The counselor finished reading the excuse note, which a teacher had scrawled on the back of a blue, half-page hall pass. He folded it over. With a glance at the pass mark on the opposite side, dated two days previously and apparently reused at need, he set it on the table.
"Well?" said the brown-haired girl across the table from him.
He rubbed his chin. He'd seen the girl twice before this week. He'd formed an opinion of her symptoms. But he was loathe to share it. His words would likely get misinterpreted.
"You were ..."
As he began, someone knocked on the frosted glass door panel. He glanced up at the rattling noise. His principal, a broad-shouldered woman twice his age, opened the door without waiting for him to respond.
His student's tearful expression vanished. She wiped her face. With a wary glance at the intruder to the counseling office, she leaned back in her seat.
"Can I help you, ma'am?" the counselor said. His principal shrugged. She folded her arms and leaned against the wall in her pantsuit.
"Not yet." She waved an arm. "Continue."
His eyebrows rose. This would normally be a circumstance in which he'd send either the administrator or the student out of the room. But since his supervisor knew she was breaking the confidentiality code, he couldn't point it out or she'd accuse him of undermining her authority in front of a student.
He turned to the girl. She blinked.
"You were about to tell me your symptoms," he reminded her. "Can you can describe in detail how it is that you're feeling today?"
"Okay." The girl bit her lower lip for a moment. "My arms are jittery. My heart feels funny. My breath is too fast. I think that's it. No, I'm sweaty, too."
"So it sounds like a panic attack."
"Or asthma," she said, sitting up straighter. He knew that she loved to be contrary. If he'd suggested it was asthma, she'd have said it was from taking the wrong dose of medicine. The girl's fingers brushed away a strand of her brown hair.
"It's your third attack this week." He rubbed his forehead. "I have to say, for asthma, it's discouraging how your medicine doesn't seem to help."
"If you'd send me to the doctor again, I'd change my prescription." She gave him a brave smile. She was getting good at that expression. Her fingers linked together in her lap. She relaxed in her chair, apparently satisfied with the argument she felt she was making.
The counselor glanced at his supervisor. Her face presented him with an impassive scowl but that was normal for her. She said nothing. Her fists remained folded under her grey suit jacket. She gave him no real indication of her approval or disapproval.
"I think you should change something else," he said as he turned his gaze back to the girl.
He hesitated. It would help, he thought, if he could encourage the student to voice opinions that the principal wouldn't want to hear from a guidance officer.
"Your environment." He nodded. But from the blank look on her face, the girl didn't get the hint. Next to him, the principal tapped her foot.
"You mean like nature and stuff?" the student wondered.
He closed his eyes. The foot tapping continued. His chest rose and fell with a deep breath.
"Your environment," he explained as he indicated the walls around him, "can also mean the circumstances that you find yourself in. It's your surroundings."
"Like what, the school building?"
"Ah," he murmured. "Have you noticed these attacks are all school related? You don't have them during your after-school job. You don't have them when you go home. No, you only have them in the morning when you're faced with coming here or, sometimes, when you've just arrived."
The girl looked down at her knees. Perhaps it was her hands on her knees. Either way, she studied herself for a while before she spoke. She kicked her school backpack twice before she seemed to realize that it was her turn to offer some thoughts.
"I'm not faking," she said.
"Of course not," he replied immediately.
"So is it the building that's making me sick?"
"Maybe not." That phrase wasn't definitive enough, he realized. "Probably not."
Next to him, his principal grunted. The girl glanced at her, not at him.
"I remember the history of your problem." He laid open his left hand. "There was a fight in the school. Your friends were hurt. You got anxious about more threats and more fights. There were plenty. So I sent you to a doctor. He prescribed medicine. You took the medicine."
"Sure." She nodded, happy to confirm. "Plus my asthma medicine."
"Then some of your friends left the school. Other girls decided they weren't your friends any more." He watched her sense of satisfaction vanish. "That made you depressed. I recommended you to a psychiatrist. He prescribed medicine."
"This year, you couldn't get into the class you wanted. So you took a class that bored you. You had mood swings in that class." He waited for her to nod. "I recommended you to a different counselor. She recommended you to a psychiatrist. He prescribed medicine again."
"Those pills make me sick to my stomach." She bent over as if she were ill.
"Yes, you're taking a lot of medicine now. It must seem like you're very sick."
"I guess." Fortunately, she didn't seem pleased about it. Some students were.
"What if the problem isn't you?" He leaned closer. "What if it's your abnormal situation?"
"I don't understand." She sat up straighter. From her blank expression, she didn't think that anything in her school circumstance was strange.
"These things go on in every institution this large, Harold," said the principal, who understood the point.
"Until a hundred years ago, most schools were the size or one or two of our classrooms, maybe a hundred students in all grades, together." He rested his hands on his knees and returned his principal's glower for a moment. Then his gaze drifted back to the girl he was obligated to advise. "All ages learned what they could according to their skills. Factory-style learning wasn't the rule."
"Now it is," insisted the principal.
"It's normal for a person to become anxious after being involved in a fight." Now he was nodding to his own point. That wasn't a good sign. He couldn't help it. "It's normal to get depressed about being alienated from your old friends. It's normal to be unhappy in a class that bores you. Did you ever stop to think about that?"
"What I'm saying is," he continued, "whatever your problems have been, we've dealt with them by treating you."
"That's the obvious approach," the principal offered. She had stopped propping herself against the wall. Her arms had unfolded, too.
"Yes, it's one thing you can truly control, yourself." With this much, he had to agree. "Taking the self-improvement approach makes sense. You can manage your responses to these tough situations. But there's another plan of attack that's just as obvious."
"I'm working on getting better," the girl replied automatically.
"All I'm suggesting is," he made a calming motion with his hand and slowed his words, "you should be open to the possibility that the problem isn't you."