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Posted on Fri, Dec. 05, 2008 10:15 PM
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One man’s faith spurs Tourette sufferer to inspire others

Jimmy Wolk plays Brad Cohen as he walks with a student, played by Anna Rapport
Jon Barron Farmer
Jimmy Wolk plays Brad Cohen as he walks with a student, played by Anna Rapport

Sitting in a small interview room, Brad Cohen wanted to be still. He wanted to keep quiet.

You have no idea how much.

Then it happened. The 34-year-old with the short black hair shook violently. As if drawn by a powerful magnet, his head and shoulders lurched back and to the left until he’d nearly turned around in his chair. After the spasm subsided, he gathered himself, folded his hands and listened to a question as he started making noises.

“JOP!” he shouted in a sharp, high-pitched voice, followed by a more subdued “ja-ja-JAH”

The question?


How had he become a teacher, written a book and become the subject of Sunday’s Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with such severe neurological tics?

“All I needed was one person to believe in me and give me a chance,” he said. “The rest is history.”

The involuntary movements and sounds Cohen makes as a part of his Tourette syndrome might have destroyed a weaker man. Instead they helped make him who he is — an award-winning teacher and co-author (with Lisa Wysocky) of the book Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had.

After being turned down for 24 teaching jobs despite impressive qualifications and glowing recommendations, Cohen eventually got his chance. Then, in 1997, Georgia educators named him their first-year teacher of the year. For the boy who had no friends in middle school, it was life-changing.

On Sunday, Cohen will experience another life-changing event when “Front of the Class” is told on TV in Hallmark Hall of Fame’s 234th presentation. The movie, starring Emmy-winner Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Treat Williams and newcomer Jimmy Wolk as Cohen, airs from 8 to 10 p.m. on CBS.

Jan Parkinson, vice president of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions Inc., praised Cohen’s story.

“We were inspired by Brad Cohen’s unwavering determination to become a teacher despite the odds against him,” she said. “But his story also shows us that we all have the ability to make a genuine difference in the lives of others when we accept them for who they are and support them as they pursue their own dreams.”

Growing up in St. Louis, Cohen struggled with his odd collection of tics. His teachers couldn’t understand why he was always disrupting class. They chastised him, sent him to the principal’s office and called his mother. One summoned him to the front of the room to apologize to his classmates and promise he’d never do it again.

Dealing with fellow students was even worse. They teased and taunted him.

“Weirdo.” “Spaz.” “Freak.”

Teachers, doctors, even his own father drilled him day and night. They all wanted to know the same thing. Why was he doing these strange things? And why wouldn’t he stop? Maybe the sudden jerks and strange sounds were a cry for attention or a reaction to his parents’ divorce? Maybe all he needed was a little tough love.

Brad had no answers. What did they want him to say? He just wanted them to leave him alone.

His first memory of making noises came between third and fourth grade at a camp at the Lake of the Ozarks.

“ ‘E.T.’ was out at the time, so I was making this very weird, deep voice — ‘Eeep! Eeep!’ ” he said. “On the last night each counselor gave a different award to a different kid. They were being creative. They said, ‘And we’re going to give the Froggy Award this year to — Brad!’ Everyone cheered. And I’m like ‘Yea! I get the Froggy Award!’ ”

To reach feature writer James A. Fussell, call 816-234-4460 or send e-mail to jfussell@kcstar .com.


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