"With the certitude of a true believer, Vellya Paapen had assured the twins that there was no such thing in the world as a black cat. He said that there were only black, cat-shaped holes in the universe."
-- Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

This is Nuts

Today, as I ate my peanut butter sandwich, blissfully free of hives or death by anaphylactic shock, I pondered the conundrum of the peanut and the recent peanut-allergy-related hype.

I realize that my use of the word ‘hype’, a term often used in conjunction with such things as skinny jeans and Gangnam Style dance moves, to describe a serious health concern might offend some people, but I stand by it.  Maybe the nut allergies themselves are not a trend—I’m sure children for decades have been suffering from this hardship—but the amount of attention placed on those afflicted is recent.  Take this example from my teaching career.

In the year 2001, I taught a seventh grader named Andrew.  Andrew was a “normal” kid.  I had no official paperwork on him; he was in no special programs at school; I had not spoken with his parents via phone or meeting.  One day after lunch, Andrew came up to me and mumbled, “Ith hink gotta olden a hut.” 
I said, “What?” 
He said, “I think ig oughta old of an hut.” 
I said, “One more time?” 
He said, “I think I got a hold of a nut.” 
Even when the sounds formed into actual words, I still had trouble comprehending.  Then a lightbulb went on.  “Oh!” I said.  “You mean a peanut?”  He nodded.  “Are you allergic to peanuts?”  Another nod.  “Do you need to go to the clinic?”  More nodding.  I sent him.  The school nurse pumped him full of Benedryl and sent him back to class, where he promptly fell asleep.  And that was that.  No one had told me this kid had a peanut allergy and no one referred to what happened that day as an “incident”.  But these days, things are different.

Last year, in the fall of 2011, I taught five students who had 504 plans (a legal document created for students with a physical or mental impairment that lists classroom needs and accommodations) officially recording their nut allergies.  Paperwork was signed, meetings were held, words of caution were imparted.  Two of these students, I was told, could not even come into contact with a peanut. One girl’s form contained a half-page list of possible symptoms to watch out for and it included, between redness in the cheeks and shortness of breath… (I am not joking here, this is word for word)… a “sense of impending doom”.  Yes.  I signed a legal document during my last year of teaching, promising to—while teaching Language Arts to twenty-six seventh graders in my sixth period class—be on alert for a look of “impending doom” to cross one thirteen-year-old girl’s face, which is a problem since most thirteen-year-old girls wear that expression perpetually anyway.

For those of you not in education, I want to explain this just a tad further.  For those words to appear on that document, a parent had to say them in a meeting with school officials.  School officials had to take them seriously enough to type them into the computer.  A minimum of three adults had to concur in writing that those words belonged on that form.  Now that form follows that girl through every year of school (unless it is later edited or dismissed) and is given to every single one of her teachers, who then become legally responsible for following it.  As a teacher of this student, I was advised not to eat peanuts or peanut products in my classroom before she arrived, despite the fact that peanut butter sandwiches were served every day in the school cafeteria and she never once perished while purchasing her Gatorade in the lunch line.

There were never any incidents with any of those five students.  As far as I know, none of them ever “got a hold of a nut” at school.  However, another student did miss the big state standardized test that year because he had a “food allergy challenge” scheduled for the same day.  The email from his mom regarding this unavoidable conflict included the following:  “[Name] has been allergic to nuts all his life, but recent tests indicate that he may no longer be allergic to some of the tree nuts… We are hoping he can tolerate the pecans in the food challenge, because that will open some doors for him (pecan pies, pralines, etc.).”  This was a very sweet and supportive mom, and it was nice of her to let me know of the absence, but I still find it odd how much random information parents are willing to share with their children's teachers.

Although I find a lot of this ridiculous, with kids I can somewhat understand the paranoia.  I imagine it’s pretty traumatic to watch your small child experience a severe allergic reaction, and I don’t blame parents for wanting to prevent something like that from ever happening again.  (My dog will never be given another rawhide treat after the time I saw him choke on one and had to reach into his throat to pull out the white sticky mass that was lodged there, so I get it.)  In truth, a lot of this documentation is put into place in elementary school when the kids are young and less aware of their health concerns and more likely to eat something they shouldn’t if an adult is not paying attention.  But then the forms go unedited and the next thing you know the kids are in middle school and completely capable of taking care of themselves but still have teachers awkwardly reminding them not to ingest something they haven’t eaten in ten years.

What I don’t understand is when this paranoia carries over to adults.  Every year, my school district held a two-day professional development conference at one of the high schools.  Every teacher was required to attend (though not all did) and presenters from all over the country flocked in to impart their expertise on everything from assessment to vocabulary games.  Beginning in 2004, a bold red text started appearing at the bottom of the email of conference information explaining that a couple of the presenters had severe air-borne peanut allergies and for that reason, they asked everyone not to bring any peanut products into the building during the conference.  ?????  At the sight of that warning, several questions jumped immediately to my mind, the first and foremost of which being How the heck did you people survive this long?  Again those afflicted with this allergy will probably find my words here callous, but I have to believe that this is being blown out of proportion because if an email has to be sent to 2,000 people alerting them of your condition before you can set foot into a public school building, then how are you not a hermit?  How do you go to restaurants and sporting events and parties and (horror of all horrors) the grocery store where aisles and aisles of packaged evil lay in wait to suffocate you?  And how did you get to this conference?  Because the last time I was on an airplane, the nice flight attendant gave every single passenger in that tiny, air-tight cabin a package of peanuts to open and eat and drop on the floor and exhale into the canned air for three and a half hours.

That’s my argument for why all this peanut allergy hype is nuts.  If Southwest Airlines can still pass out these tiny little allergen grenades on their flights, I’m thinking that pretty much everyone else should be able to walk into a building or take a math class without first announcing to the world that their throat could close up if they eat a Reeces.  

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