Unexpected Lessons from the Classroom

Brain Injury Blog by Janet Cromer

October 5, 2012

Unexpected Lessons from the Classroom

Every year when I flip the calendar page to September, an urge to go back to school overtakes me. Crisp notebooks and twelve-packs of pens call to me from the shelves of  Staples. I’m proud of being a lifelong learner, as so many of us are now. In addition to going back to college a few times,  I’ve loved taking adult education classes in my community since 1970!

When my husband, Alan, suffered a severe anoxic brain injury we spent months in intensive inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation. Eventually Alan said, “I want to take fun classes, the kind everybody takes. Not just hospital stuff for brain injuries.” What a smart guy!

Learning for Body, Mind, and Spirit

We started with a painting class at the adult education center. The art class gave us new information about Alan’s visual perception problem. The problem showed up for the first time in his tiny drawings with missing areas crammed into the corner of the paper. He ignored the rest of the paper, although his vision usually seemed normal. We got a few suggestions from his speech-language pathologist, and practiced exercises to extend his perception between classes. Back in class, Alan found it hard to draw from imagination, but liked copying animals from a magazine in a distinct palette of colors. Over several weeks, he filled the whole page with koala bears in a tree. He really enjoyed showing off our refrigerator gallery of masterpieces!

I enjoyed the painting class because art has always been a favorite way to express myself and create beauty- even when my drawing is not exactly three dimensional! I could immerse myself in colors while the instructor gave Alan pointers. Since I was constantly teaching Alan at home, we enjoyed the chance to be equals as students together.

Alan liked martial arts, so we found a low-cost tai chi class at our neighborhood health center. The tai chi class challenged his ability to mirror movements and move his body in flowing motions. However, he focused intently on the instructor and reminded me to practice together between sessions.

At first, I tried to help him move like the other students. But when I noticed that the instructor relaxed in Alan’s presence without making corrections, I did likewise. Then I could focus on forming the soothing motions with my own body.

Tai chi taught me one of the most valuable lessons of rehabilitation: I could let go of my belief that Alan’s rehabilitation would be “doomed” if we didn’t do everything the “right” way. In fact, that’s been a life lesson for me ever since!

We also took classes in basic computer skills, dog training, and singing.

Caregivers can grow too!

Family caregivers can lose sight of their own dreams and goals. I longed to learn to write a memoir, so I found a class at yet another adult education center. My desire to take the class was so strong that it motivated me to hire a home health aide to be with Alan for more hours. I enrolled in that class for several semesters. I loved listening to classmates stories, and made new friends. Best of all, I found the writing voice that eventually led to writing my book!

As you can see, taking a class for fun or skill building can lead to healing, growth, and pleasure for survivors and caregivers. Many free or low cost classes are available through local community centers, adult education programs, technical schools, and online.

A few tips 

  1. Try to leave your expectations and self-judgment at the door.
  2. Be open to all the lessons you can learn, not just the information in the course description.
  3. Try something you always liked, but bring “beginner’s mind” to the process. Or try something new and see how it expands your self-image. Classes can highlight hidden strengths and let you shine in new ways.
  4. It’s usually worth it to do the homework or practice between classes!


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