Petit-Mal Epilepsy – a memoir extract

2006, “that” Primary School, my Second Year teaching at the primary school where my daughter first enrolled at age five.there.

Her classroom was across the corridor from mine, her teacher Moira Grayson *, the Senior Teacher of Junior Classes. Overburdened with an extremely high number of children on her class roll she did, I believe, regard my daughter as a problem child. I knew she had spoken with the Principal about her work overload in general, but he ignored her.


Rebecca was too often doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. From my own classroom of Year Two children, I would see Rebecca running outside, usually with a youngster named Gary. In our chats the previous year, Moira had often spoken of how “naughty” Gary was although she never gave details. Now, I began hearing through the grapevine that Gary was to be expelled, and that Rebecca was also regarded as a “naughty” child.

I offered to spend a few of my release hours (one a week) in Moira’s classroom. I then saw for myself what trouble the children were causing. I watched one day as Gary, after a session on the mat with the class, stayed there while the others went to their tables and began to manipulate the numeracy objects placed there ready. Each table had a basic laminated task to carry out – gathering counters of the same colour and deciding which circle had the highest count of its colour. They were working away through the three mats on each table before they could “then, go outside to play”.

Rebecca had been merely stacking up counters in front of her while watching the other children at her table. I had noticed she would look over at Gary a few times. Gary stood up and ran outside, and Rebecca got up and ran outside to join him. Of course, I fetched them both in and led them back to their seats at their groups’ tables.

When another two or three children also “acted up” on other days, I eventually went to the Principal and told him he should allow Moira to promote a group of the elder children into my room. I remember I distinctly declared it was unjust to expect her to carry such a great number of pupils without a teacher aide.

I don’t think I ever mentioned the New Zealand Education Institute (N.Z.E.I), our “Trade Union” equivalent. But the next week, in came eight new classmates, including Gary.

I added them to existing groups, and they fitted in very soon. My programmes of reading and mathematics carried on, the only adaptation being their regular “running records” of reading were spaced out a little farther. When I popped in on Moira at the end of the week, she was more relaxed than I was, given one or two “moments” after Gary had buddied up with a mischievous lad in his new classroom.

“Morning Talks” as regular oral language experience was still a daily practice in classrooms, mine no exception. And on one morning, we had a break-through. I had learned to have Gary sit at my knee (I was on a chair) as I faced the class side on. I could pay attention to the speaking child, and observe all the children cross-legged on the mat.

Among that day’s “news” was an item from a young girl, pleased to let all the other girls see her latest acquisition. “I brought my doll to show you,” she said.

I thought as I watched her expression – so smug to show it off. After she finished her spiel, she asked the ritual “Are there any questions?” As a hand or two went up, I glanced at Gary, who clearly was interested and thinking.

However, as I watched, I clearly saw his eyes “die”. He was absent, although he was sitting right there. With three fourths of my attention on the questionners and the answering, the last fourth was paying close attention to him.

With no further questions, she sat down, and held her doll where all the girls could see it, and kept hold of it when pleading hands were held out “for a hold”.

The next to stand was a lad who’d just been given a truck. It was a glorious truck, given him for no other reason than his visiting Dad had brought it. After explaining this, the boy spoke again the invitation for participation and discussion – “Any questions?”

I was looking directly at Gary when his eyes came to life again. The twinkle of delight in life was back. He was fully aware and awake again. He shot up his hand.

The boy with the truck partly turned, and pointed at Gary. “Yes, Gary?”

“What name have you chosen for it?”

The floor erupted with giggles and outright laughter. The boy with the truck was perplexed, but joined in. It was as if they were “There goes Gary, making a joke again.”
In the meantime, Gary was puzzled, clearly, by their reaction. (To me, it was clearly meant as a question about the doll. Things had changed between the first query and the second, while he had been away. )

Quick Lynne! Get onto it now! “That’s actually a good question, Gary. Men do call their trucks “she”. And some do even paint the truck’s name on it. So, Peter, has Dad got a name on his truck?” Thank heavens for parent-teacher interviews; I knew he did.

“Yeah, his is called Bombay Beauty. ‘Cause she carries spuds from Bombay to the vege market in Auckland. I might call mine Papakura Pretty! Thanks, Gary!” Beaming with pride, he sat down beside him and let Gary hold his Papakura Pretty.

Later that morning, I popped in on the Principal who was still in his office at morning break. I told him I suspected Gary’s behaviour was not a problem with mischief, or naughtiness. That he could have an as-yet-undiagnosed health condition, which I suspected was petit-mal epilepsy. I wanted him to call the parents, and ask Gary’s mother to come to see me when she could.

He burst into indignation. “I will not call in the parents. How dare you try to interfere! Gary is just a maladjusted boy who is nowhere near being ready for school.”

“Then how come he has a normal reading age? He has computational skills, he—“

“This is not even your specialist level of education! You’re only just coming to the end of a year in the Junior Department! What makes you think you can identify a health problem when he’s only been in your class a few weeks?”

“Then may we please call the school visiting nurse, and ask her to come in and—“

“No we may not! You will not discuss this nonsense ever again. Not with Mrs Grayson, not with any colleagues, and certainly not with the mother. You will not have her visit you! Now return to what you should be doing and say nothing on the matter again!”

I was outraged. I only just managed to not slam his door as I left for the staffroom. Against my usual habit, I didn’t sit with anyone, but left the room with coffee mug in hand. I wandered, my head spinning. I ended up sitting on the bulwark along the side of the bark-covered playground patch, my mind miles away. Then I spotted Peter and Gary, with another boy, using Papakura Pretty to haul bark chips along a roadway they’d already scraped out of the bark. I nearly lost it, right then and there.

We all got through the rest of the day without any events beyond the norm. I noticed Gary fade out twice more that afternoon. By dismissal time, I had recalled He had not said anything about me going to speak to Gary’s mother. So, as we all packed away the chairs and hefted our school bags, I headed out with them.

“I’m going to walk down to the car park with you all today.” As I did, I was about ten paces behind Gary. I saw him wave to one woman, who waved back. He stopped, and as I passed him I could see he was “absent” again. I slowed, and waited. He was back in a count of five, and we walked along the curving concreted pathway to the gap in the half-post, knee-high rail that separated the car park from the playground.

“Hi, Mum! This is Mrs Street. She’s my teacher now.” He ducked away and to the boot, stashing his bag before clambering into his seat in the back. While he began munching his way through an apple, we passed the complimentary greetings stage.

I told her what I’d seen, how closely I’d observed her boy, and what I believed. She was surprised, and relieved that someone had been paying attention to her boy, that Gary may have a solvable problem and was not “”naughty”.

“That little pause as he walked towards you just now? He was “out”. He came back in a few seconds.”

“I saw that. Sometimes I’ve thought I’ve seen that at home.”

“Here’s what I want you to do tomorrow. Don’t bring Gary to school. Push yourself and him into his doctor. Tell him what I’ve seen, and how I’ve seen it has not affected his learning. I want you to demand that he refer Gary to a specialist for diagnosis and testing that day!”

“Will the principal mind?”

“Don’t bother about what he would mind. Gary is too bright, too lively, too clever for you to bother about anyone else. If I’m right, and he does get seen tomorrow or within the week, they will arrange the right medication to manage or even prevent these little “outages”.”

“Oh, I will. He has been such a worry to us?”

I hugged her, ignoring the few parents left who were staring in curiosity. “And, something else. Keep him at home in the meanwhile. When he’s ready for school, enroll him somewhere else. Let him start without any background of prejudice. He is not handicapped. Epilepsy is not an issue, except… well, let’s just say that here is not the school for Gary. He does not need a Special School. He just needs a school that doesn’t know how his condition has given him a reputation for being naughty or out of control.”

I tell you, she was so relieved for just this one glimpse of hope. She damned near floated to her driving seat. Gary waved and gave me a cheeky “See ya, tee-chah! As they pulled away.

He never returned to the school. Except one afternoon about four months later, he was there at the kids’ door at about quarter past three. The corridor was empty, and I was just locking my classroom door.

“Hul-low, Mrs Street! Mum wants to talk to you. Can you come to the car? Please, I mean?”
He danced on ahead. Mum was standing beside her car, waiting.

She enfolded me in a hug as I drew near. Happy tears burst as she told me she had followed my instructions. (I let it go; I wasn’t going to rain on her parade by pointing out they were strong suggestions.) She had taken Gary to his doctor, who had arranged for a specialist appointment straight away, within an hour’s drive of his surgery. The diagnosis was confirmed. Gary had been on medication for four weeks, and had just completed his first week at his new school.

Gary’s whole family had noticed a difference within the first two weeks. There were no more arguments about who was going to clean up after him, who was going to spank him. “We don’t do spanking anymore.” Gary was grinning from ear to ear. “And my big brother lets me play with his models. I’m going to make one for him in the weekend.”

I had to invent an excuse to break up the glee; the lump in my throat was damned near to choking me with tears, too. I returned to my own family, and wrote in my journal a note about his day.

I have always remembered “Gary”, and wondered what he had grown to become. Maybe someone reading this will recognise him, and be able to tell me who he is now that he is no longer that naughty boy headed for expulsion – at five, younger than the legal compulsory school enrolment age.

(Names changed for privacy protection)

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