"They won't be taking any pictures of you," Calvin Chan tells the kids. "They are here to do a story about me." Chan is doing his best not to alarm any of the students, who are — with one exception — hospitalized while being treated for eating disorders.
This is the inpatient unit of the Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program at El Camino Hospital, which is run by the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in cooperation with El Camino and the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District.
Chan, a school district employee, teaches a variety of core subjects — including math, science, English and social studies — twice daily to the children, teens and young adults in the program.
Chan is "an amazing Renaissance teacher," says Bill Pierce, principal of Alta Vista High School. Pierce is the supervisor of various alternative education programs within the MVLA district, including Chan's program.
"He will be working with a middle school student on a science assignment, shift to the other side of the table and work a calculus problem with a junior in high school, and then have a discussion on the subplot of an obscure novel that a college student is reading," Pierce says, explaining Chan's versatility. "It's really remarkable to see how seamlessly he shifts from grade level to grade level, from student to student and from curricular area to curricular area. That is no easy thing to do."
Chan studied political science and sociology as an undergraduate and graduate student and his interests — along with his "Renaissance" qualities — are reflected in the many books lining the walls of the classroom. Indeed, Chan's classroom doubles as a small library. One shelf is filled with the plays of Shakespeare, books on religion, the Torah, Bible and Koran; on the opposite side of the room there are books by Herman Melville and Joseph Heller, along with teen dramas and textbooks.
In addition to being well versed in many subjects, Pierce says, Chan's compassion makes him ideal for the job. "It's a very fragile group of folks he is working with," Pierce says. "He is a perfect fit there, as well. He is a very gentle person. He is able to bring out the best in kids who are having a tough time in their lives."
On a recent day, Chan helps one girl with math homework after helping a young boy — who has been suffering from abdominal pain and vomiting — figure out how to operate a pencil sharpener that is sharpening unevenly.
Chan is calm and at ease with the children. He speaks in a low voice as he patiently explains how to reduce a fraction. Later in the day he will go room to room, helping those children who are too weak or shy to attend class. In addition to teaching kids with eating disorders, he is also responsible for helping many young cancer patients keep up with their studies.
There are many misconceptions about eating disorders, Chan says. He often deals with teachers who are impatient with students that have been diagnosed with anorexia —the most common disorder Chan sees. "'Why don't they just eat something and come to class?'" Chan says, echoing a question he hears teachers asking frequently.
At least with teachers who take this skeptical view of the disease he has little trouble collecting homework assignments. On the other end of the spectrum, Chan says, there are teachers who believe that if their students are sick they should not be asked to work at all.
"'Oh, she's a great student. Just let her rest,'" is the attitude of such teachers. "That teaches the students learned helplessness" — rewarding them for playing the "sick role," he says.
Chan says he works to strike a balance between the two extremes — making sure the students work on their homework while they work to get better. Every time a student leaves the eating disorders program, Chan says, he asks them, "This is going to be the last time, right?"
Unfortunately, for some, it isn't the last time. Chan says the only thing harder to deal with than a cancer patient passing away is to see one of his eating disorder students returning.
"It is a constant reminder that life is tough," he says.
If Chan has learned one thing in the more than six years he has worked in the program, it is how treacherous the pitfall of perfectionism can be.
"Many of the students are perfectionists," he says.
They want to be perfect in school, to go to the perfect college, so they may have the perfect life. Chan says that he, too, sometimes starts thinking like a perfectionist.
"Sometimes it's better to be less than perfect," he muses, paraphrasing Voltaire. "The enemy of the good is the perfect. If you seek perfection too much, you'll be less than good, and in some cases you'll be less than healthy."