There’s a familiar rhythm to this time of year, a subtle uptick in the leisurely beat of summer, when back-to-school packets land in mailboxes and spiral notebooks fill store aisles, when teachers unlock their classrooms and dust off their lesson plans.
Al Bock knows this well, but the back-to-school anticipation has never been so powerful for the veteran social studies teacher at North Star High School.
Because this year it’s a gift, a hard-earned, life-affirming, take-nothing-for-granted opportunity to keep doing the thing he’s loved for 32 years.
The world had already shifted on its axis over spring break. A slip in the bathtub, a concussion and an unexpected diagnosis rattled the firm ground he’d trod all these years. So when Bock walked through the doors of Madonna TherapyPlus, an outpatient clinic of Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals’ Lincoln Campus, at the start of summer he was ready to regain some balance.
That was no easy task.
“It was a bad summer for me,” said Bock. “While all my buddies were having fun, I was here trying to walk a straight line.”
* * *
The first hint that things were about to unravel happened at the grocery store in March when he’d gone to pick up a few items — and was stumped.
“I couldn’t remember what salsa was,” he said. “I drew a blank.”
Earlier that day he and his granddaughter had donned swimsuits, grabbed the plastic toys and gotten in the bathtub. They’d laughed and splashed and made a mess. When they were done, his wife, Kim, took their granddaughter. Bock got up — and went back down, hitting his head hard enough to see stars.
He didn’t think much of it at first, got dressed and walked the dog before heading to the grocery store.
The salsa incident was odd, and the next night he got violently ill while the whole family was eating at a restaurant.
His family took him to the emergency room, where the doctor confirmed he had a concussion — then told him he was more worried the tremor in his left hand might be Parkinson’s disease. A few days later his doctor confirmed both diagnoses. Bock took the Parkinson’s diagnosis in stride.
“I thought, 'This is a setback, but it’s OK,'” he said.
On that Monday, he did what he had done for three decades at the end of spring break: He went back to work.
He started noticing he wasn’t himself, snapping at students, forgetting their names. And the fatigue was brutal. Walking to his car felt like he’d just scaled Mount Everest. Standing in front of his first class of the morning felt like he’d been at it for days.
After about two weeks, he told his principal he just couldn’t continue.
In retrospect, he realized there’d been signs of the disease before the concussion.
“You don’t piece it all together,” he said. “There were lots of little things I chose to ignore.”
He’d write on the whiteboard and the print would get progressively smaller. He had forgotten his students’ names a couple of times — though it got much worse after the fall.
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“I was becoming one of those teachers I never wanted to be,” he said. “The ‘hey, you’ teacher.”
The next weeks at home were no better. The fatigue continued, and he couldn’t find the energy to do the things he loved — mow the lawn, read the paper. Depression set in. A specialist told him he shouldn’t teach the rest of the year.
“I had some pretty dark days,” he said. “I was fighting two things at once. That’s what really made it tough. I couldn’t differentiate between the two. I just knew it was symptoms and I didn’t like it.”
Friends urged him to call Madonna, so he asked his doctor about the rehabilitation hospital, and he urged Bock to call.
He talked to the woman at the front desk, told her his symptoms and she said there was a wait but they’d get him in as soon as possible. She called back a short time later and said, "We don’t want to wait."
* * *
At first, Bock said he could do about a fourth of the exercises the Madonna therapists showed him. He had lost much of his balance, made a racket knocking over all the cones he was supposed to walk around.
They told him he had to keep at it, that he had to strengthen his core. They told him he had to do the exercises daily — at Madonna and at home, that he had to put himself first.
“One thing they impressed upon me is you have to make it about yourself. You won’t get better if you don’t. So I got better.”
He did the exercises religiously. Slowly things began to improve.
He liked being at Madonna, the therapists, the activity, the other patients. He took some of the advice he’d handed out to students over the years: Be on time, get yourself in the right mindset.
And he was inspired by the hard work of the others in therapy, people worse off than he was putting in the effort each day.
He got lots of support from friends and family — including a former student who knew exactly what he was going through.
Dani Coti was a student at North Star when she was diagnosed with a rare congenital condition that caused severe headaches and led to stroke — and many hours of rehabilitation at Madonna.
She reached out to him and the two have emailed back and forth, his former student encouraging him, cheering him on.
“She’s inspired me tremendously,” Bock said. “There were days I had to think about Dani.”
By mid-July he'd finished his last daily session at Madonna, though he plans to go back later this fall.
Now he’s ready for school — the place he’s gone since he was named social studies student teacher of the year in his native Colorado. He met his wife, Kim, there at a softball game years ago.
When he graduated from college, they were eliminating teaching jobs in Colorado, so he and Kim decided to move to Nebraska where she grew up. Four days before school started, he got a teaching job at Pound Middle School.
He taught there until 2003, when North Star opened. He’s been there ever since, teaching several social studies classes, most recently advanced placement human geography.
He knows the disease will continue to be challenging but the thing he wants now — the thing he's worked all summer to prepare himself for — is to see his classroom full of students.
“I want to be a teacher,” he said. “I’m ready to stand up in (Room) A101 and have a good time again.”
Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @LJSreist.