A Teacher’s Story

Veteran Philadelphia teacher Frank Burd tells his own story about the violence that plagues Philly’s schools, the incredible support he received from the community, and his ongoing fight to recover

I spent 11 days at Einstein Hospital. That’s where the ambulance took me. And I can’t imagine a better place. Every single person I encountered — doctors, nurses, therapists, assistants — tried his or her best to support me. Yet when I left Einstein to go to MossRehab, I remembered almost none of them. In fact, the day after a visit, sometimes hours after a visit, I didn’t remember the visitor.

When I awoke in the hospital, I was hooked up to an IV. I was also attached to a steady supply of morphine. Morphine does many things besides kill pain. It constipates you, and it affects your memory. At least, that’s what I understood to be the cause of my memory problems at the time. No one told me, lest they worry me, that I had much more than a neck injury.

Not only did my neck twist and break from contact — my head received a blow. A girl in the hall at the time of the assault told investigators that when my head hit the floor, she heard a cracking sound. That was the neck. But the silent injury was the movement inside my skull. The blow reshuffled the three-pound soft mass we call the brain. I had a serious head injury.

The doctors knew that my memory problems were from the impact to the head. All I knew was that on about day five in the hospital, when I tried to scratch my head, it hurt, and little pieces of dried blood appeared under my fingernails. When did this happen? I wondered.

Little by little, I looked at the evidence of what had happened to me. When I got out of the hospital, I went back to Germantown High, to walk the hall where the assault occurred. I wondered if I would recall the events. I wondered if it would be upsetting. It wasn’t. I remembered nothing.

My neuropsychologist explained it to me this way: “The brain didn’t create a memory. It’s not inside you, so you can’t conjure it up.” My doctors knew early on that I’d had a brain injury. As I said, all I was concerned about was my neck, and the horribly uncomfortable brace I had to wear on it. I was struggling with the different tubes running in and out of my body. One night, I awoke with tubes tangled around me, and blood everywhere. It was a mess.

Surprisingly, though, thinking was easy. My thoughts were crystal-clear while I was having them. My problem was losing the thought after I said something. Sometimes, I’d lose it in mid-sentence. It was impossible to prepare for the interviews I did with the media, because I couldn’t remember my own thoughts. For me, it was always now. Even weeks after the assault, my mind wasn’t creating memories that would last. And so when I read the paper or watched an interview with me, it was new to me.

Sometime during that stay at Einstein, I was interviewed by a columnist from the Philadelphia Inquirer. I remember a man sitting beside my bed and talking with me. I said things like, “It’s like you’re walking through the desert and you just want to get the kids across. One is frustrated, and so he attacks the leader.” Where did I come up with that? I only know I said it because it was in Daniel Rubin’s column, a column he called “A casualty of an everyday battle.” He got that right.