Glenn Hameroff, 51, was a teacher in the Three Village School District for 28 years, where the classes he taught included Great Moral Issues, Advanced Placement MicroEconomics and AP European History. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 1992, and continued teaching until the winter of 1997 when his condition forced him to retire.
What did you like most about teaching?
Well, in teachers who like teaching, like me, there is a bit of a dramatic actor. Teaching becomes a stage. The teacher has a captive audience who has to listen to bad jokes whether they like it or not. I really enjoyed seeing the assortment of tenth through twelfth graders in my electives, watching them mature socially and intellectually. My students gave me a sense of family. I liked being intellectually provocative, asking questions and making people think.
By the time I was in your class, you'd been dealing with Parkinson's Disease for some time. Soon after your diagnosis, did you find that the students' rapport with you changed as your condition became known?
Well, as far as my relationship with my students goes, my career can really be divided into two sections. First there was the pre-illness period, in which I had a good sense of humor and a good rapport with my students. I prepared them well for their tests. This phase ended as the illness progressed. A change overtook me as I realized that there would be an abrupt end to my teaching career - I tried to make each day and each class important, since I was never sure which would be my last. The very best in my students came out at that time. They offered a tremendous wealth of understanding, love, support and humanity. Those qualities were always there, but I didn't see them as well as I did toward the end of my teaching. There wasn't as much need for these qualities to show when I was "Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky."
I remember you often being worn out at school, trying to continue teaching as the disease demanded more of you. What were the biggest obstacles your illness presented you?
Well, Parkinson's Disease is a big consumer of energy, even when you aren't doing anything. The condition basically makes you fight against your own body. I had always been a very high-energy teacher, and I put a lot of time into what I did. The disease took away my belief that learning could be accomplished in the classroom. I was very self-conscious about the image I portrayed as the disease manifested itself. I had a changed persona, I didn't want to be helped; both of these were difficult to overcome. One loss was that I was robbed of the ability to think on my feet. On my last day of teaching, a student asked me a question which I'd answered at least ten times, but I just couldn't answer it. That last day of my teaching career marked the onset of a devastating depression.
Your last day in the classroom was one you will never be able to forget; aside from that one, can you describe a particularly memorable day or phase you had as a teacher?
Some of the best days for me were when we studied something that really interested me, like 19th century impressionist art or the dynamics of propaganda under Hitler. I was into it, and the kids caught onto that. Those days, no matter how hard I worked, I always finished with more energy than I started with.
I do remember one day in particular in the early 1980s, when I helped organize a symposium on the Nuclear Freeze Movement. The issue was whether or not nations should be involved in the arms race. I brought my then seven-year-old son along, thinking that all the material would be over his head and wouldn't scare him. But when he saw a cartoon of children melting in Hiroshima, he got it. As we were driving home, he asked, "Daddy, if they drop a bomb on our house, we'll be okay, right?"
I told him we would go downstairs and be okay, but I felt I was really letting him down. Perhaps it was wrong of me to have left him in a state of blissful ignorance - I owed him more. To this day I feel I did the wrong thing, but my son has no memory of it.
Leaving a lifelong career is a big adjustment for anyone, but unlike most, you didn't get to choose at what point you wanted that transition to begin. After you left teaching, what did you do to cope with the ending of that phase? How did you feel about your future?
When I left teaching I developed a real sense of loss, and became very depressed. I felt I'd lost to my enemy. It was a tougher, more intense adjustment than I would've experienced if I'd left teaching at retirement age. The night of my last day of teaching, as my wife slept I began to plan the end of my life. I thought, What could a retired teacher with a progressive, stress-sensitive neurological condition do? The prospect of the future seemed quite dismal. It took months of psychotherapy and the love of family to help me bounce up off the floor.
Ultimately, I realized that although Parkinson's disease has penetrated my existence and strained every relationship, it does not have to mean the end of productive and important work!
Now, one year after retirement, you are a happy and active man. What has retirement enabled you to do that you couldn't do?
Yes - retirement opened up the world of the Internet to me, as I started writing my weekly column in the local paper. My column's purpose is to connect people in the community, to give them a means of communication and a way of saying "thank you." I use the Internet to communicate with Ward Melville graduates and retired faculty. Then I publish the information in my column on topics ranging from what they have done since high school, to teachers whom they wish to thank, to their reflections on what it was like to grow up or work in the Three Village area. It's meant to show that it takes three villages to raise a child.
I got more into writing and the agony of defeat that goes along with it. I submitted a lot of my writing to various publications.
Given that computers provide you with a frequent communication, I wondered whether your decreased coordination limits use of computers?
Well, I'm still able to type and to use the computer; I just have to save my energy and go slowly. I'm hopeful about being able to record things rather than type them. There's a computer voice technology program that would allow that.
If, years ago, you had been able to foresee yourself in the present, what might you have done differently?
I would have taken the advice to use more sick days to prolong my career. I personalized my illness as the enemy; I couldn't let it win. Giving in seemed like giving up, which was silly.
I remember my doctor saying, "Get down from the cross or be buried under it." I told him I was Jewish, and he said, "Well, get down from the star or be buried under it." I held out longer than everyone advised I should. I like to think I would've approached that differently, but I don't know.
What advice would you give to someone facing chronic illness?
Hopefully the person will be fortunate to have a strong support network. He should know that there are going to be low days, but remember that he's got to keep his chin up and keep as busy as possible. Try not to think about the illness; depression is a downward multiplier, and being depressed only gets you more depressed.
What keeps you going?
I am lucky to have a wife who is my best friend, a wonderful son, a doctor who treats me like a brother, and a dog who doesn't listen!
What is your biggest goal right now?
To make the column I write better and better. I would like to professionalize it as a mode of alumni communication. I'd also love to get an op-ed piece published. I want to keep coping as the disease progresses, and not give in as it gets worse.
What sort of tips or advice might you give a beginning teacher?
I would definitely say that it takes years to learn to be a teacher. Try not to copy other teachers; learn to be yourself in the classroom. The most important skill to master is classroom management because without order, learning can never take place. Learn to manage classroom discussions so that you can tell a few jokes if you want to, and still not digress too far from the lesson. Give yourself time and patience.
If we promise not to laugh, do you think you could provide us with an example of one Hameroff Original?
Sure. For several months, I had preceded my colleague as the fourth period Social Studies teacher in room 126. Every day, Mr. O's fifth period class would file into the room and see me, answering my students' last-minute questions.
One day, Mr. O was a few minutes late, and one of his observant cherubs blurted out, "Are you a sub?" In a state of incredulity, I responded, "No, I'm an aircraft carrier!" The young man cautiously backed up and fell into his seat. During the entire maneuver he kept his eyes glued to me, almost as if he expected me to launch a wing of fighters.
Since retiring, Mr. Hameroff continues to serve as a role model. He has shown us how to persevere despite setback, and how to adjust to the unexpected. He has not lost his spirit.
He reminds me of a new set of paints - vibrant, charged with energy, and bursting with possibilities - with a message to convey. He is anything but forgettable. His obvious love of life and of people paints an enduring impression of intelligence, wit, enthusiasm and, above all, of fortitude in the minds of everyone he meets.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.