By Julie Gagnon Prior
Even now, 50 years old, I still have nightmares about school. The dreams involve forgetting my locker combo, my schedule, or being unprepared. Honestly, these themes were my reality. I learned to carry books around in a backpack so I wouldn’t need a locker. I had a schedule in every notebook. And, I was most always unprepared for class.
I began school at 5 years old, 1st grade at Jericho Elementary. With no preschool or kindergarten under my belt, that introduction involved a significant learning curve for this young, active child. My teacher was extremely strict. Unfortunately, she didn’t appreciate my personality, and I endured consequences. My days often involved time sitting on a stool facing the corner as well as physical discipline. I spent most recesses alone in the classroom, instructed to keep my head down on the desk. Needless to say, in 1st grade I learned the survival skills of being very quiet and still.
Teachers after 1st grade were mostly decent. Because I was quiet and still, I didn’t draw attention to myself. Unfortunately, I had other traits that slipped by teachers until high school.
Concentration and the ability to focus on a task, much less complete one, were significant challenges. My classroom time was spent daydreaming. Looking back, I wish there was a way to capture all the stories that I created in my head. The adventures in my imagination, while the teacher talked in the background, would be the makings for some fantastic stories!
Socially, school was no problem and sports were my saving grace. Unfortunately, I learned a tough lesson in 8th grade about “balance”. That year Essex Middle School had their first involvement in interscholastic soccer. Not only did I make the team as starting striker, I was voted captain. Despite being our inaugural year, we made it to the finals.
Before the championship game, I earned a detention in Science class. I was then informed that my incomplete assignments resulted in a failing grade. As a consequence, I was removed from the soccer team.
This hurt deeply. Not only personally because I wasn’t allowed to play, but I felt extreme guilt as I let the team down. At game time, I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the team. I watched from a distance as we lost the most significant game at that point in our young lives.
In high school, I vowed never to be kicked off a team again. I was able to “get by” with my grades despite the issues with my fantastic imagination and lack of interest in anything else when confined to a classroom.
My mother, of course, knew of my challenges. It was the spring of sophomore year when she sat down and read through the course options for the next year. She suggested that I read about “Farming and Forestry”. The class was part of the Essex Vocational Program, involving half of the school day for juniors and seniors. Mostly based on “hands on” and “field work”, the curriculum included areas of study that were right up my alley.
With an unfamiliar enthusiasm, I made the trek up to the Agriculture Building on the first day of my junior year. Little did I know, I was beginning a life-changing educational journey.
Mr. Canedy was an absolutely outstanding teacher and also became one of my best friends in life.
He recognized my learning quirks. While practicing extreme patience, he taught so much more then farming and forestry skills. He taught me how to learn. I still smile when I think about when he was teaching me to back up a hay wagon with the tractor. I turned the wheel too sharply and ended up cutting part of a tread off the tractor tire as it cranked against the wagon. I went into a panic, thinking he would be furious. He was only feet away watching me. When I finally gathered enough courage to look him in the face, I was very confused. I could tell he was bummed about the tire, but he hid it well. He softly explained to me what I had done wrong and asked me to try again. I had great difficulty understanding why he didn’t get pissed off and take me off the tractor. Instead, he taught me the most valuable lesson of making a mistake: take accountability, buck up, and try again.
He realized that the classroom was rough for me. Acknowledging that, he altered my personal curriculum to provide me with more “hands-on” learning.
One example was having me go (as a junior) with the senior class for the winter. The task was woodland maintenance on a lot in Jericho. Instead of being stuck inside, I was outside in the elements. My time was spent with the big boys cutting down trees, skidding them out, chainsaw maintenance, etc. Needless to say, at that point, I loved school!
Senior year, Mr. Canedy provided me with another priceless opportunity. He had me work at Chapin’s Orchards in Essex Center. Perfect! I was already helping milk at the dairy farm that was on the property. And, Chapin’s was only a hop, skip, and a jump from where I lived. The year was 1985.
Now I’d like to fast forward to last week, almost 35 years later.
My son asked me to go apple picking. It would be our first trip to an orchard with his newborn son. I asked where he’d like to go. Expecting South Hero because that’s where I always brought him and his sister, I was pleasantly surprised when he answered Chapin’s.”
Driving to the orchard, I became overwhelmed with heartfelt emotion. Once there, I was like a little kid, showing them all around and sharing my stories from my time there (stories my kids already heard half a million times). The most impressive accomplishment I showed them was the large number of apple trees that I planted in the field to the left of the barn. That section of the orchard wasn’t open to the public that day. But, with permission, we walked over to those magical, fruit-bearing trees that were nothing more than a twig when I placed them in the ground so very long ago.
Having been years since being there, I went into a giddy shock when I saw an old tractor. It’s on display and is the very one that I used when working there. I was ecstatic to have my butt back in that familiar seat that I warmed for so many hours years ago, while holding my first grandchild in my arms.
We then walked into the barn and saw a sign on the wall. Again, a pride (that I never experienced in a classroom) came over me as I read the first line to my son and his family. “The original orchard at Chapin Farm was planted in 1929, with the newer orchard of 1500 semi-dwarf trees planted in 1985.”
So overwhelmingly proud by the end of that experience, I’m surprised my head fit inside my car for the drive home. It did fit, and driving home, I warmly reflected on the day’s events. I realized, I didn’t just share these stories with my family, as they sat listening to me talk.
I shared these stories with a “hands-on” experience in which they were able to use all of their senses…sight, sound, smell, taste and touch…
How cool is that?
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Last week my 34-year-old cousin Chucky shared this on Facebook, “It really sucks I can’t get close to anyone because of my own stupidity. I can’t just blame everything on the brain injury. I really wish for clear thoughts and love. I’m really sorry for hurting anyone.”
His words struck me like a bolt of lightning to my core. After reading and re-reading his post countless times, I eventually broke free from my computer to organize my thoughts, only to be drawn back to re-read it several times again. I then reached out to him and asked if he wanted to be part of a piece for the Islander that I have wanted to do for months but have not had the courage to complete.
“Cuz” readily agreed and put his story down in writing for me. I am so deeply thankful. Unknowingly, he is paving the way for me to confront and share some of my own issues that have been killing my spirit slowly and painfully. By only changing one word, I am able to use the rest of his words to share with the world what I have been feeling so long. Here’s my version, ““It really sucks I can’t get close to anyone because of my own stupidity. I can’t just blame everything on the Lyme brain. I really wish for clear thoughts and love. I’m really sorry for hurting anyone.”
See, Chucky and I have always been kindred spirits. We both love to have fun, enjoy nature to its fullest, and we are both quite talented at hiding our pain on the inside with a full smile on the outside. It turns out we are even more similar then we originally realized, now that we both have “brain quirk” badges.
Here is some of Chucky’s story: “The first of my struggles after the brain injury was confusion and fear. My normal world was connecting with others and helping out friends, for it was the day after Christmas of 2017. I was headed northbound on 105 to visit my friend in Enosburg. I made it to Swanton before an oncoming Subaru was hit in the rear and flew into my lane. Smash! My face hit the steering wheel and my knee hit the dash as my body remained fastened luckily.... I woke in the smoke. Frantically, I looked for my friends outside the vehicle. They were okay. The ambulance was already there. I hobbled on to the cold pavement and hopped to the ambulance in sight. That was just the beginning of the survival horror.
After being hospitalized and transported to Burlington, my primary concern was my friends’ condition and my shattered orbital plate in my face. Many faded faces tried to speak to me in the hospital, but I couldn’t quite comprehend all of their words or begin to read the paperwork I needed to fill out in order to get financial and recommended assistance. Very frustrating. My brain always wanted rest. I would typically sleep over eight hours, then wake for a few, only to go back to sleep for another 3 hours uncontrollably. I rested at home for a long while as paperwork from the hospital piled in.
It was nearly impossible to convey my situation over the phone, as my speech was greatly affected by the accident. Anxiety and depression weighed heavy on me. I was quite worrisome and somewhat delusional. All that stuck with me was that I was “lucky.” But I was scared that I’d never be the same. And I had a fear of fear. Many of my emotions blew up into tremendous stress. Many conversations and situations I couldn’t/can’t understand.
This brain injury rocked my world! It continues to shape my world into a confusing lifestyle at times. I’ve learned to write everything down such as plans, groceries or any tiny reminder that can simply be forgotten within a matter of seconds. My greatest motivator while having a brain injury is patience. Because I have come a long way to get a little bit better. Letting go of unhealthy stress and taking a necessary break from a noisy world has been the greatest help.
I am most thankful for family and friends who stuck by me and reminded me what love and life truly was.
Many things are still overwhelming almost two years after the accident. I focus on routines and relaxing in order to get through every day. Now I am strong. I survived horrors of confusion and I am conquering my fears one day at a time. I still tear up telling my story because it’s the greatest pain I have ever conquered and I am so thankful to feel and live.”
It’s by clinging to the coattails of his courage that I now writing this piece. It’s been hanging over my head like the cloud that hangs over Eeyore. I too am scared, confused and heavily afraid of hurting others. I’m also one who used to live to have fun with others and help in any way I could.
Now I stay close to home as possible and live in fear of exposing my brain short-circuitry to others. Familiar faces, names, and memories can all be so overwhelming. My brain knows very well that it should remember all of them but it just can’t fill in the blanks. I fear that people will think that I am rude, standoffish, or a jerk because I don’t remember even the most basic things that a normal brain would. And just like with Chucky and so many others with cognitive challenges, the struggle isn’t obvious (like a leg in a cast for example).
If we add into the mix, a personality that is well adept at concealing pain of any kind… well that makes the puzzle even more confusing, misunderstood and lonely.
I live in conflict with balancing “the old me” with “the now me.” My heart wants to be out there helping others and playing as it’s always done. But my brain is now cloudy, confused, anxious, scared and very easily overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms are so defunct that the smallest challenges that should be molehills are steep, rocky mountains.
My purpose for writing on this topic it to share a reminder with others…. Please be patient. This world has become so fast paced and challenging with of the ever-changing technology. Add on to that the political, social and environmental conflicts and a perfect storm is created and can swallow an injured brain into the fog.
Please try to keep in mind that a large number of people who you encounter on a daily schedule may have these challenges.
The brain is an amazing thing, but also so fragile.
A traumatic brain injury, drugs, birth defects, dementia, illness, PTSD, and so many other conditions affect a person’s cognitive abilities.
Please, be patient, don’t judge if someone if having difficulty with even the simplest tasks. We are all only human and in human bodies. And were we can’t be expected to know or even understand what someone else is dealing with… we can at least be open minded, kind and again… Patient.
By Julie Gagnon Prior
Do you remember as a kid; overhearing the adults reminiscing over how much the world has changed in their lifetime?
Sometimes I would take a seat on the floor and listen intently to the conversations, especially when my Grampa talked. Grampa’s stories involved such detail and colorful description that his words played out like a movie in my head.
I remember being awestruck over the vastness of change within his lifetime. But at the same time, I was confused and conflicted because I couldn’t fathom that much change within my own lifetime.
But now, at 50 years old and with my own grandson’s arrival; I realize that the stories that I have to tell may have the same effect on him.
After reflecting on the changes between my childhood and the childhood that kids experience now-a-days, I have made a game plan. I like to think of it as my “Grandkid Bucket List”.
The lifestyle of children in this day and age is so very different from only a few decades ago. I can’t help but smile to myself as I fill out the list with some of the very simple yet memorable childhood experiences and lessons that I want to pass on.
Overall, the “Grandkid Bucket List” I am creating revolves around experiencing nature and respecting and appreciating people.
Now my grandson is only a little over a month year old, so I have some time to expand or edit the goals. But I thought that I would share with you some of my initial thoughts.
1. Catching Crawdads. Ahhh, a stream or river with a shallow edge and small rocks is perfect. The soothing sound of the rushing water needs to drown out any other sounds of civilization. We’ll find the right size rocks for those little hands and pick them up carefully so as not to stir up the mud (making the water cloudy). We will discuss that crawdads swim backwards and the place to grab them is behind their pinchers. Of course, we will never hurt them and will always put them back to go back to hiding under their rocks.
2. Climbing Birch Trees. A skill my brother Bob taught me; it’s guaranteed to amaze. We will find the proper diameter and height tree for each of our own height and weight. Of course, I will have to help them climb their tree the first few times. But I imagine it won’t take long for them to learn to do it on their own. We will take turns climbing a tree, up, up, up, until it begins to slowly begin to bend. Then, inching up higher and higher until the sweet spot is reached. It is then that the precious, caring birch will slowly and softly bend over; bringing its passenger back to the ground with grace and ease. Once released from the hands of the traveler, the tree springs back to it’s original pose, reaching for the sun.
3. Touch-Me-Knots (Jewelweed). Popping touch-me-not pods is quite possibly one of the most relaxing yet addictive late summer past times. The bigger the pod, the bigger the explosion. Sometimes the challenge is to pick as many pods as you can and put them in a hand…without them exploding upon touch. Many people aren’t aware of this phenomenon and it’s a fun one to share. The joy and amusement on a child’s face as they share a pod with another (who hasn’t had the experience), as the pod explodes and startles the newbie is priceless.
4. Puffball Stomping. This can be a bit of a trickier experience as the puffballs need to be located and they need to be at the proper stage of ripeness. The experience is even more enjoyable when done while barefoot. Stomping on a ripe puffball barefoot is nothing short of awesome while witnessing the black smoke escape out from under one’s feet and thru their toes. One of Mother Nature’s own magic shows.
5. Wild Berry Picking……. Will Not be on the list… Big, ugly, scary spiders like to hide amongst berry bushes and this is unacceptable.
6. Summer Night Outdoor Lights. Education at its finest. On a hot summer night, after leaving the outdoor light on, we will step outside to witness a magnificent variety show of all shapes, sizes, and colors of insects. A stunning spectacle of characters gathered together almost in worship of the light. We’ll be starstruck observing characters that we’d never witness during the day. At this point I feel that I need to clarify something. Despite collecting June bugs on nights like this (when I was young) and convincing my younger brothers that it feels good to have them crawl around on their tongue…. I won’t do that to my grandkids.
7. Christmas Cookies. The more variety the better. We will work together to create colorful, magical treats; all while listening to the Christmas music recordings created by my Dad playing guitar(s). Then, after creating packages of the mix, we will travel to unexpecting, kind, friendly people and present them with the gift of love and appreciation.
8. Easter Bunny Cakes. Another opportunity for “giving”. I’ll make the cakes ahead of time, cut them and arrange them in the shape of an Easter Bunny head, and cover with frosting. We will have a variety of candies such as licorice, gum drops, food colored coconut, colored marshmallows, and more. Each person will decorate their own individual cake and then choose who they will give it to. Of course, we will have one for ourselves as well. But the grandkid(s) will be encouraged to take a moment to think about who might be most appreciative of such a gift. I used to do this with my own kids and we would often bring a couple cakes to the halfway house in Waterbury (people who were once in the State Hospital).
This is just a sampling of the “Grandkid Bucket List”, so many more ideas and goals are swarming thru my head.
Truly, I am going to treasure every chance I have to share stories and experiences from my lifetime with these children. And at the same time, I am going to treasure being part of the stories and experiences that they will someday share with their grandchildren……
Julie Gagnon Prior
Julie Gagnon Prior resides in Grand Isle with her partner Carl and their 5 dogs. Prior has been battling Lyme Disease for several years, which she