Miami Lakes Educational Center

As Teachers Know, School Is A Home Away From Home

My kids are off to college.  It is a bittersweet moment.  I am – of course – incredibly proud of them.  I’m excited for all of the experiences and opportunities that lay before them; but I am also sad, and a little worried, because they will be on their own and so far away from home.

I won’t suffer from empty nest syndrome, however.  I still have more kids to help get into college, about 150 of them this year.  I’m not referring to biological children, but to my school kids.  And, for about 180 days that begin on Monday, school will be their second home, where they’ll learn, work, laugh, cry, write, calculate, interpret and grow up.

And teachers are an integral part of all that.

the girlsTeachers returned to school last week, to unpack, rearrange, set up and plan for the first day of school.  I walked in to school this morning, fueled with a double dose of caffeine, to send and answer emails and begin all the heavy lifting.  They call these days work days for a reason.  There is a whole lot of work to do. There are desks to move, boxes to carry, activities to be planned.

And, as we sit down to plan lessons – juggling texts, secondary sources, standards and activities—it could all become a little daunting.  Will I reach them?  Will they get this?  Is this rigorous enough? Is it too rigorous? Does this lesson infuse the common core standards? In the midst of all the work there is to do, it is easy to get a little overwhelmed, maybe even wallow a little in self-doubt.

Just as I was in the midst of all that, four of my girls sauntered in.  Each of them is heading to college this week.  Each has spent some time at their respective schools, from one year to three, depending on the visitor – Harvard, Columbia, University of Florida, Florida State University and University of Central Florida—to get acclimated.  And each came back home, to their school home, to surprise me and to talk hurriedly and excitedly about their summer.

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The MLEC High School class of 2013 is all grown up. Now globe-trotting juniors and seniors preparing for their careers.

They wanted to tell me how well-prepared they felt.  They wanted to thank me.  These are the moments that teachers live for.  They are the reason that we trudge to and from trainings and professional developments, why we learn and adapt for changing standards, tests and curricula.  It is not for higher teacher merit pay or for school grades – although both are nice – but for moments like these, when Aileen tells me, “I was one of the few freshmen in the class and I got an A,” or when Crystal says that she used her notes on Othello to tutor her friends and classmates, for the moment when Gaby said, “at first I was intimidated by their GPAs and SAT scores,” but then she realized – they all realized—how much they learned in high school.  They realized that they were prepared for college, and – best of all—they came home to tell me all about it.

I am preparing for my eleventh first day of school.  As kids can attest, it is both exciting and nerve-racking.  What will Monday bring?  The only thing that I know for sure, are that at each desk will sit a student who – whether she knows it or not—is building her Mugfuture.  My job is to help her shape it, to make sure that she, and all of her classmates have all of the tools that they need.

Over the years, I’ve lectured and graded, proofread hundreds of college application essays, helped students complete their FAFSAs, written letters of recommendation and worn the dozens of hats that teachers do each day.  I’ve been there to console them after rejections and losses, and to encourage them to push through.  I’ve been there to celebrate acceptances, triumphs and awards and to shake their hand on graduation day.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

And another group of young women are off: leaving my classroom, and beginning the next chapter of their lives.

But, most rewarding of all is hearing from them.  Opening my inbox to find an email from a student who graduated in 2008 with exciting career news; running into a former student and finding them happy, healthy and successful; and, of course, welcoming a former student home for a visit as they talk excitedly about their lives.  

  Yes, most rewarding of all knows that we reached them.  They learned.  They navigated through the seas of adolescence, the drama of high school relationships, the trials and tribulations of pretests, post-tests, lectures, essays and assignments and that – through the cacophony of all that—they heard us, they listened, they learned, and they appreciate it.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

Teachers collect moments: thank you cards, notes, the small things that remind us why we work so hard.

Teacher, given two years to live, fighting cancer eight years later

We all piled into the school gym wearing our new, originally designed t-shirts, made in our school colors, teal and white.  The sound system was on, the bleachers were down and the photographer was set up and snapping away.

Only, this was not an average pep rally.  This one was special.  This one was for Ms. Susi.  Jennie Susi has stage four ovarian cancer.

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

When Jenni Susi was diagnosed with cancer, doctors said she had two years left to live

According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women, partially because the symptoms are so common to other illnesses — they include swelling or bloating ,and  pain in the belly— that it often goes undiagnosed far too long.  Something that Jennie knows from firsthand experience.  Four different doctors told her that she was fine.  It was the fifth doctor that finally diagnosed her cancer.  He instructed her to get her affairs in order because she’d have, at most, two years left to live.

That was eight and a half years ago.

Jennie decided that “statistics are just statistics. I’m going to be one of the positive statistics.”  And, in so many ways, she is.  She has fought this disease and undergone several surgeries, chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment.

And cancer is not the only hardship she’s faced.  Her husband has Multiple Sclerosis.  Her parents both passed away, within a year of one another.  Each of these alone is enough to break someone’s spirit; but, not Jennie.  Through it all, she’s never lost her zeal for life.

“People always ask me ‘How do you do it?’” she says.  “And of course, there are days and times when I’m upset, but what good is that going to do? How is that going to help me?”  So, in her weakest moments, she allows herself a “one-hour pity party.”  Then, she chooses to get up and look on the bright side of things again because no matter how bad things are, she says, life is a gift.

Jennie credits her family for her inherent optimism.  Her parents who taught her to be positive, even in the face of adversity, and her brother who taught her how to be happy.

“I have an older brother who has Down Syndrome and he’s just SO happy, and pure in his joy. He was my greatest teacher. I try not to be wasteful of the gift I’ve been given – the gift of life. His purity radiates to me so I can be happy with my life, just the way it is.”

These are the lessons that she brings into the classroom.  She teaches American History, but she goes above and beyond – not only to prepare them for the End of Course Exams (EOCs) – but for life.  She went to school on the days that she was scheduled for chemotherapy and – if she was able to pull herself out of bed – was back at school the next morning.

So when Jennie didn’t come back to school, it was difficult for her students, friends and colleagues.  Doctors found more tumors and she had to have surgery to remove them and resection her colon, forcing her to take a leave of absence.

But even then, she did not forget her students.  She assured them that she was okay and would “stay calm and chemo on.”

“Ms. Susi is one of the most inspiring women I have ever met… even though she wasn’t able to come to school, she made sure that we were in good hands and she always sent us updates on her health and surprise emails to encourage us and tell us that she believed in us; it’s like she was always thinking about us,” said Carl Hughes, who was a student in Susi’s American History course and has kept in touch with her ever since.  Carl’s own mother lost her own battle with cancer, which made Susi’s struggle feel even more personal for him.

She made sure that he and all of her MLEC family knew that she was alive and recovering, and that she was thinking about them.

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Jenni Susi’s MLEC family sits for a portrait, urging her to ‘Stay Calm, Chemo On’

And all of her school family was thinking about her.  So when her students created a design for her catch-phrase, “keep calm – chemo on,” Helena Castro, the school activities director and Jennie’s friend of 17 years, had an idea.  She had the design printed on t-shirts.  Teal and white, our school colors, are also the colors for ovarian cancer awareness.  She also included #teamjenniesusi, the hashtag trending on Twitter while Jennie was in surgery.

Hundreds of shirts were purchased and all of the proceeds went to the Ovarian Cancer Society.  Then, once Jennie was well enough, her school family surprised her with a pep rally in her honor.  She walked into the gym to find us all wearing our shirts, and we posed for a big MLEC family portrait.

“Too often we honor and immortalize posthumously,” said Castro.  “Jennie lives life fully and demonstrates compassion and resiliency and it is that zest for life that has served as a source of hope and inspiration to so many.”

originally published on July 2, 2013 on wlrn.org