tics. Yet his teachers
and classmates still thought he was purposefully misbehaving. He found
himself ridiculed, mocked, shunned, punished and ejected from classrooms,
movies and restaurants.
Determined to provide something better for other kids, Cohen decided he
would become the positive and accepting teacher he’d always wanted.
After college, he went through 25 interviews in the Atlanta public school
district before finding an elementary school willing to give him a chance
in the classroom. He went on to become one of the best-loved teachers
in his school and to win Georgia’s First Class Teacher of the Year
Award. In Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher
I Never Had, Cohen shares his experience with Tourette’s, his philosophy
of unwavering determination, and the choices that have shaped his satisfying
and successful life.
Following is an excerpt from Front of the Class’ second chapter,
“Out of Control.”
When I was in second grade, my hyperactivity and my tics were increasing,
so my mother turned to a professional to examine my feelings about the
divorce. She dutifully took me to weekly appointments with one psychologist
after another. I eventually saw three over the next few years—but
I never disclosed much to any of them. To me they were strangers. Their
potential to cause trouble for me was unknown, and I had no idea what
they intended to do with whatever information they gleaned from me. At
that point in my life, I seldom had an encounter with an authority figure
of any kind that didn’t go badly in one way or another. Regardless
of my thoughts on the matter, I now spent an hour each week under interrogation
by the enemy, and like a good little prisoner of war, I gave back as little
as I could. The scenario usually went like this: they asked a lot of long
questions, and I made a lot of short, wary replies. Here’s one interaction
I remember when I was nine or ten:
“How does it feel when you make a noise or a tic?”
“Do you feel anger toward your mother because your father left town?”
“How do you feel when other kids don’t want to be around you?”
“Just like anyone would—sad.”
“Who do you want to blame when you get in trouble?”
At the time, that was the only answer I could give, because I didn’t
understand what was happening. Later, after I learned I had Tourette’s,
I didn’t blame anyone, simply because there was no one to blame.
None of the doctors really seemed to need my help or input—even
though my parents’ divorce had nothing to do with my personality
troubles, it got the blame anyway. From my point of view, finding the
cause of my condition wasn’t nearly as important as finding ways
to deal with it—and that was assuming that my emerging jerks and
yips and yells could ever be dealt with at all.
Soon after I began classes in the fourth grade, at my new school, the
subtler effects of Tourette’s began. They were little things, mostly,
but since I had not yet been diagnosed, they were things we didn’t
know to expect. Realizing that there were still more unknowns out there
that could present themselves was very upsetting. These new little symptoms
began appearing like pop-up ghosts in my everyday life, most of all in
my struggles with schoolwork. I was too smart to be having so much difficulty.
Although I didn’t know it then, while I was at school my mother
was engulfed in frantic research, because I had begun doing other things
that alarmed her. I was twitching. My face, arms, legs, and neck—major
muscle groups twitched without warning and for no apparent reason. Imagine
trying to read a book or write out an arithmetic problem when your face
and head and neck are regularly twitching so badly that you continually
lose your place, whether reading or writing. Every few seconds I’d
have to take a moment to reorient myself on the page, then take in as
much as I could before the next series of twitches came along. Long passages
were a struggle, and every assignment took forever to finish. It really
was a very slow process, and I didn’t know what to make of it—especially
since my cognitive and memory skills were so strong. You see, the actual
concepts put to us as students weren’t a problem for me, and the
logic behind complex ideas was nothing I couldn’t handle. The trouble
came at the point of contact, the first time my brain took in the information,
and I felt it most with anything that involved reading or math.
But my study difficulties paled in comparison to my newest tic—an
entirely new era of knee knocking. I mentioned earlier that when I was
in the car I’d begun the practice of wobbling my leg back and forth
against the door. Now, when I was in the car and sitting next to my brother
Jeff, I began swinging my leg just enough to knock my knee against his.
Not hard, but just annoying enough to drive any human nuts. The aggravation
factor was bad enough, but in this case the worst part was that I honestly
had no desire to mess with Jeff or cause trouble. I had no motive for
bumping him over and over. But who was going to believe me when my behavior
said the opposite? Of course Jeff would demand that I stop, but I couldn’t.
At that time, I hadn’t developed my language skills enough to explain
to Jeff that what my body needed was the feel of my knee knocking against
his knee—in some very specific, certain way. I somehow knew that
with the impact would come a feeling that turned off the need. It’s
hard enough to explain all these years later; I certainly had no capacity
for it back then. But I’d guess that the explanation would have
sounded too absurd to have done me any good anyway.
You might be asking how this tic went over on visits with my father.
The short answer is that it drove him nuts. The first time Jeff and I
got into the car with him and the knee knocking started up, he told me
to stop—over and over—and of course I didn’t, and before
long it wore through his patience like sandpaper rubbing on the skin of
an elbow. In his frustration, Dad worked his version of tough love on
the situation and popped me across the chin. I began to cry, because I
was angry and embarrassed and equally confused. I wanted to stop knocking
my knee but I couldn’t, so now I was going to have to pay the consequences.
Dad moved me into the front seat. So I went back to knocking my knee against
the door. Same thing, looking for that just-right knock. Dad thought I
was either mocking him or rebelling by trying to damage his car. Round
and round it went.
My mom believed me when I said I couldn’t help it. When I got upset,
she rubbed my back to calm me down. It helped a lot, but I still didn’t
talk to her about all the scary things going on in my head. I couldn’t
tell her how confused I was, or how frustrated. The guilt of adding more
to her burden would have been worse than the relief of talking it over
with her. By this time I was old enough to realize how much pressure she
was under just being a single parent, not to mention being a single parent
of two hyperactive kids, one of whom was thought to be a little strange.
So I just kept trying my best to figure it all out on my own. Mom kept
hoping I would get used to the new house and the new school and settle
down. She was especially worried because my teacher had begun sending
notes home about my disruptive behavior.
One Sunday, after my usual Sunday morning conversation with Dad, I handed
the phone over to Mom. Usually I raced upstairs and found something to
get involved in, but this time I stopped halfway up to listen in on the
conversation. Mom did all the talking. I was totally shocked as I listened
to her describe my behavior. I seemed to have played a trick on myself
by hanging back on the stairs, listening as the raw truth rolled out.
Over the phone, Mom recounted one mortifying incident after another. I
froze there on the steps. Did I really do all that? My cheeks got hot
with embarrassment at the thought of my mother silently observing me while
I acted in such strange ways.
I couldn’t believe I was that out of control. Mom sometimes had
a habit of exaggerating stories; I wondered if maybe that was the case
this time. She made the situation sound so bad. When I got back on the
phone with my dad, I tried to do damage control and offer assurances that
everything was okay. That suited him better. He didn’t want to talk
about my tics or my poor behavior—he wanted a quick synopsis of
the mundane aspects of our lives, such as how I did on my social studies
test or how I was doing on my baseball team. I was happy to play along
if it got me off the phone without any trouble.
About this same time, Dad took Jeff and me on a special trip to Disney
World, where he hoped I would behave more like a typical 10-year-old.
I wanted to be a typical kid more than anyone could possibly imagine.
I was very excited about the trip, as any kid would be, and I did have
a really good time. I loved the ride Space Mountain, and I was enthralled
by the Disney characters, especially Goofy, who was my favorite. But in
my typically optimistic way, I had envisioned a trip during which Dad
and I actually got along—and I am sure he had the same vision. Instead,
I wore down his patience with my constant ticcing and hyperactivity, and
he got angry. I became discouraged by my father’s inability to understand
that I could not control my behavior. I hated the fact that I couldn’t
be what my dad wanted—no matter how hard I tried—and I couldn’t
wait to go home.
Nothing changed the fact that my mother was desperately looking for solutions
and that I was still out of control. I only knew that I continued to struggle
Reading an entire chapter in a textbook was like running a race with cinderblocks
strapped to my ankles. I knew reading wasn’t supposed to feel that
way, and I knew that some of the kids who grasped things more slowly than
I did nevertheless could read with much more ease. Any reading task, especially
assignments of more than a few pages, took a terrible effort. Before starting
a new chapter, I’d count the pages to the finish line. Sometimes
I’d find that the last page of the chapter wouldn’t run the
full page, but would contain only a few paragraphs. That made me extraordinarily
happy, and reaching that final page was always a treat.
People often ask why Tourette’s should make reading such a chore.
After all, if I can see clearly, and I can think clearly, and I can handle
language, why is it so hard to read? Twitches aside, the best answer I’ve
found so far is to ask a normal reader to imagine trying to read while
several people simultaneously snap their fingers in front of your eyes
and clap their hands next to your ears. With Tourette’s, those forces
of distraction exist internally. The outside world sees only the symptoms,
when they manifest in the form of twitches and tics. But within the mind
of someone with TS, those physical impulses are only part of the picture.
The Touretter’s attention span is tormented with flashes of broken
thoughts and abstract imaginings. They constantly flick and flash like
dancing characters filling a screen and blocking the view behind them—and
they seem to move entirely of their own volition.
Yes, the tics can sometimes be squelched for very brief periods, but there
is a correlative buildup of energy that will eventually force its way
out like an explosive sneeze. At that point, the tics are as unstoppable
as water spilling over the top of a dam.
I can now see that there was a time—when my tics were emerging—that
they and I were both completely out of control. Now, if I have to, I sometimes
bite on a pen or chew gum to focus my energy elsewhere. That sometimes
temporarily quiets the tics. Various medications have also somewhat softened
the decibel level of my woops and barks, but meds also often have debilitating
side effects such as drowsiness and weight gain. Over the years I have
taken several different medications for my Tourette’s, and new drugs
are being developed all the time. So, although there currently are no
medications that completely stop the tics, there is hope that in the future
there will be. But in the fourth grade—for me—all talk of
drugs and medication was still very much in the future.…Continued
in ABILITY Magazine
Front of the Class:
How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had
by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky, copyright 2005.
Used by permission of publisher VanderWyk & Burnham (VandB.com), Acton,
Other articles in the Loni Anderson issue include Letter from the Editor
— Rebuild with Accessibility; Senator Harkin — Embryonic Stem
Cell Research; Humor — Cell Mates; Headlines — iBOT, Drug
Therapy and Hurricane Aftermath; Recipes — Soups for the Soul; Tuberous
Sclerosis — Disease with a Million Faces; COPD — What Smoking
is Really Doing to Your Lungs; ADA Update — 15 Years and Counting;
Laughing Matters — 6th Annual Comedy Showcase; Nursing School —
Students with Mulitple Disabilities; RespiteMatch.com — Matching
Caregivers with Consumers: World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences...