- Teacher: Man with Tourette Battles Barriers to Realize Dream
Brad Cohen loves school. The second-grade teacher near Atlanta, Georgia, loves the students, the activities and the excitement of learning. He even loves the cafeteria food.
It wasn't always that way.
Cohen suffers from Tourette syndrome, that makes him twitch his face, jerk his head and make loud noises.
As a young student, Tourette made him a target for ridicule. As an adult, it presented problems as he sought to fulfill his dream of becoming a teacher.
Now, Cohen has put his experiences in a book titled "Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had."
In his book, he provides an account of growing up with Tourette and of his determination not to let the disease rule his life.
His goal in writing the book was not to gain sympathy, but to educate.
"Hopefully the book will help people understand Tourette syndrome," he said. "There are so many misconceptions about the disease. Most people think it's a cursing disease."
He also hopes the book serves as an inspiration for people with disabilities.
"It's a story about the underdog and how the underdog can be successful," said Cohen. "As a child, adult, teacher and someday a parent, I want to help people. I want them to know that even if they have disabilities, they can be successful."
According to Cohen, he faced several obstacles as he grew up in Missouri. A fifth-grade teacher "humiliated me by making me stand in front of the class and apologize for making sounds and made me promise not to do it again," he remembered.
Things got worse in middle school. During lunch, when teachers weren't looking, a group of students would circle Cohen's table and mock his tics and shouts, he said.
With that kind of experience, you'd think that the last place Cohen would want to be is in a school. But the embarrassing, painful episodes had the opposite effect. They set him on his life's course to be the positive, encouraging teacher he never had.
"If the teacher, who was supposed to be a role model, wouldn't accept me, how was anyone else going to accept me?" Cohen wondered. "I decided early on that I wanted to be the teacher that made a difference, the teacher that patted kids on the back, gave them stickers and saw the good in them."
Following his dream to become a teacher was no easy task. Though he graduated with honors from Bradley University, many school administrators were unwilling to take a chance on a teacher that made loud sounds and twitched. One principal told Cohen the students would laugh at him.
After 25 interviews, he finally was hired as a second-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary in east Cobb. He taught at Mountain View for six years and Stripling Elementary in Gwinnett for three years before returning to Cobb this year.
Tritt Principal Becci Rutledge was impressed with Cohen's attitude.
"Everyone worries about how they will fit in. So, when students see Brad dealing with his Tourette's, it encourages them to try harder," said Rutledge. "He brings a touch of class and reality to what we're here for, the children."
At the beginning of the year, Cohen talked with his students about Tourette's syndrome, so they wouldn't be afraid. "He said he was born with it and we couldn't catch it, so it's not such a big deal," said student Gemma Ireland.
Miles Mitchell, 7, agreed.
"It doesn't sound good, it's a weird sound, but I don't really notice it. It's cool."
Hilarie Straka hired Cohen when she was assistant principal at Mountain View. Now, as assistant principal at Tritt, she couldn't wait to get him back on her staff.
"Brad is a wonderful teacher and he has a positive impact on everyone he comes in contact with," said Straka, who often marvels at his resilience. "I've been places with him and seen the reaction. People stare and talk. He gets kicked out of places but he still has such a positive attitude," she said.
Cohen refuses to live in a shell, despite the challenges. An avid sports fan, he's a regular at the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers games.
Soon, he will take a bride. He and his fiance? Nancy Lazarus will be married sometime next year.
"For me, failure is not an option. I have a vision of where I want to go and if I come to a hurdle, I go over it. I won't quit," Cohen said.
He admits, however, that it isn't always easy. "I didn't choose to have a disability. But Tourette's is part of me; it's part of who I am. And I choose to deal with that," said Cohen. "People don't want to hear excuses and I don't want pity or sympathy."