Saturday, February 24, 2018

WHAT EVER HAPPENED...? Prologue, No Longer Teach


“Janet, say something! Janet, say something!”

Stunned, I stared at this doctor whom I had just met. She, too, was alarmed, having just examined my MRI, which revealed I had a massive brain tumor. She ordered me to go to New York University’s Medical Center to be operated on right away.

Brain tumor? Operation? I was silent, which is very rare for me!

Then, only half-joking, I replied, “First, I’m going to McDonald’s to get a Big Mac and fries, because if I am going to die, my last meal is not going to be a fat girl’s diet salad.”

That doctor, Dr. Tamai, whom I primarily credit with saving my life, giggled, and the medical residents with her laughed, too. Laughter made this terrible news a bit better.

The couple of days I had between being told I had a massive brain tumor, and the trip to NYU for surgery, boyfriend-at-the-time, Aiden, and I wrote my eulogy in case I didn't survive.

One part of that eulogy was actually pretty funny. Aiden was going to state that three stocks went down the day I passed: Disney, Hallmark, and bacon.

To this day, I laugh at that joke because it's probably accurate. I love that smiley Mickey Mouse, sending cards, and eating bacon with eggs, waffles, pancakes, peanut butter, chocolate or practically any other food item. I'm VERY glad I get to write about it here versus Aiden's delivering it at my funeral.

As frightening as the diagnosis was, learning I had a brain tumor actually brought me some relief, as it explained much that had puzzled me for so long. You will understand when I explain my saga…. 

And, I just need to write this: a wonderful woman, a stranger, whom I can only picture but cannot recall her name, came over to me as I cried, trying to eat that Big Mac right after I was told about my huge tumor. She touched my shoulder, and I jumped (because of my mysophobia – fear of germs). She asked why I was crying, and I told her my tumor diagnosis. She told me to go home and call my mother and father, as well as my boyfriend. I told her none of them talk to me anymore. She said they would all want to know about this.

Then, she called her family over to pray for me. I thanked her and have always considered her an angel. I hope she reads this someday and remembers this story from June of 2009 at McDonald’s in Kingston, NY.


I grew up along the Hudson River, in upstate New York, the Rhinebeck and Red Hook region, about 100 miles north of New York City, graduating from Red Hook Central School in 1978. To be more precise, I grew up in Rhinebeck’s Forest Park. The house my father and mother had built for us had a Rhinebeck address and telephone number, but my two sisters and I went to the Red Hook schools, as did all the other kids in Forest Park.

Writing about growing up in that suburban development brings back a lot of fun memories. At Halloween time, we were in costume contests. In the summer, we had daily kickball games on Cedar Drive. As you will understand more fully when reading later on in the book, I was the boss of everyone outside playing the games.

I still remember lying in my bed with my window open on summer nights and listening to the crickets chirp. Sleigh-riding on a nearby hill was lots of fun in the wintertime.

Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, I drive through Forest Park and try to remember the names of the kids I knew there so long ago. It really was a happy place for me.

When I drive around Forest Park to remember the names of people I once knew, I am doing what my “brain doctors” told me to do to help remember my life, after I had my brain operated on, and I have lots of fun memories to recall. I find it amazing that I can remember some stories from long ago but there are other parts of my life that I have zero recollection of! I know this is true for others with brain injury, and it’s one of the many bizarre aspects about my life now….
But, back to that drive around the old neighborhood—I remember:
·       the Kruses’ daughter Joy, who was our babysitter;
·       the Arends family, whom we played kickball with;
·       the Plotskys, whom we watched The Wizard of Oz with;
·       the Silvernails, whom I still have contact with, whose daughters I babysat;
·       the Warnimonts’ house, where I went to Girl Scout meetings at;
·       the Scisms, for haircuts;
·       the Engassars’ driveway as our bus stop; Mrs. E. as a pseudo-bus-monitor had a system to rotate the best seats among the kids waiting;
·       the Salmons, whose son, Gerry, I had a childhood crush on, and when he came to a party I hosted as a little girl, he handed me my present (perfume?) and said, “My mother made me get this for you!”;
·       the Hendricksons, whose son David and I won a dance contest in seventh grade at Linden Avenue Junior High in Red Hook, NY, dancing to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” [Rest in peace, David];
·       my friend Donna Malloy;
·       Kelly Mosher was our paper deliverer;
·       the Chupays for piano lessons;
·       the Oakhills, where I went to 4-H meetings, because of being a Forest Park Sew and Dough Girl. I remember winning blue ribbons at the Dutchess County Fair for baking Scottish Shortbread and sewing a green apron. That cracks me up now because I hate sewing, and I’m afraid I’ll start fires if I use my oven, due to my memory problems;

·       the Bartos, Albanos, and the Randalls, for being friendly neighbors.

I moved on to chilly SUNY [State University of New York] Plattsburgh, where I graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Science in Special Education. My time at P-burgh was the happiest four years of my life, though I didn’t know it at the time. I still remember swaying to Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” every Friday night before going downtown. That trip to the bars came after some dorm party. That was really the only time I partied in college. I stayed in lots of Saturday nights so I could be up early and doing classwork at the library on Sundays with the handful of other nerdy students. Looking back now, I wish I had had more fun and less studying time. I tell all young people that I meet nowadays to enjoy their youth. None of us knows what’s coming….

Returning southward, I earned my Master of Science in Education degree from SUNY New Paltz, and then taught N.Y. special education classes for 25 years: Pine Plains Central School District, Ulster County BOCES [Board of Cooperative Educational Services], and Rondout Valley Central School District.

From the very beginning, my job was my very life! I loved those students as if they were my own children. I never gave birth to babies of my own, so I bought “my kids” needed things like breakfast, socks, school supplies, and on and on and on…to the point that my tax accountant, Alex Vargas, one year said he would fire me as a client if I brought him that many receipts (over $5000) ever again. After Mr. Vargas passed away, his associate Chip referred to this story as “The Ghost of Taxes Past.”

Being in special ed. was in my blood. On my father’s side of the family, one cousin, Heather, was born with Sanfilippo Type A Syndrome, a heritable physical and neurological disorder. Sadly, she never made it to adult life, but when she was young, I bonded with her intensely. While she still could, we danced to Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Cecilia” over and over again. But when the song was about to reach the line “making love in the afternoon,” my dad ran to turn down the volume on the stereo. Whenever I hear it, I remember my too-short time with her, and it brings tears to my eyes. She had the prettiest smile. I know she is in Heaven now with God, but I still miss her. Every January 16th, her birthday, I tell her of my love in my prayers. I cherished being with her for that short time we were able to be together.

On my mother’s side, I had an Aunt Margaret who was an aide in special needs classrooms in Brooklyn and in Florida. She was so patient with these kids! She even took one of her students to live with her, almost as mother and child, a child lucky to have my aunt in her life. Aunt Margaret and that child have passed away, but I think of them often. I also took one of my students into my home as a foster son…but I will tell that story here later on.

I cannot state strongly enough how much I loved being a teacher! I was organized and prepared. Most Sundays were spent going to church and then writing lesson plans for the upcoming week during the rest of that day. My classroom was loaded with decorations (some educational, some thought-provoking, and some just for fun).

I’m a major Mickey Mouse memorabilia collector, and so we did lots of special activities to commemorate his birthday. November 18, 1928, was when MM premiered in Steamboat Willie. On November 18th most of the years I taught, we prepared MM pancakes and played with MM dice for our math time. We dressed up in all of the T-shirts that I collected on my too-numerous-to-count trips to Disney World in Florida.

On those trips to Disney World, I loved buying my students souvenirs from the gift shops. The first day of school in September or the first days back from our winter and spring breaks, the class would find on their desks MM pencils, erasers, notepads, candies, and, oh, so much more!

Carrying the Disney shopping bags around the theme parks became so cumbersome, my family helped me…until one year when my mother put both of the huge bags over my shoulders and told me she was done!

I had unique ways of teaching routine topics. When the kids needed to learn the months of the year, for instance, instead of merely reciting from a chart with January through December, we would dance and sing to the song “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire and replace some of the words in it with the other months’ names. Instead of just reciting the alphabet, we’d dance to the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.,” and use our arms and legs to form those four letters, as lots of folks still do while dancing at wedding receptions.

I met the Village People once, when we stayed at the same hotel while they performed a show with Cher. Being very good at telling others exactly what to do, I told the Village People that they do the letter “M” wrong. They told me that it’s their show! Silly me.

I was very active in Special Olympics. I coached, volunteered, and sat on many committees over the years. These games were so eagerly anticipated by my students that they hardly slept the night before. Many of these kids, as adults, still display in their homes the medals they won as Special Olympians. I cannot say enough about how wonderful that organization is for special needs people! I reference an excellent book about it in my reading recommendations.

I spent extra hours and hours on my teaching job. I went in early and stayed late. I brought tons of paperwork home with me. I visited the homes of many of my students. I planned numerous field trips to both fun and educational places. Despite the extra effort involved, these outings were well worthwhile.

I can still remember some of the great places I took my students to. At a water park one day in Summer School, Danielle, a former student who is now in her 30s, but very young then, flipped over into the water while sitting on a floating inner tube. When the lifeguards did not see this happening, I jumped in and pulled her out of the water. I still visit her, and she tells that same story with the refreshing enthusiasm of a youngster almost each time we get together at local restaurants. [I have permission from her parents to use Danielle’s name.]

Some of my students had never eaten lobster, so we took trips to Red Lobster. The kids loved wearing the plastic bibs as they sampled dipping their lobster meat into melted butter. Recently, a former student who was moving out of the state with his family asked me if we could get together to say our good-byes. I couldn’t wait to see him again…and he picked Kingston, New York’s Red Lobster as our place to eat, as that was his favorite field trip destination long ago.

Because of my memory problems caused by the brain injury, I can’t remember all of the places we went to on field trips. That’s why I’m glad that I took tons of pictures over those years. The pics are not organized, so they sloppily fill several suitcases. Yes, suitcases! But when I need to feel better about my life, I go to my “teacher room” in my condo, and I look at those pictures. The fun of the class trips is easy to see on the faces of those kids!

I taught after-school and evening classes to other teachers. It makes me feel so good when I bump into some of those professionals and they tell me how they’re continuing to use the methods they learned from me years ago. I was on many different committees and attended lots and lots of meetings. Anyone who criticizes teachers for their “short” hours should just watch a teacher for a week and then they’ll know there’s so much more to teaching than just the hours spent at school. I applaud anyone in this field because I know how hard it can be sometimes. I also know it is incredibly rewarding!

If I knew then what I know now, I would have cherished teaching even more. Not going to work each day breaks my heart.

The damage from my long-undiagnosed brain tumor is permanent, as one might expect from something that grew to be the size of an orange. My behavior nowadays is sometimes “off the charts.” I need to learn each day how to watch my impulsivity and irritability. What’s particularly ironic is that I now do behavior modification for myself just as I once did for my students. On my “good behavior” days, a wee bit of milk chocolate at the end of the day is my way of rewarding myself. On my “bad behavior” days, I reflect on how to improve so I can merit some more chocolate.

I always had a feisty personality. I spoke my mind loud and clear. When that behavior decreased, it should have been a warning sign that something was wrong with me. I became quieter and quieter. When I did speak, I slurred some words, even though sober.

I began to have serious problems with a morbid fear of touching doorknobs and anything else that might harbor germs. This mysophobia (fear of germs) became truly obsessive! I could not sit in movie theaters or in church because I once heard a DJ on the radio state that those places are never cleaned. I had a very difficult time in restaurants whenever I witnessed what I considered to be unsanitary practices. I needed help in restrooms because I couldn’t touch the latch or faucets or doorknobs….

At my local McDonald’s I was affectionately dubbed “Myso Girl,” because I needed help with handling my money, and I expected the workers to be extra careful with using gloves when preparing my meals. I’ll bet my local McDonald’s spends less on plastic gloves now since I’m over this OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] behavior.

This time of my life was very dark for me. I spent $1000 a month on items like hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes with bleach, vinyl gloves, etc. I lost the skin on the back of my hands because I scrubbed my hands with so many chemicals! At school, I went into my classroom at 6 a.m. every day and scrubbed the doorknobs, the seats I sat in, the chalk I touched, the classroom’s phone, and so much more. It was exhausting!

I was teaching children who were chronologically seventh and eighth graders at my last job.  Academically, they were several years below these grade levels. I felt so much guilt about being less of a teacher than I once was. I had earned many awards over the previous years. In 1992 I had a medal draped around my neck by the New York State Commissioner of Education at a ceremony at the Hotel Thayer at West Point. I tumbled from that type of recognition to crying each day as I scrubbed the classroom down.

Some folks laugh about being a “germ freak,” being a “germaphobe,” but for millions of us, it is not a laughing matter. It ruled my existence.

One spring day in 2007, two years BEFORE learning I had the brain tumor, I had just taught a math lesson. The students were working on a worksheet, and I went to my desk to scrub myself with hand sanitizer. I had bottles of the chemical all over my room. The classroom phone rang at the same time that someone knocked on the door. My student Ned [some student names have been changed in this memoir for protection of their privacy] went to answer the door, as they all knew I couldn’t touch it, and my student Barbara ran to the phone, which the kids knew I wouldn’t touch, and said, “Ms. Schliff’s class. How can I help you?”

Both of these tasks should have been mine to handle. Instead, I sat at my desk scrubbing my hands as if I were preparing to perform surgery. I looked up and began to sob. These poor kids were doing my job, when they had so many difficulties of their own. I looked at my assistant and said, “Lorraine, I have to go.” Lorraine Iocovello was a present from God at the darkest time of my life. She was my assistant at this, my last job. She helped me in so many ways when I couldn’t do a good job anymore.

I went down to the first floor and into the Union President’s room and began the process of resigning from the profession I loved.


For the coming year, I will be excerpting, weekly, material from this fine book by Janet Johnson Schliff, M.S.Ed.. She wrote it over a three-year period, with some coaching and editing help from me, through my business, The excerpts are from almost the final version. The book is now available from and from its publisher, 



Janet Johnson Schliff will be on WKNY  Radio 1490 at 9:10 a.m. on March 1, Kingston, NY.

Janet Johnson Schliff will be speaking at 1 p.m. on Saturday, March 3, at Barnes & Noble, 1177 Ulster Avenue, Kingston, NY.

I plan to attend, also.

Janet Johnson Schliff will speak at the Starr Library at Rhinebeck, NY, at 7 p.m. on March 6.

She will speak at the Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock, NY, at 2 p.m. on March 17. 

She will appear at RCAL in Kingston, NY, at 4 p.m. on April 3. 

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