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Front of the Class
How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had
by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky

Excerpt from Chapter 1 (Page 2)

Sure, a reputation like that draws a lot of heat from authority figures, but an eccentric joker is an identity you can play when out in the world. People might regard you with annoyance, but they don’t feel the need to stare. And when they do look at you, they don’t see a freak, they see a playable identity—meaning that, for a little while, I was able to pull it off. Nothing wrong with me, folks—just a funny guy who likes to make funny noises, okay?
In the years since, people have asked if I was hurt by the implied ridicule of receiving such an award. But at that time, a source of wisdom deeper than I could understand was already guiding me to ignore any jabs and to choose instead to accept the element of honor that was there.
I can’t take credit for that wise (or lucky) choice, but I’ve certainly learned how to employ it since. It’s amazing to me, whether I’m considering my own life or someone else’s, how often I see examples of people reacting with anger or pain to a personal slight without being able to realize that they are in a situation in which they have another choice: they can decide that the comment or behavior they consider hurtful might also be legitimately classified as a flattering piece of attention.
No, it won’t always work. I just know that my life and my career add up to concrete proof that it often can work. When we decide to experience someone’s attention as a positive sign, that can lead to positive outcomes.
With summer over, the dreaded new school year began, with its endless hours of enforced quiet time and its low tolerance for funny, smart-mouthed guys like me who “insist on constantly drawing attention to themselves with subversive little sound effects.” That’s a direct quote from one of my former teachers.
Have I mentioned how much I hated school? I was not a good student then. I didn’t have the attention span to stay quiet very long, so teachers were constantly criticizing me. And, as in the book Lord of the Flies, the kids in my school turned on the one child who was different from all the rest. They taunted me, beat me up when they could, and ignored me—when a simple, friendly smile would have gone a very long way.
And these were only the early days of the emerging symptoms. The intruder had been sleeping in the basement of my life, but it was waking up fast. Soon everything was going to be much worse.
On top of my emerging tics, we had recently moved and I was starting a new school, Green Trails Elementary. It was only about eight miles away from our old house, but it meant a new place with new kids and new teachers and no familiarity with anything at all. I was very stressed over both the move and the new school.
To compound these problems, in addition to clearing my throat I had also developed a habit of knocking my knee against the door of the car when I was a passenger. Of course that kind of behavior drove everyone nuts. Who could blame them? And when I insisted, “I can’t help it,” it’s easy to see how people would wonder just what the heck I meant by that. Was I actually claiming that I “couldn’t help” being an annoying jerk?
The knee-knocking-in-the-car behavior provoked my father to the point that he would lose his temper and actually hit me to make me stop. The shock of taking a slap, and the fear of getting another, was enough to halt my range of tics for a short while. But the problem was that the tics never stopped for long. Even when I knew I was going to get smacked for it, I found myself repeating the behavior. Remember, Tourette’s includes uncontrollable neurological behaviors. Telling people with Tourette’s to stop a behavior is like ordering someone with allergies not to sneeze.
And so the joker identity quickly became a lot less playable. No one was laughing anymore, particularly after I added yet a third tic to my repertoire, a piercing woop or “bark” that was to become my calling card. Imagine sitting in a classroom next to someone who, several times a minute, emits loud noises such as “RAH . . . rah . . . rah” or “wah . . . WAH.” Throw an occasional “WOOP” in there and a continual set of facial spasms, and you are sitting next to me. At times my noises were much louder than they are now, and so during many of my school years I must have been nearly shouting.

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