A few months ago I read the remarkable autobiography by Susannah Cahalan called Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. It’s a well-written and riveting account of her foray through the best clinics and hospitals in New York after experiencing an array of severe and unusual symptoms. After a series of misdiagnoses, she is finally diagnosed with the extremely rare auto-immune affliction of encephalitis. While the book in its entirety is excellent, there is one section that has remained with me and that I often think about.
The doctor who helps Susannah the most is from Syria and has quite a remarkable story of his own to tell. They become close as he becomes committed to helping her (“He had an intense sympathy for the weak and powerless”), and in the process Susannah learns a lot about him and his past.
I can’t tell the story better, so I’m going to quote verbatim from the passage that struck me most:
“[Dr. Najjar] had done poorly in school, and his parents and teachers had considered him lazy. When he was ten, after he failed test after test in his private Catholic school, his principal had told his parents that he was beyond help: ‘Education is not for everyone. Maybe it would be best for him to learn a trade.’ Angry as he was, his father didn’t want to stop his schooling – education was far too important – so although he didn’t have high hopes, he put his son in public school instead.
During his first year at public school, one teacher took a special interest in the boy and often made a point to praise him for his work, slowly raising his confidence. By the end of that year, he came home with a glowing, straight A report card. His father was apoplectic. ‘You cheated,’ Salim said, raising his hand to punish his son. The next morning, his parents confronted the teacher. ‘My son doesn’t get these types of grades. He must be cheating.’
‘No, he’s not cheating. I can assure you of that.’
‘Then what kind of school are you running here, where a boy like Souhel can get these kinds of grades?’
The teacher paused before speaking again. ‘Did you ever think that you might actually have a smart son? I think you need to believe in him.’
Dr. Najjar would eventually graduate at the top of his class in medical school and immigrate to the United Sates, where he not only became an esteemed neurologist but also an epileptologist and neuropathologist. His own story carried with it a moral that applied to all of his patients: he was determined never to give up on any of them.”
I don’t need to point out why this passage is so uplifting (but I’m going to anyway): the important role teachers and positive role models can play, the need to have someone believe in you, the crucial role of confidence, never giving up and the premise that, education is, indeed, for everyone.