Then, the night before final semester classes were scheduled to start in January, I was hit by a car.
My boyfriend of a year-and-a-half was with me at the time of the accident. Actually, he had been holding my hand until seconds before the accident. We were in a cross-walk. He saw the car coming. I did not. He let go of my hand and stepped back to avoid the car, which ended up hitting me.
For a while, I didn’t move. An ambulance came. I remember looking around the inside of the ambulance and thinking, “It’s grey inside here. Or maybe it is silver. A silver lining to an ambulance, that’s good.”
My train of thought was broken by the paramedic asking, “Can you feel that?”
“Feel what?” I asked.
He was palpating my leg. I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel either leg, actually.
It turned out to be shock and nerve damage. By the time we got to the hospital, sensation in my legs had returned. They gave me the full work up anyway. No broken bones, but extensive soft tissue damage. Probably some nerve damage.
I was sent home, with instructions to rest, take Tylenol 3 and start moving again as soon as possible. There was no physical therapy, no follow up, no further instructions.
The next day, everything was swollen and bruised beyond recognition. Even lying in bed hurt. I took Tylenol 3’s like they were candy, but doing so with as little water as possible, since going to the bathroom meant getting out of bed. It took about 30 minutes to get from the bed to the bathroom, which was seven feet down the hall.
There was a niggle somewhere in the back of my mind. The accident did not make any sense to me. Why had my beloved let go of my hand and stepped back when he saw the car approaching? I mean, isn’t it more normal to try to get someone you love out of harm’s way?
Three weeks later I could walk well enough to make it to the university and start going to class. I had missed a quarter of the semester already. Some professors were compassionate, others ambivalent. My grades were sliding. Graduating that year was no longer a sure thing.
I was depressed. To make matters worse, I just couldn’t get that niggle out of the back of my mind. The whole sequence of events didn’t make any sense to me. I mean, you hear these stories about complete strangers running out into the road when there’s a car coming to whisk someone to safety. In my case, someone who supposedly loved me, made no attempt to even warn me of oncoming danger, let alone offer protection.
A week after I returned to classes, my boyfriend broke up with me. He said, “When I saw you get hit by that car, I really couldn’t have cared if you lived or died.”
He moved out the next day.
A life unwinding
The next day, I was fired from my job in a retail gift store. I had missed three weeks of work while the soft tissue injuries were healing. I went into the store to pick up the pay cheque from the last two weeks of December.
The boss said, “If you can’t stand on your own two feet, then you’re fired. You haven’t been in for three weeks.”
“I called you the day after it happened, to say I had been hit by a car,” I replied. “I couldn’t walk properly until all the swelling went down and some of the bruising healed.”
She replied, “I don’t see any crutches. Take your cheque and get out. You’re done.”
I wondered how I was going to pay the rent and buy food. Panic washed over me.
I felt like my life was unwinding before my eyes.
And now for something completely different
It had been a month since I had been hit by a car. My boyfriend had dumped me and my boss had fired me. All I had left was school. I buried my head in my books and tried to catch up on three weeks of missed classes.
My Spanish instructor had been supportive and encouraging through the ordeal. She said, “You will get through this. I’ll do what I can to help you. Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard.”
Not long after that, she arrived to class one day with a sheaf of forms in her had. asked, “Who would like a chance to study Spanish in Spain this summer?”
My ears perked up. A chance to get out of town for the summer? That sounded good to me. With her help, I filled out the form to apply for a beca or grant, compliments of the Spanish Embassy. It was a lottery, so the chances of actually getting the bursary were slim, but at that point, a chance was better than nothing. Really, what did I have to lose?
I spent the rest of the semester trying to put my life back together and at least pass my classes so that I could graduate.
It turns out that not having a job or a boyfriend can seriously help improve your grades. (Who knew?) I passed all my courses with straight A’s.
My future in an envelope
One day in May, just before graduation, I got a letter from the Spanish embassy. Of course, I couldn’t read very much of it, but I guessed that it wasn’t a rejection letter, because it wasn’t just one sheet of paper. (Ever notice how letters telling you that you didn’t get something are only ever one page long?) There was a whole bunch of stuff in the envelope. So, I took it to school the next day and asked my Spanish professor to tell me what it said. “You got it!” She said. “You’re going to Spain!”
The bursary covered tuition, books, residence and food. I didn’t have the money for the plane ticket, so I sold everything I had and gathered the money to go. A week after graduation, I was in Madrid.
I had lived in England as a child and had travelled through Europe, but I had never really travelled on my own before. It’s a life-changing experience, to travel alone to a country where you don’t speak the language or know any one. It is terrifying. I highly recommend it.
Being in the moment is over-rated
There were so many times that semester that I wanted to give up that I lost count. There were a few people who were sources of endless encouragement and support. I listened to them, mostly because I had no one else to listen to by then.
At the time I could not see that my life path was not to work in a shop. I only saw that I had been fired from a job – and I was humiliated. I could not see that a man whose break up line is “I could not have cared if you lived or died” was not worth my time. I only saw that I was rejected and alone. There are so many things that we can not see when we are living through them.
Spiritual gurus tell us to “be in the moment”. Sometimes, when that moment stinks you would really rather be anywhere else.
Forgive me if I sound sacrilegious, but I think sometimes that “being in the moment” is over-rated. Getting through the moment, is sometimes more important. “Keep on keeping on” is a better mantra, I think, for it is only when we look back at certain moments that we see the value in moving ahead even when you are not quite certain that there is any reason to do so.
Be demanding, gently
One of my anchors of sanity that semester was my Spanish teacher. I have never forgotten the support that she offered me. Other professors were skeptical. Some were even jaded. One even said, “If I had nickel for every time a student said they were hit by a car, I’d be rich by now. Teachers hear so many excuses, it is easy to become hardened and lack compassion when students face real crises.
My Spanish teacher said to me, “Don’t worry about the grades. Just work hard.” She helped me focus my attention back on my studies. That helped to keep my mind off the break up, the lost job and the pain from the contusions. Those words were enough to get me back on track and re-focus.
As a teacher, you may not know who is telling the truth and who is whining. It’s not our job to figure that out. I do believe that it is part of our job though, to ensure that they keep up with their studies to the best of their abilities. The point is not to let them off the hook, but to help them help themselves. As teachers, we can be compassionate and strict at the same time. Learning to do both at simultaneously is the mark of an exceptional teacher.
Gracias, Profesora Santos, for being exceptional. You were a beacon of hope, leading to a wonderful silver lining.
Share or Tweet this post: A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance http://wp.me/pNAh3-18C
Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!
Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.