Tag Archives: cancer

Lessons for Teachers

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The teacher learnsLessons from the Greatest Teacher Of My Life

Ironically we met in a hospital and not in a school.  She wasn’t even the one who inspired me to become a teacher.  When we met, I had already been a teacher myself for fifteen years.  But that just made it easier for me to recognize what a master teacher she was.  I made myself a promise.  I would watch her carefully, ask questions, and learn everything I could.

The greatest teacher of my life is my daughter, Kelsey.  Born with cerebral palsy, she later developed brain cancer when she was five years old.  Vivid and remarkable are the lessons she taught me. I am a better teacher forever because of her patience with me.

learn to tie shoesA Challenge

When Kelsey was four, she wanted to learn to tie her shoes.  A best friend had accomplished this important childhood feat.  Even though I had worked with preschoolers for many years, I was stumped.  Because of cerebral palsy Kelsey was left with very little use of the fingers and thumb on her left hand.  I was unable to tie a shoe with one hand.  How could I teach her?  Medical insurance refused to cover occupational or physical therapy.  It seems the term “pre-existing condition” excuses them, forever, from a child’s needs.  We struggled for three and a half years with this one maddeningly simple task.  But she mastered it.  On the first day of summer vacation when she was seven and a half years old, as I watched and encouraged her she taught herself to tie her shoes with one hand.  She beamed from ear to ear.  I cried.

Lesson Learned

I noticed something important after she conquered her shoe laces.  No one ever asked her how old she was when she mastered the skill.  Lesson learned by this teacher?  In the long run learning pace is of little importance.  Accomplishing meaningful goals within our own timetable is what matters most.

Then Came the Cancer

Kelsey during cancer treatment

Throughout her cancer treatment, Kelsey gained some control over her circumstances through play.  Whenever we were in the hospital, she wanted to play “restaurant”.  She was always the waitress and I was cast as the customer.  Hours on end we played this game of her choice.  She lost herself in this dramatic- play-acting; it was if we weren’t in the hospital at all.

When we were home where she felt safe, she always wanted to play “hospital.”  In this game she was the doctor – in charge for a change.  Family members and friends had to be the patients. She developed a game called “radiation” that had an uncanny realism to it.  Her play often included medical terms her peers and many adults didn’t understand, but it didn’t matter.  She had found a healthy way to cope with the scary things that were happening to her in the hospital.  She did much better than cope.  She was happy.  What had I learned?  She taught me firsthand and emphatically about the important therapeutic value of play.

The Enthusiastic Ballerina

ballerinaWhen Kelsey was six she wanted to take ballet lessons. I’m embarrassed to admit how much this frightened me.  At the time she was in chemotherapy. Her muscles were weak from the chemo drugs.  She had very poor balance following her brain surgery and her weight had slipped to 34 pounds. There was an awkwardness to her left leg and arm due to her cerebral palsy.  She was bald and wore a patch over her left eye.  I was afraid she would fall and get hurt.  And, let’s be honest, I was afraid the other girls would make fun of her.

Fortunately I didn’t know how to tell my daughter about my fears, and she persisted with her request until I enrolled her in ballet class.  I had forgotten what she knew instinctively.  The process is always more important than the product.  She danced with joy.  The sheer fun of dancing was her goal. Did she fall?  Of course.  Was she awkward?  You bet.  Did it matter?  Not a bit.  Every child and adult who watched Kelsey dance gained something special from it.  Her dancing career lasted four years.  She only quit when she decided she wanted to take horseback riding lessons instead.  This time I had learned my lesson.  I signed her up without hesitating.

lesson from basketballLessons from Basketball

In fifth grade Kelsey excitedly brought home a registration form for intramural basketball.  She wanted to play.  I knew it would be a major challenge for her.  Our daughter could only run very slowly and with great difficulty.  She was also very short as her pituitary gland had been severely damaged by the cranial radiation she had received to survive cancer.  For many, many years she received a daily injection of growth hormone to grow at all.  She only had the use of one hand to play ball.  Caution bells went off inside my head again, but I had learned to ignore them.  The excitement in her eyes emphatically canceled out all those drawbacks.

We signed her up.  After the first practice the coach/gym teacher, George Losh, said he was afraid for her to play in a regular game.  He was afraid she would get hurt.  I’m certain lawsuits danced in his head.  But every child who participates in sports risks physical harm.  If her risk was greater, her need to belong was greater too.  We encouraged him to let her play.  George Losh’s physical education classes were always child-centered and structured so that every child could feel some measure of success.  For two years Kelsey played basketball harder than any girl in the league.  No, she never made a basket during a game.  Some huge successes are subtle.  In two years we never once saw a teammate treat her as anything other than as asset to the team.  After weeks of trying, when Kelsey made her first basket during practice, every girl in the entire gymnasium stopped to applaud.  Watching this young lady struggle and triumph increased the humanity of all who knew her.  On game days when we stopped in the grocery store, Kelsey quickly shed her winter coat into the grocery cart.  It took me a few times to figure out that she was so proud of her team shirt, she didn’t want it to go unnoticed under her coat.  She was thrilled to be part of a team.

Most Important Lesson of All

hurts

What is the single most important lesson Kelsey taught me?

Being excluded hurts.  Be certain of this.  The older my daughter grew, the more excluded she was… both by her peers and unfortunately by some teachers too.  Whatever educational jargon or current political term you choose to use, the results are still the same.  Being excluded hurts.

Possessing a physical disability or struggling with a different learning style did not rob my daughter of her sensitivity.  Being excluded hurts!  It hurts the children being excluded.  It robs them of the role models-their typically developing peers-they so greatly need.  It shortchange the children with ‘normal’ growth patterns too.  Inclusive environments reduce fears, build understanding, and teach compassion, patience, and tolerance in a way ‘special’ schools and ‘special’ classrooms never will.  Inclusive environments reflect life and the society in which we live.  How can we separate our children now and expect them to adjust successfully to one another at some magical, mythical time in the future?

Becoming a Great Teacher

Good teachers become great teachers when they become students themselves.  Children have much to teach us if we will only watch and listen carefully.  Kelsey’s dream of becoming a teacher did not end when her cancer returned and she died at age sixteen.  Kelsey was an incredible teacher all of her life. I cannot tell you how many times one of her teachers would come to me at the end of the year and say, “She taught me so much more than I taught her.”  I came to expect it, because I had learned that it was true.

Kelsey modeled for me how to handle rejection without becoming angry.  She showed me how to simply ignore seemingly insurmountable challenges and just focus on living life to the fullest.  She taught me how to more greatly appreciate the simple joys of family and traditions.  She modeled how to maintain a sense of humor and grace even in the face of death.  She has left the most incredible legacy for all who knew and loved her…and all my future students too.  She will forever be the greatest teacher of my life.  May her story touch your teaching life, too.

Kelsey Noel Easley

1982-1999

Kelsey's lessons

TEACH...To Change Lives

TEACH…To Change Lives

Autographed or in large quantities from the author dauna@cinci.rr.com

Also available at Amazon.com

Moments Matter

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Making the Most of Moments

I’ve heard it said that we don’t remember days, we remember moments.  As I think back over my own life I believe that’s true.  The good news is moments take less time than elaborate events and time is a commodity most of us have in short supply.  Most moments that mean much to us simply evolve spontaneously.  But as we build a life of value, embracing the moments when they happen means a great deal.

I remember one significant moment in my life that didn’t even involve a single word. My youngest daughter, Kelsey endured two long battles with cancer.  During her second battle in her teen years while I drove her to the hospital for treatments, I knew she was uptight about all that would transpire, though she never would verbalize her fears.

I fell into the habit of putting my hand on her knee as we drove to the hospital.  One time as we drove there I was lost in my own silent thoughts of dread and I didn’t put my hand on her knee.  After a while she quietly picked up my hand and placed it on her knee.  No words at all.  But we were then connected.  She was telling me she was scared but didn’t want to talk about it. She was telling me that she needed me present with her. It was a moment I will never forget.

Another lighter moment happened in my classroom as I was preparing my teen students to go on a trip out-of-town for an educational conference.  I spoke to them seriously about our upcoming stay in a hotel.  No one was ever to be in the hotel hallway alone.

“Even if you are just going for a bucket of ice, you must have a partner with you,”  I warned.  “Never talk to strangers or enter the room of someone you’ve just met no matter how nice they seem.” I continued sternly.  The atmosphere was very sober as I wanted it to be.

At precisely that moment there was a knock on my classroom door.  A man wearing the uniform of the technology department whom I had never seen before, was looking for the room which housed the media brain of our building.  That particular door is somewhat hidden.  You must pass through another room that has no posted room number in order to find it.  I tried to describe the process to him, but he was still confused.  I stepped outside my classroom, walked a few feet down the hall, opened the unmarked door and escorted him inside to point out the door he was trying to find.  I was back in my classroom in seconds.

One of my female students with a gleam in her eye said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Easley.  Didn’t we just see you leave your friends and go into a room with a strange man who you didn’t even know?”  I tried to stay serious but the whole classroom dissolved into laughter.  What followed was an out-and-out giggle fit that went on and on.  Every time I tried to get the class back on track someone would start laughing again, usually me.

It was a spontaneous moment that none of us will ever forget.  I’m sure long after I’m dead and buried if those students get together to talk about old times, one of them will say, “Do you remember the time Mrs. Easley left the class and went off with a strange man?”  And they’ll laugh again.

What makes me proud?  I was “present” in those moments.  I connected with Kelsey’s message when she needed me.  And I collapsed in laughter when that was the only response needed.  I embraced the moments.  That’s why those moments will live forever.

This is an excerpt taken from my upcoming book:    Teach     To Change Lives 

Superheros I Know

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Facebook Mysteries

Facebook!  “If you want to be a writer,” everybody says, “you have to have a Facebook page.”

Therefore…well tardy of the forward thinking online crowd…I am filling out my background information for a Facebook page.  It’s exhausting.  I’m supposed to have an opinion about everything apparently.  Sometimes I don’t have an opinion.  Should I make one up?

Sometimes I have an opinion, but it’s embarrassing and I don’t want the world to know about it.  Do I really want to admit to the universe that I love watching American Pickers on the history channel?  I love the enthusiasm of Mike and Frank picking through all that junk in those dilapidated barns.  They would make great history teachers. There, now I’ve admitted my deep dark secret to the world, or at least the friendly community of my bloggers.

Mike and Frank comb the backroads of America.

It feels more than a little awkward for a professional teacher to be posting information about her political and religious beliefs.  Most teachers go way out of their way not to share that information.  There is that separation of church and state principle on which our country was based.  I wouldn’t even tell my students who I was voting for in any election for fear of overstepping a boundary of influence while I was in front of the classroom.  But these days I supervise college seniors doing their student teaching.  I’m not trying to influence anyone from the front of a classroom.

Who Inspires Me?

But on one question I am certain.  Who inspires me?  I can’t download a celebrity’s face or even a famous person.  People who live in the real world inspire me.  While my daughter was battling cancer, I met a woman who had twin babies, one of whom had cancer.  Twin babies is challenging enough, without a pediatric cancer diagnosis.  That mother inspired me.

I had a daughter  who was born with cerebral palsy.  She did everything with one hand for her entire life.  She did it so well and effortlessly that hardly anyone ever noticed.  She tied her shoes, buttoned her clothes, carried her books and rode a horse using only one hand.   Try it. But then I worked in a school where a student had no arms at all and ate his meals and typed with his feet.  All of life’s challenges are a matter of perspective.

Does someone have to be disabled in order to be inspirational?  Of course not.

I know a lady who bakes birthday cakes for people who would not receive a cake otherwise.  She has baked hundreds of cakes for people she has never met.  She has other volunteers deliver them so that the attention remains on the person celebrating the birthday and not on the baker.

Other people I admire?

  • Friends who encourage me and others… to be the best that we can be.
  • People who discover a need and fill it, without wasting breath about what other people should be doing to fill that need.
  • People who fail, but keep on trying, no matter what the odds.
  • People who face challenges with a positive attitude.
  • People who have fears (don’t we all?), but refuse to give in to those fears.  They just recognize the fear and move forward anyway.

These are the people who inspire me.  Usually these are people I know in all walks of life.  Sometimes they are a friend.  Sometimes they are a friend of a friend.  They aren’t famous or celebrities. They aren’t seeking out awards or even accolades.  They are walking, breathing superheros.  I’m proud to know them.  They inspire me everyday.  That was a facebook entry I found easy to answer.  But you won’t see famous photos there on my page.  No one knew Clark Kent was a hero either.