Ron Tuitt teaches on the floor. His papers, briefcase and a small white writing slate are all easily within his reach as about 20 Paterson second-graders surround him, seated on small carpets. They love the unusual setup.
Tuitt, 49, finds the floor more comfortable, because he can stretch out his legs. He suffers from a condition called lymphedema, which causes his legs to swell severely. In recent years the lymphedema has hampered his mobility, making walking extremely painful, sitting in chairs uncomfortable and sending him to the hospital more than once.
But his condition has enhanced his teaching in a surprising way.
His students at School 13 on East 23rd Street learn not just to read and write, they're learning about dedication and perseverance.
Last summer, Tuitt, who has been teaching for 12 years, thought his days in the classroom were finished. First hospitalized for swelling in his right leg in 1999, he later was diagnosed with lymphedema. Last year, the condition worsened. To reach his classroom, located with others in the basement, Tuitt sat and shuffled down the stairs. Then he used crutches to walk to his door. In June he was hospitalized for about two months.
"I thought it was over. This thing beat me," said the language arts teacher whose legs are wrapped tightly in Ace bandages. "I didn't think I could win. The one thing that hurt the most was that I'd never see these kids again."
But he didn't give up. With intermittent physical therapy and a strong will, Tuitt was back in the classroom last fall.
He started using a motorized wheelchair in mid-September, secured with the help of Jo-Ann Carnemolla school secretary, who made the arrangements. Now he can use the elevators located on the other side of the school building to reach the first-floor auditorium and watch his students in the monthly grade-level performances. The school district will soon be installing a computerized interactive SMART Board, which Tuitt can use to display lessons for the whole class without moving around. Even David Rodrigues, the school custodian, pitches in by parking Tuitt's car daily.
His students help him, too. They help him get to and from his car. They assist him every day after school when he practices walking. They run errands for him, like bringing papers up to the principal's office and when he asks for something – crayons, markers, or other lesson materials – it's not uncommon for more than one child to jump up in response.
"It makes me feel good inside," said Shania Wauchope, 7.
"It's fun helping my teacher," said Genesis Gomes, 7.
Lymphedema occurs when unusual amounts of fluid build up in the body, causing swelling, generally in the limbs, according to the National Lymphedema Network. Though there is no known cure, lymphedema can develop when lymph vessels or nodes are missing, removed, or harmed. Tuitt has long struggled with his weight and although obesity does not cause the problem, it can exacerbate it. Tuitt said he is not sure how he developed the condition.
Anne Marie Mulé, a second-grade math and science teacher, said Tuitt's condition fosters a mutual devotion between him and his students.
"I think they recognize how hard it is for him to come in every day, so they realize how important they are," she said.
Vice Principal Denise Wallace, said his students learn from his refusal to be stopped by his health problems.
"I think the disability shows determination," she said. "That they can do whatever they want. They can be successful no matter what obstacles they face."
Tuitt is also a stickler for good manners and discipline. Even from the floor Tuitt catches the slightest infraction and delivers a quick reprimand. His is the only class where most students wear the school uniform. All the children refer to him as "sir."
Even Tuitt himself acknowledges that he's become more creative and stronger as a teacher from his physical struggles. He knows his students benefit as well.
"They know I don't quit," he said. "They understand pain because there are a lot of days I can't hide it. And they know I care."
7 Color Photos by Elizabeth Lara / Herald News;
1 - Ron Tuitt, who suffers from an incurable swelling condition of the legs, known as lymphedema, sits with his class recently at School 13 in Paterson. Tuitt continues to teach with the support and admiration of his students.
2 - Ron Tuitt counts each step as he practices his walking with the support of his second-grade students at School 13 in Paterson. "It makes me feel good inside," says Shania Wauchope, 7, who runs errands for Tuitt.
3 - Second-grader Adriana Garcia, 7, follows along in class from Tuitt's wheelchair at School 13.
4 - Ron Tuitt, right, gets help from Genesis Gomes, 7, outside School 13 in Paterson as he prepares to enter his car. "It's fun helping my teacher," she says.
5 - Luis Palacios, 7, left, a second-grader at School 13 in Paterson, and his teacher, Ron Tuitt, share a laugh during class. Tuitt suffers from lymphedema, a condition that causes severe swelling in his legs. The condition made teaching difficult. "I thought it was over. This thing beat me," he says. Tuitt returned to class in the fall.
6 - Dawyn Santana, 8, listens during class while sitting in teacher Ron Tuitt's wheelchair.7 - Melanie Ferman, 8, studies under teacher Ron Tuitt's desk. Colleagues say Tuitt's condition fosters a mutual devotion between him and his students.