Story Strong

A student came to my office, looked around my office. As he crossed the threshold, his step faltered. I turned to see what had caused his reaction—he was staring at my calendar, a Jewish calendar with a big Star of David emblazoned on it. 

Photo by Nick Youngson,

Photo by Nick Youngson,

Curious, I scrutinized him, searching for a clue that would explain his behavior. He was tall, his hair was dark and curly, he was suntanned—nothing that would normally call attention to him. 

“I just got back from my country”—he emphasized my country—“where I was diagnosed with a health problem. I will need surgery. I may miss the next test.” Listening to his accent, the way he rolled his r’s, the fluidity, the intonation, I suspected he was an Arab.

I had to ask, “What is your country?” 

He watched me closely. “I am from Palestine.”

I sat up. “Then we come from the same region, I am Israeli.”

He stiffened.

I smiled. “I knew you were an Arab. I’ve met many Arabs over here, but you’re my first Palestinian.”

“I’ve never met a Jew before and I never thought I’d speak to an Israeli.”

“Where are you from specifically?”

Warily we danced around each other verbally, letting out tidbits of information, piecemeal, watching for each other’s reactions. His family had fled Palestine in 1948, during what we Israelis call the War of Independence and the Arabs refer to as the Catastrophe.They now lived in Jordan. I told him of my brother’s sojourn in Lebanon as a medic during the 1982 Lebanon War.

After that initial cautious encounter, he stopped by my office several times. We were intrigued by each other, interested in each other’s stories. 

We all carry labels. Mine include mother, textile artist, writer, the brain injury survivor, Jew, the Israeli. I am all of those and much, much more. If I want people to get to know me beyond those labels, if I want to let them into my life and be part of their lives, I need to tell my story, and I need to take advantage of every opportunity to do so. 

I started writing shortly after I returned home from hospital, where I’d undergone three brain surgeries. I felt lost, as if I’d been dumped in the middle of an alien landscape without a compass. I pored over many websites and read through several books, but found nothing to help me guide me through this new world. I needed to understand what had happened to me, who I was becoming. I decided to record my journey while I bumbled along, hoping it would help me see the bigger picture and gain a better perspective of where and who I was. In time, wanting to reach a broader audience, I hired a writing coach in order to improve my writing skills. She was a fantastic teacher—she transformed me from a journal type writer to an award winning author.

As my stories took shape, I became aware of the importance of storytelling. They allow us to move past the labels, to build trust, to firm our ties with each other, to sustain our humanity.

My student and I could have easily denied each other’s stories. He did not have to create an opening to tell his story by mentioning “his country” and I did not have to step right through the proffered door. We could have easily let labels and distrust guide us. By opening that door to me, he was showing me the utmost respect, and by crossing that threshold, I too, was treating him as a fellow human being, with all the respect he was due.

In order to have any hope for humanity, for peace, we have an obligation to share our stories. We should feel compelled to take the time to listen, showing our respect to our storytellers, to risk peace.

Teach the Children

I paused, took a deep breath, then read through the problem again. It still looked like a tangle of black yarn with no beginning and no end.


Okay, okay, I can do this. Line by line. Sentence by sentence.

I read the first sentence: “An island is 2 miles due north of its closest point along a straight shoreline.” Oh God! What the hell does that mean?

“Closest point along…” What? There’s no way I can figure this out.

I felt my heart pounding in my chest. C’mon, breathe.

What if I draw a picture?

“An island...” I could do that.

“2 miles due north of its closest…” Another deep breath. Perhaps if I skip ahead.

“a straight shoreline.” I could draw a straight shoreline.

I reread the first part of the sentence. Oh, the island is north of the shoreline. I adjusted the drawing—shoreline on the bottom, island above it. Oh, 2 miles above it.

Bit by bit, I managed to make sense of the problem, every so often having to inhale deeply to prevent myself from panicking. Once I completed the picture, I figured out how to translate it into variables and equations. Solving it was a piece of cake, I’d already mastered implicit differentiation.

Before the brain surgeries, I would have flown through the problem, thinking it through as I read it, sketching the picture quickly while incorporating the variables into the picture, then writing the equations without any hesitation.

The filters responsible for processing input were damaged by my brain surgeries—pieces of information often carry the same value. My brain had trouble sorting through large volumes of data. I now thought more slowly, much more slowly. Seeing the bigger picture was more of a challenge—I had to think through each piece of the puzzle before I was able to understand how it fit it into the puzzle as a whole. I had to take one step at a time. There were no shortcuts.

My neuropsychologist explained that I’d lost facility but not capacity: my ability to access data and my processing speed had decreased, but my brain power was in tact.

In order to reclaim my role as a teacher, I had to relearn mathematics, from multiplications tables and adding fractions, to college algebra, calculus, and beyond. The main issue I had to contend with was my poor memory. I looked up how to add fractions when I couldn’t help my daughter with her algebra homework. I needed to relearn the quadratic formula in order to solve an example in my college algebra book. Once I got the nudge I needed, I was off and running.

My difficulties taught me that struggling students did not necessarily lack in capacity as I used to believe, that in fact, it was more a matter of facility. I realized that most of my students had issues remembering notation and terminology. Once I reminded them of the relevant information, they had little difficulty solving the problem.

Now, when I teach, I remind them of earlier material, earlier terminology, as I move onto the new, making connections, helping them tie various bits of the material together, showing them that the techniques they have learned throughout the years apply to the new material. I teach them to address the issue of being overwhelmed by the material, by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks. I show them that though they may not believe in their own ability, they do in fact have the tools, it is a matter of accessing them.

The brain surgeries also damaged my ability to think sequentially, linearly. In the pre-bleed days, I only recognized linear patterns. I was skeptical of other, nonlinear thinking styles. I saw them as fuzzy, lumping them with hazy “woo-woo” terms like intuition and instinct. If a person couldn’t explain how they arrived at a solution, whether correct or incorrect, I regarded them as illogical, as less. It didn’t occur to me that there were other ways to recognize patterns. But now, having had to work my way around the faulty wiring in my brain, I was better able to appreciate different thinking styles.

In the past, when people found out I was a mathematician and responded along the lines of “You must be really smart,” I used to respond with an insincere deprecating remark, “Math is just a different way of thinking.” I still respond with the same remark, but now I’m sincere about it. I no longer regard instinct and intuition as woo-woo. To me, these are “legitimate” terms to describe the hard to explain, nonlinear thinking.

I now work to address the variety of thinking styles I come across in the classroom. When I have trouble understanding students’ difficulties recognizing linear patterns, I work with the class as a whole to figure them out and adjust my explanations accordingly.

My disability also taught me to better bond with people. Having been fiercely independent and socially awkward, learning to ask for help did not come easily to me. But I had no choice—I couldn’t manage on my own. I was reluctant to expose my vulnerabilities, but as I learned to let my guard down, I discovered that by opening myself up to others, they opened up to me. I also learned to make stronger connections. From the shy introvert that I used to be, I grew into a socially adept extrovert.

As a result I was now able to connect with my students, which in turn improved the atmosphere in the classroom and created a better teaching and learning environment.

My teaching skills improved dramatically. And where in the past I enjoyed teaching, I am now passionate about it, loving the challenges and reveling in my interactions with my students.


I suffered many losses to the Bloody Brain. But I feel as if for every loss there was a gain. In fact, I feel that the gains far outweigh the losses.

After the bleeds, I had to take a crash course in asking for help. Learning to share my vulnerabilities did not come easily to me. But I quickly realized that by doing so, I was transforming my weaknesses into strengths—as I opened up to the world, people opened up to me. I formed stronger bonds, deeper friendships.

I have difficulties processing sensory input, a consequence of the loss and damage to my inner filters. Data floods my neural pathways, without discrimination. But those same filters allow me to notice details that I was unaware of prior to my brain injury.

When my son, when he was a toddler, encountered snow for the first time. He stuck his index finger into a snow bank. He then brought his finger up and gazed at the snow flake melting on the tip of his finger. During the first winter after the surgeries, I found myself doing the exact same thing.

I am much more in tune with my surroundings than in thepast. Not only do I enjoy walk through the nearby nature reserve more than I ever did, but I am also better able to read social cues, eliminating the social awkwardness I used to experience.

My output filters cause me to be less inhibited. I expose my more volatile moods in public. I undergo meltdowns among strangers and I struggle to keep a lid on my rage.

I’m lucky—unlike many other brain injury survivors, my bouts of rage are not only rare, and (so far) haven’t harmful.

I was on the phone. The caller droned on and on. I couldn’t get him off the phone. I got angrier and angrier. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I threw the phone with all the force I could muster, onto the bed. It bounced. Twice.


On the flip side, my damaged output filters have brought me more intense joy and passion than I experienced in my past life.

In order to return to the classroom, I had to relearn math, starting with the multiplication tables and adding fractions, then college algebra textbook, and finally calculus

I became much more empathetic towards the struggling students.

In the rewiring process, I had to learn to work my way around my issues with linear processing. And my ability to address different ways of thinking improved.

I became a much better teacher. I love interacting with the students.

As I tried to understand what happened to me, I started writing—a day without writing feels empty. I am a passionate writer, a published author.

I needed to know what changed in me. Who I was compared to who I am. I explored the notion of mind versus self—my awareness, including my self-awareness grew.

I became a more authentic version of myself, more me. I am much more comfortable in my own skin. Despite my depression, I am more content overall.

I have no regrets about the brain bleeds and subsequent brain surgeries. I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience, bur it brought me to where I am now. I lead a more fulfilling life. I am a better person. A happier person.

Testing Testing

It was my son’s idea to add bonus problems to my tests. “Have them draw an octopus. That’s what one of my professors had us do.”


I loved the idea—the students, many of whom are subject to math anxiety, could use some comic relief during the test. I added a problem: “Draw a picture of an octopus with a fake mustache and a top hat.”

Students have different test-taking strategies. Some read through all the problems before they start tackling them, others start at the beginning and keep going, skipping over harder problems and come back to them later, as time permits. Occasionally, a student gets stuck on a problem but for some reason has difficulty moving on.

The bonus problem was the last one on the test. I didn’t mention it to the students—I wanted to see their reactions when they reached it.

After I gave the okay, all nervous chatter and laughter ceased as heads bent over the papers. Only a couple of students (out of fifty some) chuckled within the first few minutes—were they the only ones to skim through the entire test before starting to tackle the problems? As time wore on, every so often I’d hear a chuckle or I’d see a students raise their head to catch my eye and smile.

At one point I announced to the class that if they do get stuck on a problem, they should skip over it and riffle through the pages and work on a problem they feel more confident solving. For a while after my suggestion, the frequency of the smiles increased.

When my teaching assistant and I sat down to grade the tests, the drawings provided comic relief from the onerous task.

All but one student surpassed me in their artistic talent—have you ever seen a stick-figure-octopus?

Another student drew a shapeless blob on the octopus’s head. “I guess he didn’t know what a top hat was.”

Several students drew less than eight tentacles. The teaching assistant laughed out loud. “Should I take off one point or two?”

Since then, I’ve added a bonus problem on every test and final exam I’ve administered. Some more creative than others, from listing names beginning with the latter s to writing their favorite number and explaining their answer.

Every so often, we have theme days, with a photo op after class. We’ve held Sock Day, Hat Day, Crazy Hair Day and many more. The favorites seem to be Fake Mustache Day and Balloon Day. One of the bonus problems was to come up with idea for theme days.

Another source of ideas for bonus problems is my grand-dog, Gus. All of my students have met him, and they all seem to enjoy him. On one test I asked them to describe Gus’s personality. And on another I asked, “What is Gus’s role in the course?”

It’s time to put together the first test of the semester. I’m set for a bonus problem, but I can’t compromise the integrity of the test—I won’t divulge any additional information.

Calculus Revisited

There are days,

Calculus Mustache Day

Calculus Mustache Day

Math Grad Students Fake Mustache Day

Math Grad Students Fake Mustache Day

and there are days:

Calculus Hoodie Day

Calculus Hoodie Day

And then we went for socks. Some were interesting. Others...

Calculus Sock Day

Calculus Sock Day

The teaching assistant couldn't make it to class. So...

The teaching assistant couldn't make it to class. So...

They asked, "Can we have a candy day?"

Calculus Lollipop Day

Calculus Lollipop Day

There were some left over, so math grad students celebrated the day as well. (And I got another.)

There were some left over, so math grad students celebrated the day as well. (And I got another.)

Now what?

Calculus Balloon Day

Calculus Balloon Day

But best of all--Balloon and Gus Day and my birthday!

And  the last day of the semester!  Woohoo!

And the last day of the semester! Woohoo!


“Die Hard Dice inc. produces wooden dice. Suppose they make the oak die out of 20 by 20 by 20 cm cubes. Suppose the error in measurement is at most 0.02 cm. Use linear approximation to estimate the maximum error, the relative error, and percentage error in computing the volume of a cube.”

I administered a calculus test a few days ago. I also had a problem involving James Bond taking photos as he drove past a rocket launch site.



I enjoy teaching, but writing and grading tests is not my favorite activity. Nor do the students enjoy taking tests. Somehow, we have to get out jollies.

I may have gone a bit overboard in this past test—I added a bonus problem:

“What is the number you dislike the most? Explain.”

My answer was: “23—it’s obnoxious and condescending, which is ridiculous, given the 24, right next to it, is such a lovely number.”

One if the students disliked the number e because it has too many digits (it’s irrational). A number of Chinese students were wary of the number 4, because in Chinese the symbol for 4 is similar to the symbol for death. Most of the responses were either funny or interesting. I left grading the bonus question for last, something to look forward to.

After I finished grading, I sat down to put together a make-up test.

I started with, “Boxed-In inc. produces cardboard boxes...”


“Am I not trying hard enough?”

“Am I being melodramatic? A hypochondriac?”

“Will I always be like this?”

“Will I be able to get back into the classroom?”

Those, and more questions, plagued me during my first year of recovery from my brain surgeries. Some of them continue to plague me. I still wonder whether I am over-dramatizing, whether my symptoms are real, brain injury related, or imagined. Am I truly suffering from sensory overload, or am I exaggeration? Is my balance really that bad? Or am I merely seeking attention?

Since my brain surgeries, self-doubt has become a part of who I am, though I hide it well. Apparently, it is a common phenomenon among brain injury survivors. Many of us, who used to be independent and self-confident prior to our injury, become filled with doubt.

In my case, and I’m sure among many others, questioning whether I am malingering, I tend to overdo it. I often run myself into the ground, not wanting to inconvenience others or cause concern. I don’t want outsiders to think that I am lazy, or that I am not pulling my weight.

During my first year of recovery, I wondered whether I’d always be as damaged as I was, whether I’d ever return to “normal.” In particular, I was concerned that I would never regain my independence. Would I ever be able to earn a living? At first, certain that I wouldn’t be able to return to teaching, I thought to search for an alternate career. But in time, as I healed, feeling a glimmer of hope, I started to relearn arithmetic, then college algebra, and finally calculus.

Reaching a point where I felt I was as ready as could be, I went back to work. In retrospect, I’m not sure I was ready—I probably could have used another year without teaching. During my first year back, I felt that I was a total disaster as a teacher—I was disorganized, I was easily distracted, my explanations were lacking, and I was completely drained after each lecture. But in time, my teaching improved. In fact, within a couple of years, I realized that I’d become a better teacher than I used to be before the brain bleeds.

Having had to relearn so much material, still having trouble with multi-step problems, I could better empathize with my students when they ran into difficulties with the material, and better able to address their issues. My teaching philosophy changed as well, instead on focusing on the material, I started focusing on the process, to help them hone their analytical thinking skills.

My life didn’t go back to “normal” in any sense of the word. Easily tired, I often suffer from debilitating fatigue. Headaches plague me, sometimes crippling me. And cognitively, I’m not the same, especially when I’m tired. I have trouble accessing vocabulary, I become easily distracted, and my thinking slows down. When exhausted, my brain sometimes switches off and my thinking comes to a halt—you can talk to me as much or as slow as you want, but I can’t absorb anything, let alone process it and respond accordingly.

I have missed a few meetings—I forgot about them, or the note I wrote to myself about it didn’t make sense, or marked the wrong time of day, or the wrong day, something the wrong week. Sometimes, to cancel appointments, because of crippling fatigue or a blinding headache. I

often have to forgo a much needed trip to the grocery store or the bank. Because of issues with epilepsy, I can no longer drive.

However, many of my difficulties have become mere inconveniences that I have to circumvent. In many ways, my life became fuller.

Better able to connect with people, my friendships have strengthened and I form deeper bonds. The environment in the classroom… is fabulous—I have so much more fun with my students. (Hence Fake Mustache Day and Balloon Day.)

I enjoy teaching so much more than I used to—I am much more passionate about it.

And then there’s writing—I can’t imagine my life without it. How did I live without it in the past?

I am more, not less, different, not deficient. Even though self-doubt is a frequent companion.

Safe Environment

Carson burst into song, “I’ve never been to Alaska!”

I had trouble suppressing my smile. “That was definitely something boring in an interesting way.

Many teachers have a ritual to break the ice with a new group of students. Doug asks them about their favorite flavor of ice cream. Russ hands out index cards asking students to write a significant fact about themselves. Janet asks students to speak of their interest in her course.

And I used to tell the students a bit about myself, that my accent wasn’t fake, that I was a weaver and a dragon boater. I never thought to actively involve the students in the process.

After I came home from the surgeries, I felt compelled to write about my journey with cavernous angiomas, brain injury, and recovery, and as I grew as a writer, so did my awareness of the power of storytelling. I found that as we tell our stories, we set ourselves on a path towards mutual trust and respect. Through our stories, we begin to learn to accept each other as multifaceted, complex, valuable human beings.

I'm not sure why I did not think to immediately implement these new discoveries into my teaching. I'm pretty sure that during my first year back to teaching, I was too afraid to expose my vulnerabilities. My second year, when I decided to open up about the bloody brain, I had no inkling that it would start a dialogue, an exchange of stories between my students and myself. Nor did I have any idea that it would transform the classroom experience, taking it to another level.

But as that second year progressed, I noticed that my lectures had become became more interactive. It eventually clicked: my discoveries about storytelling applied to the classroom. I recognized that by sharing my story, I showed the students that I saw them as people, individuals who have something to offer, not as faceless names on a long roster who sit passively while I lecture.

From that recognition came the realization that I should give the students the opportunity to share their stories, not merely sit and listen to mine. The key, I realized, was having the students play an active part in the conversation.

On the first day of the following semester, I started my new ritual. “Tell me something boring in an interesting way, or something interesting in a boring way.” They responded enthusiastically. As a result, they felt more at ease with me and with each other.

And the classroom became a safe place, for all of us.


Beechwood Farms

Beechwood Farms

We headed for the railroad crossing. Gus, eager to investigate and explore, pulled on the leash. But when we reached the tracks, instead of leading me across, towards the river, he pulled towards a new path, one that ran along the railroad tracks. New territory for both of us, we spent the next hour exploring, Gus sniffing out new smells, while I followed behind admiring unfamiliar plants, identifying familiar landmarks from new angles.

Since the surgeries, I've come to appreciate the discoveries and rediscoveries I make on my new journey through life. Exploring alternate routes, wandering along the back roads, often lead to intriguing finds, about my surroundings, about myself, be it in my writing, as I teach, on walks with Gus,  in life.

Prior to the brain bleeds, I processed information primarily linearly. And I regarded any alternative ways of thinking as suspect. They didn't follow any pattern I recognized. They were illogical, irrational, incorrect.

When I taught, I didn't understand why some students had trouble identifying linear patterns. I believed that the only way to address their difficulties was to slow down and break each step into smaller and smaller chunks. I was convinced that those who still looked puzzled just didn't have it--they were incapable of thinking logically.

But in the wake of the surgeries, my ability to think sequentially was compromised, and my mind learned to follow alternate paths. I discovered that nonlinear processing was also a bona-fide option, and my teaching skills improved. I realized that if a student had trouble with the material, the lack was in me, as a teacher. I now enjoy the challenge of figuring out how my students made connections, and how to reach out to them.

Beechwood Farms

Beechwood Farms

Now, as I teach, more than solving problems, I emphasize the process, the paths we take to reach conclusions rather than the actual material. My new goal is to hone the students' analytical thinking skills. And while learning to address a variety of ways to think, I hone my nonlinear thinking skills Seeing the material through different viewpoints helps me see a bigger pictureand gain a deeper understanding. And my teaching continues to improve.

I've discovered that linear thinking can only take me so far. Instead of automatically retracing my steps to find my error when reaching a dead end, as I used to in my previous life, I've learnt to consider nonlinear paths. However, old habits die hard, and I often have to give myself permission to let go and allow something else in my mind to take over and lead me through a nonlinear process.

I've found that as I explore the back roads, I discover new territory, places I would have missed otherwise. This is the case in many aspects of my life; not just in teaching.


My sense of direction was never great, but became much worse after the surgeries. Getting lost is not a rare occurrence. At first, I'd become flustered no matter whether I had someone or something to navigate me out of trouble . Now, I enjoy the adventure, either keeping going until I reach familiar grounds, or setting up my GPS.

It's also very much the case when I write.

I always start writing linearly—I begin writing with a story in mind. Sometimes I continue to follow the path I set out on to its conclusion. But more frequently, I veer off into a completely different story. Occasionally, I try to fight the urge to stray, forcing my words towards my original goal. But deep inside me I feel that something isn't working, that my mind is trying to pull me elsewhere. And when I give in, as I must, I let my subconscious take over. I allow the words that flow onto the page lead the way.

My writing is richer for it, as is my teaching, and my life.


“Have any of you suffered a brain injury, including concussions?”

All movements ceased. My gaze swept the audience from one side of the auditorium to the other. One hand went up and a second. The third, fourth, and fifth rose in unison, then several more.

I let out the breath I didn't even realized I'd been holding—it was going to be okay.

During my first year back to teaching after the brain surgeries, I didn't do as well as I would have liked. Between exhaustion, issues processing sensory input, ADD type problems, poor organizational skills, and lousy short term memory…

Going into the next academic year, I was much farther along in my physical and cognitive recovery than I had been at the close of the previous year. No longer operating from within a fog, I was able to think things through, rather than bumble along, hoping for the best.

I wanted to perform better than I did the previous year. Hopefully, significantly better. But how? I couldn't change the setting, the large class, my teaching load. There had to be something I could do.

Cindy offered, “You should tell the students about the surgeries.”

“You've got to be kidding. Right?”

Nothing good could come out of such a confession. It would be asking for trouble. If I told them, they'd look for signs incompetence.

But Cindy insisted. “It's time. It's part of who you are. And it's a way to tell them about your sensory overload. If you explain, they'll understand, and they'll be quieter.”

She had a point. But I wasn't ready. I rarely talked about the bloody brain at work, least of all to colleagues and students. I didn't want anyone to question my intellect, my ability to teach mathematics.

But perhaps cutting back on the sensory input would make a big difference. Perhaps it was a good idea, or at least not a terrible one. Telling them might actually help. But it also might hurt.

I stewed over it for days. Still undecided, I headed to lecture on the first day of the new academic year. Still unsure what to say, or not to say, I made my way to the podium. I paused to take a deep breath before I turned to face one hundred and fifty pairs of eyes—the auditorium was filled to capacity. The sounds of murmuring and shifting as they settled into their seats faded to an expectant silence.

I opened my mouth, allowing the my teacher-instinct to take over my introduction.

Throughout my speech, at every break in the flow, I held an inner debate. Should I tell the students about the bloody brain? What if they judge me—

Suddenly the words surfaced. “Have any of you suffered a brain injury?”

Silence met my question. Then hands started going up, one hand, then another, and another.

I waited until the ripples of motion dissipated before I dropped the other bomb. “I too have suffered a brain injury. Actually, it was brain surgery, three brain surgeries.” I thought I felt some tension in the air. “No worries, I don't drool or run into trees.”

Buoyed by the sound of laughter, I explained about the bleeds and spoke of my deficits, first about the physical, then about the cognitive.

I explained that I had to relearn the multiplication tables and told them about my lousy memory and ADD type issues. I spoke of my depression. I also described my difficulties with high volumes of sensory data. “Which is why I need you guys to be quiet while I teach.”

At his point several students raised their hands. I wasn't sure what to expect when I called on them.

“So what other deficits do you have?”

“How long did it take you to recover?”

“What caused the bleeds?”

Not only were they not antagonistic, as I had feared, they were actually showing genuine interest.

Until that day, I rarely mentioned the bloody brain to strangers. On those instances when I did, I encountered reactions ranging from pity, sympathy, and empathy, to discomfort and apathy. I had never met such open-minded interest, without judgment or condescension.

My students accepted me as I was, as a human being.