As a Sunday school teacher it is normal to meet children from all walks of life. If you are fortunate enough to belong to a congregation where diversity is encouraged, the children of carpenters and mechanics are learning about the deity next to the children of bankers and welfare recipients. As such, it is not unusual to encounter children who at first glance seem to act a bit odd. Perhaps they come across as stand-offish, seek to keep to themselves, and rarely speak. Conversely, considering that even children engaged in religious training tend to act their ages, these so called “odd” children may be whispered about as they come in; sudden giggles abound; and I am left wondering what I’m missing.
This is what happened one fine November morning when I met Thamsyn. A small 13-year old with a shy smile that all but hid behind her mother, she took a seat far away from all the other kids. Snickers went up but other than that all was quiet. As we were about ten minutes into our discussion about Old Testament prophets, Thamsyn asked to go to the bathroom.
So far so good, I thought, and gave her permission. Over the course of our two hours together, Thamsyn excused herself about five times – earning more and more snickers behind her back as she went along. Not one for being taken advantage of by a child, I asked her if she was okay when she returned after bathroom break number five, only to be greeted with a burst of tears and near hysterical laughter by the rest of the class.
Seeing that I was clearly missing something, I asked Thamsyn’s mom’s to stay after class to discuss what happened. What I thought would be a quick Q and A session turned into a three hour discussion about the life of a child who not only struggles to be accepted by her peers and do all the things kids her age do, but who is starting from a disadvantage; Thamsyn, you see, has Crohn’s disease.
Crohn’s disease is one of the many conditions lumped under the umbrella of inflammatory bowel disease. As such, any part of her gastrointestinal tract is subject to inflammation. Sufferers will deal daily with abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and also gassy smells.
Thamsyn’s mother relates that she often suffers from severe cramping that is so bad that it forced her to quit swimming class since the water pressure only made things worse. Since she has to use the bathroom almost twice an hour when she is awake, he teachers decided to place her in the back of the classroom by the door, so she could slip in and out as needed; unfortunately, she wears glasses and this has made it very hard for her to see the board. Of course, the alternative is running the gauntlet of snickering peers to leave the classroom when she is sitting in the front of the room, so Thamsyn has chosen the rear of the classroom.
Before her disease got more pronounced, she used to be a ballet student with her best friend Leisha. As the disease continued onward, she was no longer able to continue with ballet, since some of the postures made the urge to use the bathroom unbearable and even led to smelly and embarrassing accidents during class – she has quit dance as well. Leisha’s mom got wind of the problem and thought that Thamsyn had some form of microbial disease and forbade any further contact between the girls. She was afraid that Leisha would catch whatever it was that made Thamsyn have such bad diarrhea.
Within the course of about six months, Thamsyn’s life as a vibrant, happy and healthy student shifted and she became withdrawn, shy, and accustomed to living life from the back of the room. At her last doctor’s visit, Thamsyn was discovered to be developing sores around the mouth; a normal manifestation for children with Crohn’s disease, but the kiss of death for a teenager. The doctor also discovered that her growth which thus far was pretty much in keeping with the course charted on the growth curve had sharply dropped off.
As I listened to Thamsyn’s mother recount her daughter’s sudden introduction to a disease that would rock her world, I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to start out on a journey that would promise pain, discomfort, embarrassment, potential surgeries and aggressive treatments with medications which might make her just as sick as the disease itself – all at the tender age of 13. As we spoke and frequently lapsed into silence when Thamsyn excused herself for another bathroom break, I began to wonder how I could help her in the confines of my Sunday school class.
The first choice, of course, would have been the direct approach of talking to the kids about Crohn’s disease and help them to understand – make that browbeat them into understanding – that laughing behind her back was unkind and rude. The second choice, however, seemed a much better one. Here is what I did: the next week at Sunday school class we took a departure from the Old Testament prophets. Instead, I told them there would be a price for the person who could name this prophet I would describe. At the mention of a price, it became so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop.
I then talked about a man who at a young age was noticeably different from his peers. His behavior set him apart. When his friends hung out together to go and whistle at girls, he stayed in his dad’s shop to help with the work. Friendly but a bit of a loner, he prayed a lot and once even caused his parents to worry about him because he lingered behind in the temple. As he got older, the weight of his mission became heavier and one day he dropped all he did and went for it – with God’s help he changed the world. Yet even before he started, he knew that the road ahead would not be fun-filled.
It would cause people to get embarrassed by him; they would call him names and make fun of him; he was frequently uncomfortable because he did not have a house and with his few friends he would frequently camp out. He also knew that before he was done, he would have to undergo pain and suffering at the hand of his friends, causing him to weep bitterly. After a bit of deliberation, finally a hand went up – Jeremiah was the first guess (after all, he was called the Weeping Prophet).
A good guess, but not quite. Finally the right guess came in: Jesus! Speaking to the kids about what it must have been like for Jesus the teen, it soon became apparent to each and every one that the odds are good that they, too, would have laughed and snickered about Jesus and the way he was acting weird and different from other kids.
Bringing the story to full circle, I explained about Thamsyn’s condition and asked them if they thought they could see some parallels in their treatment of her and the way they might have treated Jesus. To their credit, they realized how their behavior had been dismal.
I wish I could tell you that Thamsyn’s life has changed – it has not. I would love to say that all the kids in Sunday school class are now nice to her and no longer snicker when she goes to the bathroom three or four times during our time together, but that is not true either. What I can say, however, is that with a bit of education on my part, the willingness to ask some questions, and a heart to heart talk with the kids involved, Thamsyn feels more secure with herself.
One little teen girl has made it a point to sit next to her and to take notes when she has to run out of the room. And Thamsyn has come up with a great one-liner: when kids snicker behind her back at Sunday school class she just lifts up her pointer as she leaves; when asked what this means on her return, she quietly says that those who were laughing will see who has the last laugh when she walks across the swimming pool in the summer.
I find it amazing how little it took to change things for the better in the two hours Thamsyn and I spend together each week. Yet I wonder about the adults she gets in contact with on a daily basis and who are embarrassed by her behavior or who because of a false sense of modesty will not ask any questions. Do they not realize how much they could help this child deal with her illness while still participating in a majority of the activities she enjoys?
Additionally, parents who are reluctant to allow their children to play with her because of her condition should take the time to learn more about it – rather than engage in the knee-jerk reaction of ending friendships over something they do not understand. If you are in a position to deal with a child suffering from Crohn’s Disease, please make the time to visit a doctor in Serbing Florida.