As a sophomore in college, I was involved in a near-fatal "accident" when I walked into a robbery at a convenience store. One of the thieves shot me point-blank in the head. The thieves, as well as most of the people there, thought that I was dead, or soon would be. Obviously, they were wrong. However, it was a severe and difficult battle getting back into the mainstream of life. I was hospitalized and had to drop out of college. Even after I was discharged from the hospital, I endured many hours of intensive therapy. I had to relearn practically everything, including walking, talking, and yes, even math.
To help me with that task, Mrs. Piller volunteered to come to the hospital and later to my house once a week, to work with me. She started with the most basic math skills. Then, as time went on, my "homework" became progressively more difficult.
I remember very vividly how she would come to my home on Sundays, sit with me at the kitchen table, and throw various coins on the table. She would ask me to show her 38 cents, 17 cents, 63 cents .. It was challenging-but she also made it fun.
After a year and a half, I had progressed sufficiently both physically and mentally to return to the University of Texas. Once there, I continued therapy regularly, but I was happy to be back in college. Four years later I graduated at the top of my class-and went on to graduate school. I eventually became a social worker in the NeuroTrauma Intensive Care Unit at Memorial Hermann Hospital, in Houston.
As the years went by, I always kept in touch with Mrs. Piller. Unfortunately, one day my parents informed me that she had suffered a stroke after open-heart surgery and was in the hospital.
I promised Mrs. Piller that I would help her just as she had helped years earlier. I saw her progress each time I visited. One day, I pulled some coins out of my pocket, dropped them on her bed, and asked her to show me 12 cents. The nurse thought my action strange, but Mrs. Piller smiled briefly as I began working with her just as she had worked with me years before. I would point to the dimes and the pennies, and she would put them together in the correct denominations.
Mrs. Piller was eventually transferred from the ICU to a private room and then to a rehab room. There was no doubt in my mind that she was improving.
When I visited her, I would always ask her to tell me something good. At first, a family member would quickly jump in and say, "Mama is doing so well," or "My sister is doing great." However, I would raise my hand and say, "Mrs. Piller, you tell me something good." She would then slowly and hesitantly answer my question. As the days went by, her responses became quicker and more fluent.
Mrs. Piller made wonderful progress and was eventually discharged from the hospital with a prescription to continue speech therapy as an outpatient.
One day I called to wish her a happy New Year. She spoke into the phone quite fluently and said, "Happy New Year to you and your family, Michael. Thank you for everything you've done for me."
I quickly responded, "Thank you for everything you've done for me."
Mrs. Piller was my math teacher, but she taught me about so much more than math.