An Alligator Where?

The Hairbrush (2)

My second-grade teacher kept an alligator in a trap door under her desk. At least that was the rumor, and I for one believed it! This might explain, at least in part, why she scared the heebee jeebees out of me.


To make things simple, I’ll call her Mrs. Cinder. I did not do well in Mrs. Cinder’s class, but I didn’t realize at the time how guilty my mother felt about this. You see, that was the year I developed what my parents thought were “nervous tics.” They started inconspicuously enough, but pretty quickly began to negatively affect my life.


Both my parents encouraged me to take control of the tics before they became worse and got completely out of hand. I tried to be obedient, follow their advice and stop ticking, but whenever I tried to control it, the pressure would build up inside of me until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to let those tics loose. I really tried stopping, but no matter what I did, I could not control them, and sure enough they got worse and I couldn’t hide them anymore.


Fortunately, my parents noticed my efforts to stop blinking my eyes, opening and closing my mouth, shrugging my shoulder, and several other tics. They came to the conclusion that ‘nervous tics’ were taking over my body and my life and didn’t know what else to do but hope this would only be temporary and maybe I would grow out of them or something.


It was a beautiful dream, but instead, my tics continued to grow more pronounced and difficult to control. Fortunately, I was indeed able to move forward in life in many other ways. At 21, I married my sweetheart while studying at the University of Utah. I graduated in 1973, then went on to earn a master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Tennessee.  Shortly after graduation, my tics got even worse and evolved into how they have been the rest of my adult life.


Fast forward to 1997. I was fifty years old and though I had long known I had a problem with tics, this is when I was first formally diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. Talking with my parents about my diagnosis, I learned for the first time about my Mom’s guilty conscience. For forty plus years she believed she could have prevented my tics from ever starting. How, you may wonder? She thought they started because of how tense and nervous I was in Mrs. Cinder’s class. All those years, Mom blamed herself for not taking me out of that class and putting me with another teacher. When Mom learned the truth, a big burden lifted from her shoulders. 


A few things about Tourette syndrome that made it easy for Mom to believe that she had been responsible: 1. The first symptoms often appear between the ages of 6 and 10 (frequently in second grade); 2. Symptoms usually taper down at the end of the teenage years (mine did and I’m sure that gave mom some hope); and 3. 10-12% of cases (mine included) get worse in the middle twenties. 


I am fortunate my parents loved and accepted me for who I am and when they realized I couldn’t control my tics they didn’t apply any more pressure on me to stop. After the incredibly difficult year of 2020, our kids need love and acceptance more than ever. Even kids in the best of circumstances face continuing challenges as we navigate this particular school year with continued masks and social distancing, isolation, and uncertainties about when or if school will ever be quite the same as it was before. One of the greatest gifts we can give our kids is to help them know that whatever is going on in their lives, they can talk with us and we will be there for them, even when life takes unexpected turns.


Happy Failing Forward,


Calvert and Anne


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