Friday, February 8, 2002
Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer
It was her first day as a teacher and Kristin Tabrah, 24, was worried. She had 15, wide-eyed, rambunctious first-graders in her charge, and she had to make them understand something much more complicated than their seating chart and recess schedule.
She avoided the big, scary words: multiple sclerosis, optic-nerve damage, injections, numbness.
"I have a disease," she began simply. "It doesn't hurt me."
Holding up a 6-inch-wide box with a clear top, she said, "I have a magic reader, and this helps me."
She placed the contraption over a book, and the kids gasped as they saw the lettering greatly magnified. They scrambled to get close-up looks and touch it.
"It's so cool!" they said, comparing it to their video games at home and immediately putting their nervous teacher at ease.
On a recent morning inside Room 3 at Meyerholz Elementary School in San Jose, the kids recalled that day last August with their teacher and her "magic reader."
"You hold it like a box and a tiny word changes to a big word," explained Yoshito Kameda, 6.
His table mate, Amy Tuck, 6, added, "She can do stuff like read to us and read the words on our work."
Tabrah and her kids have spent six months together in their colorful room, which is decorated with cartoon frogs and a poster that reads, "No two flowers bloom in exactly the same way." It's been a time of sweet moments and unforgettable lessons for the students and teacher alike.
Growing up in San Diego, Tabrah was a healthy child who loved to swim. But at age 15, she developed numbness in her feet. Doctors gave her anti- inflammatory steroids, which alleviated the numbness. But a year later, the prickly sensation returned, climbing up her legs and then spreading to her hands and fingers.
Doctors gave her an MRI and a spinal tap and mentioned frightening possibilities such as a brain tumor and diabetes. When they finally diagnosed MS, Tabrah felt oddly relieved.
"I wasn't happy obviously, but it seemed manageable," she said.
She began giving herself injections, trying different medications before settling on Copaxone, which she takes every day. She attended San Diego State University for 1 1/2 years before transferring to the University of Oregon.
At 19, she developed pneumonia, which scarred her optic nerves. The MS made recovery difficult, and her eyesight grew worse. Glasses made no difference. Soon she couldn't read her textbooks or see the professors' notes on chalkboards.
She relied on her memory, never reading books or hand-outs. She was embarrassed by her disease and her inability to read and kept it secret from her professors, classmates and roommates.
She managed to earn a 3.5 grade-point average, majoring in broadcast journalism. She wanted to be a television news reporter. But after interning at an NBC-affiliated TV station in San Diego one summer, she realized her co-workers were more interested in their appearances than hard-hitting news. She also couldn't keep up with the demanding pace, but hid the reason why.
She spent a summer at a public relations firm, but didn't like that either.
"I wanted a job that mattered," she said.
At 21, she married her high school sweetheart, Ryan, who was finishing classes at Oregon State University. Her health continued to decline. She had trouble walking, so she moved slowly. Sometimes, she lost her balance.
After Ryan graduated and got a job as a software engineer at VeriSign, the newlyweds moved to Cupertino before settling in San Jose. Tabrah sat at home, bored, frustrated and sick.
"I wanted a job, but I felt like I couldn't do anything," she said. "I couldn't drive. I couldn't get a job. I couldn't see. I couldn't see! I couldn't see!"
In September 1999, Ryan brought home the Miniviewer, a $1,995 device made by Sunnyvale's Telesensory Corp., which enlarges small print. The first thing Tabrah read was a magazine. But when she and Ryan played Trivial Pursuit, Tabrah had trouble reading the questions.
"I read slowly and lost the flow. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I have not read anything in four years, and this is what happened?' "
Her mom came for a visit. On a drive around town, they passed Garden Gate Elementary School a few blocks from Tabrah's home. Her mom encouraged her to volunteer, and she started helping out in a first-grade class. She joked that the first-graders' big, blocky script was perfect for her; she could read it on her own.
"I was finally able again, and I had my independence in some form or another back."
Ryan said her attitude began brightening almost immediately.
"Before, she had no self-confidence," he said. "She was really depressed and had no reason to get up in the morning. All she did was watch TV. Now, she tires me out. A lot of different doctors that she's had have said that with MS, depression is what kills people. As long as they're happy and physically active, it can only be good."
He said teaching is a perfect fit for her.
"Kids have always had a connection with her," he said. "She's one of those people like when you go into a mall and a kid's screaming and crying and can't find their parents, they immediately stop crying as soon as she approaches them."
Tabrah volunteered for three months before pursuing a teaching credential at Santa Clara University. She was a student teacher at Garden Gate, using her "magic reader" to read stories to kids.
She graduated in 2001 and was hired at Meyerholz. Marjorie Zellner, the school's principal, said Tabrah has been a great addition to the staff.
"She's a joyous teacher who doesn't want to be known for her disability, but for what she's been able to do for her children," Zellner said. "That's a really positive thing, not only for the kids, but for her colleagues. Like when someone's moaning and groaning about having a cold, here's someone who's living with a disability and not complaining."
After explaining her disease that first day, Tabrah felt increasingly energized and healthy. Like many patients with MS, her symptoms come and go. Now, her vision is pretty good, so she only uses the "magic reader" for e-mail and book orders.
There have been hard days. In November, she had a minor attack, and her right leg froze up.
"We're not having a good day today," she told the kids. "We're going to walk slowly."
A few days later, the numbness dissipated and she was back to playing games and chasing the kids during P.E., much to the first-graders' delight.
Jenny Woo, 6, remembers those days when her teacher had trouble keeping up with the kids.
"She was walking slowly," she said. "I knew why because she told us about it. I felt sorry for her."
Jenny added that she loves it when Tabrah reads stories aloud.
"Like about zebras," she said. "Like, what if they lost their stripes?"
Tabrah's happiest classroom moments come when the children read to her for the first time.
"I give them a high-five," she said. "They see my face light up. It's amazing for me to see them be able to read and have the independence that I so longed for all those years."
She's not sure how many connections they make between the MS, the bad days, the magic reader and everything else.
"I don't know if they necessarily understand it," she said. "They know it's there. But there's a lot of life inside of me, and I'd like to think I portray that a lot more than having a disease."
And perhaps that's the best lesson a first-grader could ever learn.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle