Mary Poppins was my nurse on Day 6. “Pretend you’re at summer camp,” she joked, encouraging every step I made toward healing and recovery. “We’ve got a whole bunch of activities for you to choose from.”
“But instead of Newcomb and color wars and collecting orange salamanders or dancing to Tommy James and the Shondells,” I said, “today’s activities at the hospital include pain med management, ice chip crunching, and Dammit! Doll whacking ...”
“Don’t forget IV pole walking,” she teased. “I always know when you’re coming because your IV pole is the squeakiest.” She tenderly guided me back into bed.
“But instead of early morning skinny dipping,” I said, “someone signed me up for the johnny gown ash mob.”
That really made her laugh. “I wish all my patients worked like you.”
“Well, you help make it easy,” I admitted. “I loved sleepaway camp. I’d pack my trunk with stamped stationary and Razzles, pick-up sticks and jacks. And my Magic 8-Ball. My bunkmates and I thought we could predict the future. Go figure. I could never have predicted this.” She wrapped a warm blanket around my feet. “One year,” I continued, “I was the last camper to be picked up and, on the way home, my sisters teased me that my parents wanted to leave me there.”
“That’s one of the reasons I love my job here,” she smiled.“The staff is a family. We’re planning a barbecue together this weekend.”
It was August 2013.
Dr. David Sanfred, our family practitioner, walked into my room at 6:45 a.m. and stood at the end of my hospital bed. “Maureen, we’re getting ready to send you home soon,” he said.
And then, “It’s time to talk.”
It was time to face what I’d avoided all week.
“I’m sorry to tell you, but it’s very serious.” Though by our family’s side for many difficult situations, I’d never heard Dr. Sanfred’s tone so methodical. “We thought it was Stage 1 but the cancer metastasized from the colon to your umbilicus and has advanced to Stage 4.”
The hospital symphony went silent. I turned my head and watched the early morning sunlight peek through the window.
“Is it curable?”
He gave my hand a soft pat. “No, it is not curable.”
I heard myself gasp.
I was in a panorama shot. I saw Mary Poppins outside the thin curtain share morning notes with the nurse coming on. They whispered, glanced sympathetically in my direction. I struggled for breath and gripped the Dammit! Doll.
“Will I be able to go back to my classroom?”
“No,” he cautioned, “you will not be able to teach right now. But soon. We hope.”
The tears kept coming. Mary Poppins came back into the room. She reached out and hugged me gently, with so much affection I could feel her heart break.
I was one of the lucky ones. From a very young age, I felt right at home in a classroom. I was excited about going to school. I relished the rituals and routines, the variety of subjects. I loved raising my hand. I developed much of my confidence and curiosity early on in class. Teaching was a revered profession when I was a child, and my teachers were my childhood heroes. I trusted them and they taught me that if I applied myself, I would develop the tools to succeed, that I had the power to positively affect another life.
At age thirteen, I started to volunteer with children who had learning disabilities. I tagged along with my mom on Sunday afternoons to Children’s Village, a home for emotionally disturbed children in Dobbs Ferry, New York. I saw major hardships but enjoyed being with other children and was fascinated by their individual stories. I learned how difficult it was for them not to live with their parents, brothers, and sisters. They lived differently than me, but I felt like I belonged there. I had a sense of purpose.
I graduated from Rhode Island College with a degree in Elementary and Special Education on a Saturday in May, 1979. College was about falling in love a few times, music, friends, and building independence, but mainly I focused on my training at the laboratory elementary school on campus. The more classes I took, and the more students I engaged with, the more I realized my heart was in the classroom. The Monday after graduation, the Providence School Department called. I never forgot what they asked me: “Can we count on you for the fall?”
“Yes,” I said. “You can absolutely count on me for the fall.”
I became a better teacher when I became Daniel’s mother. In 1988, after my two-year maternity leave from the Providence Public School Department, I dropped Daniel at home day care for the first time and felt an enormous sadness that I needed to share the responsibilities of caring for him with another. I entered the classroom again, my first year in Room 4 at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School at Fox Point, carrying a photograph of Daniel for my desk.
Fox Point, tucked in near the end of the East Side overlooking the mouth of the Seekonk River, was one of the oldest neighborhoods settled in Rhode Island, established by Native American families along with Portuguese, Italian, and Irish immigrants. The early neighbors were approached about putting an elementary school by George M. Cohan Boulevard, and the forward thinkers built a one-story, barrier-free, rectangular school building with large windows overlooking the preserved Tockwotton Green Space.
Generations of families attended Fox Point and we remembered and honored the legacy of those who came before us. I was one of the youngest teachers on staff. My colleague in Room 6, who had been a student in the school’s very first kindergarten class, called me “Mrs. Rogers” because of my sunny disposition. I was strong-willed but it was always my goal to put on a bright color and a beautiful piece of jewelry, look people in the eye, smile, use good manners, and make it a great day. That first day at Fox Point, with amazing clarity, I realized I had been called to care for each child who was another person’s somebody special. I dedicated myself to become the kind of teacher from whom I wanted Daniel to learn. My philosophy was to care for, advocate, promote, and educate all children with a moral compass and strong heart. Unafraid to become involved, to speak up and speak out, I strived to maximize my students’ learning potential and to provide their families with the support they needed to lead productive, meaningful lives. I set up Room 4 as an environment where, together, we could thrive and feel confident in our ability to take risks.
DIEGO lived in a shelter for homeless women and their children. “I have been put into the lives of my students for a special reason,” I reminded myself. “It is my job to create a home in the classroom, to generate joy, to give love, and to work hard.”
The students, giddy with excitement, threw a birthday party for Diego. We spent two days with mini-lessons in Writer’s Workshop, creating detailed and delightful cards. As each child read their personal message to Diego, I saw the Principles of Learning, heard the elements of Balanced Literacy, and felt the essentials of character development practiced and internalized. I watched twelve children with varying degrees of social, emotional, academic, and physical handicaps celebrate each other. After reading his card, one of my students, Gabriel, asked, “Can I speak from my head and my heart now, Mrs. Kenner?”
“Absolutely, Gabriel! Go for it!”
Gabriel was a magnificent boy, as close to an angel as I had. He had a rare blood disorder and needed to be absent several days a month to have whole body transfusions. He never complained. He was gentle and an enthusiastic participant. Gabriel and Diego formed an immediate bond. “Well, Diego,” Gabriel said with conviction, “I want you to know if you ever need anything, anything at all, you can always count on me.”
I learned as much from my students as they learned from me. They reinforced my desire to push for understanding and held the most important roles in strengthening my skills as a lifelong learner. For the next twenty-seven years, the rewards I found in teaching Special Ed — small moments loaded with power and inspiration — prepared me for the life I lived, as resilience, tolerance, empathy, faith in the unknown, maintaining a sense of humor (for sure) and a sense of community all paved a clear path that merged my life inside the classroom with my life outside it. I was on a perpetual search for hope, for optimism, for assurance in a world often filled with fear and uncertainty. By witnessing how the students and their families made difficult decisions through hardships and limitations, challenges and setbacks, grace was revealed.