Kate Hooks pulls her maroon Honda into a handicapped space in front of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute on a chilly early November morning. She adjusts her rearview mirror to get a good view of her mouth and brushes some lip gloss on before she starts the day.
Before she's done putting the cap back on the gloss, she feels an abrupt jolt and notices her trunk being opened by a short, smiley teenager.
"Morning!" he yells from the back of the car, as he pulls out a black wheelchair from the trunk.
"Hey there, Anthony, you scared me for a second."
Another student, Ashley Lingle, opens the back door and grabs a backpack and clasps it onto the wheelchair. "Hey, Ms. Hooks," she says.
"Thanks so much, guys," Hooks says, as she gets in the wheelchair and Anthony Edmondson rolls her up the ramp and into the school. The three of them go into the main office and Ashley reaches up to Hooks's mailbox and grabs her mail and attendance folder. Then they all take the elevator up to Hooks's classroom, and the kids' homeroom, where they can finally start the school day.
That's a typical morning for 31-year-old Hooks, a ninth grade history teacher at Poly, who has had multiple sclerosis (MS) since she was 19. Her two students—or as they like to call themselves, "agents"—are going into their senior year and have been helping out Hooks since the beginning of last year. What started as a boost to their community service hours is now just something they do, before and after school, "because it feels natural," they say.
The agents figure prominently in Hooks's brutally honest blog, "Health, Interrupted" (katehooks.blogspot.com) in which she has chronicled her struggles with MS, her faith, and the people around her since late 2004. It offers a rare look inside the complicated life of a disabled teacher. "Currently my only goal is to maintain enough independence to keep my job," she wrote in a recent post, after describing a decline in her health. "When I'm at school I am granted at least eight blissful hours of reprieve from my otherwise constant self-loathing on behalf of this damn disease."
Hooks says that the disease seems to bring out the best and worst in people, which has taught her a profound lesson about society. "There's something about being an adult that closes you off to differences, but when you're a kid, you just want to understand," Hooks says. "And I'm not really sure why or when that change takes place."
Hooks grew up in snowy Ithaca, NY, with her parents and younger brother. She always had an interest in history and sports, so, at Colgate University, a mere 90 minutes from her hometown, she majored in history and ran track and cross country. During the summer between freshman and sophomore year, she noticed that her running stride was a little bit off—like her legs didn't feel totally equal. She didn't think much about it until the first race of her sophomore year. When she got to about 1,000 meters, she just started tripping and had no idea why.
"In my head I was like, 'You're running up a hill, you have to pick your leg up higher,'" she says. "But I kept stabbing my foot into the ground and falling."
One trainer advised her, "Just ice it!" But a couple days later, a second trainer said it seemed neurological and urged her to get some tests done. An MRI came back and found that she had lesions on her brain indicating MS. Hooks was familiar with the autoimmune disease because her dad had been diagnosed with it 10 years earlier.
"At the time I was diagnosed, [my dad] was really asymptomatic, so I thought, 'This is an awesome disease to have! He still goes on runs and lifts weights,'" she says. "He was the only person I knew who had it, so it didn't seem that daunting."
But in reality, MS causes the body's immune system to attack its own central nervous system, triggering poor communication between nerve cells. There is no known cause or cure, and the disease manifests itself in several forms so no two cases are the same. One patient could be completely debilitated and wheelchair reliant, while another can go through life fairly normally with occasional relapses when they can't walk.
"We thought, since her father's course is benign, hers will be, too," says her mom, Sue. "But she's had the more aggressive and debilitating course."
Like her dad, Hooks experiences relapses, but every time she recovers, her condition worsens a bit. For a long time, she was too stubborn to use crutches or a cane and would link arms with friends or family on long walks. In late 2004, she began to use a wheelchair occasionally. A couple of years ago, she became almost completely wheelchair reliant. In February, she took a pretty bad fall and ended up with a concussion, so her doctor monitored her condition regularly for six weeks.
But the diagnosis and the course it took did not stop Hooks from finding her true calling: teaching. After college, she applied for Teach For America, the nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income neighborhoods. She imagines she's the only applicant who put Baltimore at the top of their list, saying she wanted a city that was drivable. She was placed at Morrell Park Middle School in Southwest Baltimore and began teaching social studies in the fall of 2000.
"Middle school kids are tough, so I had to be very strict and structured," she says. "I felt like I had to trade in parts of my personality in order to be an effective teacher."
Although Hooks's disease hadn't yet begun to interfere with her work, her struggles with a disorganized administration, huge class sizes, and a particularly rough group of kids led Hooks to quit after her third year. Then, in an attempt to avoid the stress of teaching in the city, she did a yearlong stint with Connections Academy, a web-based public school that students attend from home. But she left that job in June 2004 to write a book about her experiences with MS.
After six months, she shopped the book around to publishers and received some hopeful leads, but no bites. So Hooks started "Health, Interrupted" in an effort to share her stories—good and bad—but she realized what she missed most was being in the classroom.
In the middle of the 2005 school year, she got a job teaching American government to sophomores at City College High School after a teacher had abruptly quit. Hooks enjoyed teaching again, but she had several run-ins with the administration related to her disability—much of it chronicled on her blog.
In one incident, there was a fire drill, but no one came to check on her. (She was using a wheelchair, taught on the second floor, and the elevators were shut down during fire drills.) When she confronted an administrator, she was told, "You need to have your own emergency evacuation plan." After several similar experiences, Hooks decided she needed to leave. "It was a bit of a nightmare," she says.
She heard about a position at Poly and requested an interview. After handing her resume to Poly's vice principal at a McDonald's, Hooks was hired to teach world history (her first love) to ninth graders.
Hooks says Poly was a huge breath of fresh air, explaining how the vice principal shovels snow off the ramp in the winter, the head of her department throws her over his shoulder if there's a fire drill, and students are constantly stopping by to check on her.
No students are more diligent, though, than Hooks's 17-year-old agents: Ashley and Anthony. The two came up with the nickname after cleaning her room one afternoon and leaving before Hooks returned. They left a note saying, "We did everything! Signed, Your Agents."
Ashley and Anthony couldn't be more different. Anthony, a round-faced kid with dimples, is soft spoken, while Ashley, a skinny girl with blond bangs, says everything with sass, whether she means to or not. But they share a great affection for their teacher. Once, after Hooks took a nasty fall in the bathroom and came back in tears, Ashley said, "I think I'm going to cry." Anthony said, "I already am."
Ashley and Anthony, who've been friends since elementary school, started helping Hooks out at the beginning of their junior year, cleaning boards and straightening desks for service learning hours. Hooks says she can't remember the last time they asked for service-learning credit in exchange for the help.
"It's become a daily routine kind of thing," says Ashley. "She's the kind of teacher you can talk to about anything, even when it isn't about class." Anthony agrees. Asked about Hooks's disability, he says, "Everybody is pretty much the same, they just have different problems."
It's a poignant statement coming from a teenager who seems to have a grasp and perspective of someone many years older. But, as Hooks details on her blog, age does not necessarily equal compassion.
In one entry, she describes an incident on an Amtrak train, when she fell while folding up a wheelchair. Instead of helping her, most people walked over her, looking annoyed. One man did stop and she says the fact that he was from Maryland was no coincidence.
"I started to appreciate Baltimore a little more," she writes. "[Like the] taxi driver linking my arm to get me safely to the door of my row house, or the hostess at Kooper's seating me as quickly as possible, or the Safeway employees helping me get my grocery bags to my car—maybe that's where the 'charm' comes from."
Hooks focuses on teaching to get through the day. On the first day of the school year, she explains to her students that she has MS and anyone with questions can talk to her after class. From then on, the frantic, grueling job of teaching takes center stage.
"I want three piles of papers on your desks," she commands during her eighth period class. "Jason, take your headphones off. Get out a sheet of paper and a pencil." But she's everyone's favorite teacher—smart and authoritative, but also your friend. When class is over, several students stay after to talk, some about class, others just about life.
"There are constantly kids in my room. They eat lunch with me and just hang out," Hooks says. "Ninth graders are really goofy and I'm goofy right along with them."
Hooks's mom agrees, adding that teaching was definitely her daughter's calling. "I would rather her do something less stressful," Sue says. "But she is enabling her students to be blessings to other people. Maybe those agents will read her blog to their grandchildren. Maybe it could change their lives."
Outside of the classroom, Hooks tries to balance between hope and reality. Earlier in the course of her disease, she participated in two triathlons to raise money for Project Restore, a program run by her doctor at Hopkins, Peter Calabresi. The project, which is committed to restoring nerve function in MS patients, has seen very successful results.
"He took a paralyzed mouse and made it run on a wheel—how amazing is that!" she says. "All I want to do is run on a wheel."
Hooks used to have the five-year plan outlook, she says, but with a disease like MS that just isn't realistic. So she takes it one day at a time. There is one day she's dreading: when Ashley and Anthony graduate this spring.
"I asked them, 'What am I going to do when you guys graduate?'" she says. "They said: 'We'll just train new agents!'"