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

My job now was different. It was to recover and get back to what I knew as quickly as possible.

Six days after I arrived at Einstein, I had an operation to repair my neck. My surgeon, John Handal, cut open my hip, took some bone out, and placed it beside and between the vertebrae that had been damaged. That added support to the steel screws and titanium cage he put there.

What I remember after the operation was the extraordinary pain I felt, both in my hip and my throat. It would be two months before the hip pain would begin to subside. It would take much longer for the throat pain to go away.

The worst part of the throat pain was that I couldn’t swallow without great difficulty. Chewed-up food would collect and stick to the back of my throat, and it took quite an effort to get it down. And though I only ate very soft foods, strangely, I couldn’t handle thin liquids at all. For the longest time, I couldn’t drink water or juice without gagging. Still, the operation was over, I was on the mend, and I was rather excited.

I remember thinking that I needed to get back into the classroom as soon as possible. Yet sometime during that first weekend in the hospital, before the doctors had even operated, I received a visit from Paul Vallas, then the CEO of the school district. And here again, I remember almost nothing of what he said. But I do remember three things from the visit.

I remember that Vallas stayed with me for a long time. I remember that it was comforting for me to have him there. And I remember he did say: “You don’t have to go back into the classroom. When you’re ready, we’ll find something appropriate for you to do.”

While it wasn’t on my mind not to return to teaching, I remember feeling so relieved, as if a burden had been removed from my shoulders. At the time, in spite of the fact that I viewed myself as a teacher, knowing that I didn’t have to go back to the classroom aided in my recovery.

Subsequently, many people asked me if I wouldn’t like to teach at a “better” school. But while that had a certain appeal, it really wasn’t what I wanted.

Vallas was to visit with me many times, both at Einstein and at Moss. He came in the evenings. He came on the weekends. Often, while he was there, he had to take some important phone calls. But one day, in response to our talking about a mutual love for the movies, he made some calls, and when he got off, he was excited.

“The funding is in place if you want it,” he said. He was trying to get outside funds for me to head up a program for working with kids in schools to make films. He had a genuine enthusiasm for the programs he was trying to create. We had talked many evenings about what could make the school district a better place. He told me what he had done, what he hoped to do, then listened to my suggestions.

I know that politics figure heavily into the position of CEO of a big school district, and I understand why Vallas left to go to New Orleans. But before he did, he tried to make sure everything was in place for me to work when I was ready. Sadly, though I regularly thought I was “ready,” it’s a year later, and I’ve finally come to recognize that I’m a different person from who I was before the day I was assaulted. My head injury has changed me, and will continue to for the unforeseeable future. I can’t become again what I was, no matter how hard I try. That is the nature of the healing of a brain injury.