Whether you are a parent, child, or teacher, the beginning of the school year is always a hectic time! Since September is the time of year that everything commences after summer, it always feels like I blink and the month is already ending. Now that we are at the end of another September, I am finally feeling settled into a rhythm. This seems to be an appropriate time to discuss being back to school with food allergies, for both teacher and student.
My fourth graders are finally adjusted to my classroom routines and are beginning to understand the changes from third to fourth grade. They have greater responsibilities this year and many are showing enthusiasm to take on the challenges of a new grade. Of course urban teaching does not go a day without its challenges. This year I feel more prepared than ever though to embrace each day and make the most out of the time I have with my students.
As an Allergic Reactor, I do mention briefly at the beginning of the year that if my students eat something that I am allergic to, I would appreciate them washing their hands so they keep me safe. I never want to scare my fourth graders, but I do want to educate them and make them aware. It is incredible how thoughtful my kids are and how considerate they are of my allergies. They will come up to me after morning snack/recess and say they ate peanut butter or another one of my life-threatening allergies and ask to wash their hands. Some of my students that have a hard time remembering their homework or to write their name on their paper will remember to wash their hands in order to keep me safe. They do care and they do understand. I know the message is different coming from an adult to a child, than a child to a child, but ultimately my students are way more responsible about my allergies than any of my colleagues by far. Although I do get the occasional hive or two on a weekly basis, it is more than likely from a teacher than one of my students.
I know that unfortunately there have been too many cases of bullying when it comes to kids teasing other kids with food allergies. As a teacher, I am aware that bullying in general has become an even greater issue. As a teacher and an Allergic Reactor, I am also aware that when kids don’t understand something or are scared of something they can react in a way that may be considered bullying. I know when I was growing up, there were plenty of kids my age and even a few friends included, who just did not understand the severity of my allergies. Kids would wave peanut butter in my face or chase me around the cafeteria thinking it was a game. They didn’t realize it could literally kill me and if they had understood that, I would imagine that never would have happened. They were not trying to be malicious. They just really did not get it. This is not to say that teasing of any kind is okay, and my students know I have an absolute no tolerance policy for anything even remotely along the line of unkind behavior, never mind bullying! I think my main message though is that education is the way to put a stop to bullying behaviors, especially for Allergic Reactors. If kids understand the severity, they are not going to want to be responsible for causing harm to a classmate or friend.
As adults, it is frustrating when other adults don’t get it because we think after having many life experiences, comprehending something like food allergies should be easy. Coming from a world where I knew no one else besides my dad with food allergies until the end of high school (when I met someone on a trip), I know how difficult it is sometimes for people to “get it.” For me, imagining not having to read every ingredient on literally everything I eat or put on my skin is pretty much impossible to imagine. For the majority of people though (yes, it is still the majority by a significant amount) they know only the opposite of me. They have never had to think twice about anything they eat. To imagine checking everything seems foreign to them because that is not the majority and they have not had the exposure. It has become more prevalent, but it is still a small population when you consider how many people there are in the world (also remembering this really is only a first world problem at this point…literally). Putting food allergies in perspective in this way, it may be easier to see why some people just don’t understand. Trust me, of all people I know better than anyone how frustrating it can be. I know how to explain myself in multiple languages, many different ways. I know the blood boiling feeling of repeating myself. The burning of my cheeks as I reiterate for the umpteenth time why I can’t have the cake at a birthday or eat chips from the same bowl everyone else is eating from. I “get it.” I know it. I live it every day. I also know though that children want to get it and most adults who have no experience with it are not trying to disregard what you are saying, they just truly do not have a grasp on the severity. Education… repeatedly for some, is the only way.