What do they do? Tales from a school volunteer

Since September, I’ve volunteered bi-weekly in my daughter’s second grade class.  Seeing the inner workings of her class room brightens my day.  Her teacher is wonderful, friendly and fun, but firm. She leads the class with confidence. Over the course of the year, I’ve seen the children blossom under her guidance. Ms Turner knows how to bring out the best in each child and I’m grateful my daughter has been part of her class.

But one thing still mystifies me. What do those children do to those pencils?

After sharpening the pencils once early in the school year, I realized that is an easy task for me to start on when Ms. Turner is busy instructing the class. It is a tedious task, but I don’t mind it since the school has an electric pencil sharpener. I’ve watched the pencils dwindle in number, even discarding a few myself as the stubs became too short to feed to the whirring blades of the sharpener. It pleases me that the children use them so much. I see them scribbling away in notebooks or working on math pages when I visit, but sharpening the pencils reminds me how much work they do as they learn.

But evidence of tooth marks tell me they sometimes suffer anxiety. By now, most pencils feature multiple bite marks. I picture the children I’ve come to know putting the pencil in their mouth as they apply “strategies” to their science or math tests.  Perhaps the kinetic learners need this gesture in order to get their thoughts in order, for others it’s nerves.

Most worrisome of all are the pencils whose severely dented metal ends and lack of erasers indicate a number of parents will one day pay for braces.  My daughter assures me she doesn’t chew on the metal, but she said nothing about chomping down on erasers. At least she cleared up one mystery for me.  Last week she informed me the boys beside her bothered her by competing to see who could break a pencil first.  Now I know why I discarded four jagged stubs today.

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A fear of death

Recently in Virginia a first grader named Ammaria died after suffering anaphylactic shock.  We may never know the precise details, but the gist of the story is this: Ammaria came in contact with peanuts at recess. She fell ill and was rushed to the school clinic. Someone called 911 but when help arrived, it was too late.  Her life could have been saved if she’d been administered an Epi-Pen.

The night I learned of Ammaria’s death, I tended to my daughter’s hives for the fourth time in three days. I dutifully recorded every thing she ate, drank and played with trying to pinpoint where she may have encountered the peanuts most likely responsible for her reaction.  I breathed a sigh of relief knowing she had life saving medicine at school in case the worst happened. Then she told me she first noticed the hives at school.

I reeled on her. I know she heard the panic in my voice. Her eyes grew wide and fearful as I bombarded her with questions, demanding to know if she told an adult and why she hadn’t. I couldn’t believe it.  My daughter, the one who reads labels, refuses to eat anything if she isn’t sure of the ingredient list and tells adults and children in the area that she can’t be near peanuts, also is the one who didn’t speak up because she didn’t want to bother anyone.

My daughter’s hesitation to speak up could bring about her death.

This is the reality of parenting a child with food allergies.  It’s not just a peanut butter sandwich that could kill her, but also a fear of being a nuisance or forgetting an epi-pen, or an entrenched system of laws that prevent a child from receiving life saving medicine.

Here’s the thing. If Ammaria’s school is anything like my daughter’s, there was a drawer full of epi-pens in the nurses office that will be thrown away, unused, at the end of the school year. Any one of those epi-pens that will become trash could have saved Ammaria’s life, but they were prescribed to someone else.  Laws prevented the school from giving her life saving medicine.  If she lived in my school district, Ammaria would most likely be alive today because local law requires Chesapeake Public Schools to keep two doses of unprescribed epinephrine on site.

If Congress gets its act together, we can make sure all children have access to this life saving medicine, at least during the school day.  S. 1884, also known as the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, would require schools to stock this medicine. The cost per school is minimal, but could save lives of children and staff. Remember, epinephrine helps not just those with a reaction to peanuts, but also deadly bee stings and more.   You can learn more through FAAN’s website.  We require defibrillators, why not epinephrine?

Until this law passes, I’ll keep my daughter’s epi-pens handy. And if I see your child in the throes of an anaphylactic fit, I’ll use my pen to save his or her life.  But please, promise not to sue me.