Bronchitis, DC, DMV, Duquesne University College of Education, Fear of a "Black" America, Pneumonia, Presidential Classroom, Silver Spring Maryland, Sleep Deprivation, Uninsured, Washington DC, Work Ethic Mythology
This summer marks 20 years since me and my wife of now more than 19 years moved down to the DC area, specifically Silver Spring. I had visited and lived in the DMV and in the Shepherd Park neighborhood in DC in the years between 1992 and 1997, mostly to visit friends like Laurell or Marya, for previous job searches, or to do my dissertation research. I lived in DC in 1995 for two months, between February and April 1995.
But other than a few days here and there, I hadn’t experienced the full onslaught of a DC summer until the summer of transition from Pittsburgh to DC and Silver Spring in 1999. I’d just accepted Presidential Classroom’s offer for the full-time gig as their Director of Curriculum, but was still obligated to teach my summer grad course in History of American Education at Duquesne University. Part of my obligation upon saying yes to the Presidential Classroom job was spending a week in DC with the high school students and with their instructors for the week, going around town to the key events of a week of civic education in Washington. It made sense that I would need to see programming at ground level before working on the curriculum and any new ideas I might have to improve it.
Although it made sense in theory, in reality, the job was a test of how well I’d perform with serious sleep deprivation and center-right White folk as my constant companions. I cleared my schedule in mid-June to be one of the instructors with the students. I should have cleared my lungs and sinuses for this part of my new gig as well.
I already knew from previous visits and stays that DC flora caused me some serious allergic reactions. In May 1994, I couldn’t breathe for five days, my nose was that stopped up. This was and remains the land of drained swamps and marches, after all.
Between that and a group of government workers turned barely trained instructors who went on benders night after night, I didn’t sleep. Between sinus issues and corn-fed high school juniors and seniors looking to make out and hook up in violation of the curfew during the week, I couldn’t sleep. Did I also mention instructors had to share a room? It was a small hotel room at the Georgetown University Medical Center Marriott. My roomie’s snoring made my own seem like I wasn’t breathing at all. I doubt if I averaged five hours of sleep per night that first week.
While going between sweating on the mall or in line at the Capitol or at the White House in 95 or 99-degree heat and being blasted with bus and Georgetown’s air conditioning, I picked up a head cold. Hanging out on the next-to-last night with the other instructors until 2 am didn’t help. Nor did chaperoning the farewell dance until 5 am the next night.
My head cold died down as I moved into my own room for a couple of days while going around town to find a place for me and my then fiancee to live once my Duquesne course ended and we could pack up to leave Pittsburgh. But it didn’t quite go away. I started to cough, sometimes out of nowhere and for no particular reason. On Wednesday before I had to leave to go back to the ‘Burgh to teach and begin the wind-down process for moving, I found a nice luxury apartment just over the DC border in Silver Spring. It was the so nice it made me want to cry. The staff seemed wonderful, if overdressed for daytime and maybe not quite there detail-wise. But I know I sounded like shit that triple-H afternoon.
It didn’t get any better the rest of the summer. I taught for five weeks with aches, chills, and a window-rattling cough that would stop my lectures for at least two minutes at a time while I waited for the coughing fit to subside. I have no idea what my students thought. That summer, I had a soon-to-be mainstream Black actor who talked way too much and a bunch of future and in-service teachers in that class. Really, they were probably more concerned about earning A’s than whether I passed out in the middle of class.
It occurred to me that I might have asthma, and that the cold I caught in DC had severely exacerbated it. Maybe I would’ve gone to see a doctor, that was, if I had any health insurance. Bronchitis, though, was far from my mind.
I assumed that all I needed to do was rest. But who could rest with a move coming up, starting a new job, turning in grades after grading papers, signing leases, buying engagement rings, and finding an agent for Fear of a “Black” America? That was my July and August 1999 when I wasn’t in the classroom earning my hacker’s license.
So I muddled through the heat of my fiancee’s apartment, the cold of Duquesne’s classrooms, the humidity of the DMV, the exertion of packing and moving boxes, and so many other things that summer. By the time I started working in the office at Presidential Classroom in Alexandria the third week in August, I was sucking Halls lozenges like they were orange-cream popsicles and I was six years old again.
Then, my future wife intervened. She correctly guessed that I had bronchitis and that I was on the verge of pneumonia. “You are not leaving this apartment! You are not getting out of bed!,” she said to me when I came home from work at the start of Labor Day Weekend. I didn’t have the energy to fight her, although I did whine, “What about our dinner plans?” somewhere in her bossing me around.
Well, I did leave the bed that three-day weekend, to go to the bathroom and to watch Tiger Woods win yet another tournament. Otherwise, hot soups, hot water, no air conditioning (my partner kept it off for me that weekend), VapoRub, a ton of Benadryl and Advil and NyQuil and Theraflu. Between Saturday night and Monday afternoon, I regularly coughed up the yellowest and greenest mucus I’d ever seen come out my body. My significant other would go, “Yuuuccckkk!” every time I showed her the concoction of sickness my lungs pushed out. In my head, I agreed.
I literally could have died 20 years ago. Seriously. Bronchitis and pneumonia are serious illnesses, even for the relatively healthy 29-year-old I was in 1999. The lack of health insurance and a single-minded commitment to getting out of Pittsburgh and academia, to finding a real job, made me sick. I was a half-dead man walking in August 1999. Another month like that could have killed me.