Not a Joke

I used to tell this story as a joke:

It’s June of 2010, a Thursday, and I see one of my students crying in the office.  I took little notice – when the weather rises above 85 degrees, my school literally beings to bake.  Robeson is straight bricks with a black roof.  There are two points of exit that exist on other sides of the building and every window is “slanted” to open only about ⅓ of the way, even on the second floor.1

If you think of a brick structure with two points of exit ,a whole lot of heat, and assume it’s an oven, you win.

So it’s not surprising that I found a student, Kaila for our purposes, sitting in our deep blue chair, head in her hands.  When it’s hot, kids get upset.  When they get upset, they get into trouble.  When they get into trouble, they end up in the office – one of 3 air-conditioned rooms in the building.

Quietly, with the assumption that any time I had for grading or spending time with my wife would be forfeit, I gave her the customary “Y’arite?”

“I can’t breathe,” she whispered

I’ve been certified in first aid, CPR, and lifeguard training in the past, and the first step here is call 911.  But district procedure says call the parents.  So we do, and we question Kaila:

“Do you have asthma?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have an inhaler?”

“Not here.”

“Who has it?”

“Mom.”

Finally, we reach Mom.  She’s 7 blocks away and tells us, with no ambiguity, to wait for her.  We move Kaila to the nurses office – vacant every day but Wednesday and Friday.  It’s Thursday.

10 minutes, no Mom.  15 minutes, no Mom.  We can’t reach her cell phone  Finally, we call 911.  20 minutes after our initial phone call, Mom is no where to be seen.

I clear all of the students out of the hallways so no one sees Kaila rolled out in a stretcher.   One Administrator-Paramedic screaming match later and I’m in an ambulance.  I’m headed to CHOP, I’m trying to placate the paramedic, I’m trying to keep Kaila talking.  I’m 27 and I feel like a child.

Finally I get in touch with Mom who, speaking from the back of a police car, is on her way.  When she arrives, Kalia is resting in a bed with an oxygen mask.  Mom asks her what happened, because she “was fine when [she] left the house”.

That part right, there – that was the punchline.  The insanity of a Mom who doesn’t understand her child’s asthma, who arrived here in a police car, dealing with little ole Mr. Saltz, the English teacher who is sitting in a pediatric emergency room.  The lunacy.

And then, this.  How similar were our children?  How close was I to losing what is most precious?

In a good school with a good staff, a child almost died because the person who was trained to help her was deemed too expensive. And this was before The Doomsday Budget.  When this happens again, and it will, we will not be prepared to deal with it.  We might get lucky like Kaila.  We might not.

This is why I can’t help but feel for the staff of Bryant Elementary.  I’ve been there.  Did staff make mistakes?  Is the Dad to blame?  I don’t know.  I don’t care.  In a system dedicated to starving their schools, kids in the emergency room isn’t a bug.  It’s a feature.


  1. I never quite understood what they were trying to prevent. If your school has a problem with people jumping out the window, who decides the best thing to do is fix the window? 

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