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Music by David Friedmann

An Exception to Every Rule

Everyone has a point in their life when they feel different from everyone else around them. Whether they have beliefs that are unique to them, have a different skin color or ethnicity than their peers, or are simply in unfamiliar territory, people experience that sinking feeling in a wide variety of ways. Having never moved, growing up attending private schools in Connecticut, and being around kids who shared similar backgrounds as I did, however, I never really experienced any of these typical reasons for feeling like an outsider. Instead, I had a reason, as they say, for the books…and, ironically, I had a reason that made me wonder how many people I knew were in a similar situation.

On a crisp October day in Middlefield, CT, I sat in my third grade classroom. This put me at the end of the long middle school hallway, next to the entrance to the gymnasium, and just two doors down from the nurse’s office. I listened (intently, no doubt) to my favorite teacher I ever had, Ms. Sjostrom (show-strum). Having just graduated college, Ms. Sjostrom began her teaching career with our class. She was young, energetic, effective, and, yes, gorgeous. She had shoulder-length, wavy, dirty-blond hair, an oval-shaped face with blue eyes that spoke to you, and a smile that shined.

This was the year we finally got to learn how to write in cursive, something I could not wait to do and probably have done a total of three times since. On this particular fall day, we were working on our “m’s” and “n’s.” I never understood why someone decided they should add an extra hump on each, making the “n” an “m,” as far as I was concerned, and the “m” something else entirely…but I decided this would be as close as anything could ever come to a stupid question, so I still do not know the answer to this day.

“Okay, everyone,” Ms. Sjostrom announced as we wrote silently at our desks, “that’s all for today. Time for lunch.”

The ten of us in the class put away our materials, and retrieved our lunch boxes from our “cubbies,” as we call them in middle school. In my private elementary school, there was no cafeteria, there was only hot lunch on “pizza day,” there were no “lockers” until sixth grade, and there were twenty kids in our graduating class. In some ways, it was an ideal way to go to school. In others, it could be a nightmare.

In a class of twenty, and a school (preschool through eighth grade) of less than two-hundred, there really were no secrets. And even if you had a doozey like I did, and tried with everything you had to keep it quiet, people could at least tell that something was “up.”

Our desks were set up in groups of four, and I sat at the one closest to the door, surrounded on three sides by kids who, at that time of my life, I could merely refer to as “acquaintances.” We talked a little, about god-knows-what, though I mainly just listened and munched on my tuna fish sandwich on rye bread. To say that I am a creature of habit would be putting it lightly, and during third grade, I was a couple of years into my tuna-fish-on-rye-bread-with-chips-on-the-side stage. I cannot say how long that particular string lasted, but I do know that I have long since moved on. Thank god.

Then, as quickly and without warning as a summertime thunderstorm in Florida, it began to happen. I felt a tightening in my esophagus. Even at a young age, I was fully educated on a score of medical terms. In this case, unlike most people probably would, I could tell the difference between my esophagus and my throat. And I knew I did not like my esophagus. It tightened, and I continued eating. I suppose the outcome was a given at this point and I didn’t care. Nearly seven years later, a doctor in Massachusetts would scare me half to death and make me care, but in third grade, it was just something that happened.

The tightness started low down, and worked its way up toward my throat. I felt the urge to cough, but embarrassing as that always was, I struggled for a moment to hold it. The battle, however, was short-lived. I coughed. And coughed again. One of the littlest-known facts about my rare condition is that people born with it have a cough all to their own. A cough with a specific sound no one else can claim. Lucky us.

As if on queue, I looked over at Ms. Sjostrom, who was staring back. I gave her the usual nod, and gave a brief thought as to how much my life sucked. I was the sick one in the classroom. In the grade. In the school, for all I knew. And that’s the way it always was. With the exception of the hospital I frequented, I was the sick one wherever I went. At the movies, I was the kid who coughed enough for people to stare. When I played sports, I was the one who got winded before others broke a sweat. And at the Independent Day School in Middlefield, Connecticut, I was the one who was lucky if he made it through lunch.

“Why don’t you take a sip?” my seatmate, Anna, pointed to the juice box that sat on my desk.

I tried to smile at her, but I had learned long ago that smiling and coughing at the same time was as possible as sneezing with your eyes open. “That won’t help. Thanks, though,” I managed to get out. Anna looked confused. In fact, she had the same look everyone did when I informed them that “liquid intake,” as doctors liked to call it, would not help. Of course, if someone is choking, the assumption is that water is the best medicine. I tended to be the exception to rules. And sometimes, when it came to liquid nourishment, I was even the exception you could read about in text books. Not only did beverages fail to help when I was having trouble swallowing, but water was less helpful than anything. It was proven on many occasions that most people’s anti-cough was my anti-cure.

I coughed again. And again. By now, there was a tightening in my throat that would not go away unless I forced it to. That meant job number one was leaving the classroom. I once again made eye contact with Ms. Sjostrom, and pointed my right thumb toward the door. She nodded, and I made my way toward the restroom. Sometime later that afternoon, Ms. Sjostrom would tell me that I did not have to ask to leave the next time I had a problem. I would say “ok, thanks,” and the next time my throat clamped up, I would ask anyway.

By the time I was halfway across the hall, I was moving at a good pace. I opened the door with the hand that was not covering my mouth, and made sure I was alone. The next  few minutes would be embarrassing, and I was strangely good at putting the inevitable off until there was no one in sight. As usual, I entered the middle stall, stood there, and coughed…

“Hi,” I said with a shy smile as I walked into Mrs. Anderson’s office.“Well, hello, Ryan. Everything alright?” The nurse motioned toward the chair sitting by her desk, and I sat down, feeling slightly winded.

“I just - umm - coughed up,” I said in a frustrated voice.

Standard procedure, as I had figured out, called for Mrs. Anderson to pull out her 3-ringed notebook, which held the official health forms our parents had signed before we were allowed to enroll. If she didn’t know what my form said by now, then my name wasn’t Ryan Charles Gordon. But it was standard procedure.

After a moment’s discussion, we determined that I should use a nebulizer machine, which I thought of as an electric inhaler. While my level of hatred for the thing has been seldom matched in my lifetime, it was simply necessary under certain circumstances. This was one of them. I sat with the nurse for nearly fifteen minutes, inhaling a drug called xoponex and reading a magazine. In the meantime, Mrs. Anderson called my mom - more standard procedure - and informed her of my visit. There were three ways of telling when the nebulizer was finished. The first was that the liquid substance you had poured into it was no longer there. The second was that the steam stopped coming out. The third was that the obnoxiously loud noise it made changed to a different obnoxiously loud noise. I tended to listen for the noise. When I heard the subtle variation, I turned the machine off, stood up, and rinsed out the mouthpiece in the sink.

“Thanks.” I had nothing more to say.

“You are always welcome,” Mrs. Anderson handed me a small, yellow piece of paper to give to Ms. Sjostrom upon returning to the classroom. I turned and left.

I walked into an empty room. The chalkboard was blank, except for a note that simply stated, “outside.” I glanced at my lunchbox, which still sat on my desk, and sat down. Making sure not to take a sip of juice, I finished my tuna sandwich without so much as clearing my throat. I cleaned up my things, and made the long, lonely walk toward recess.From just outside the school, and the top of the hill, I could see Ms. Sjostrom with another teacher about half way down, looking out on the 50 or so kids enjoying their daily release. Before making my way down to hand her note, I, too, looked around. Some kids were playing a competitive game of “wall ball.” Others enjoyed a trip down the slide, while others still busied themselves with touch football. Whatever their activity of choice, though, I could not help but notice how brilliantly normal they all looked. Nor could I help but wonder what secrets they were struggling to keep inside.

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