Updated: May 23
By Sara Behnke
It’s March of 2020, and I sit at a card table in the spare bedroom with sweaty hands. I’ve never taught school online before. One-by-one, my students’ faces appear on the computer screen. A few of the boys show up in shirts and ties for the occasion. Their uncertain expressions remind me that this is a first for them, too. This will probably just be a couple of weeks, I assure everyone.
In 2007, I meet Peggy on my first day in the chemo room. She’s wearing a scarf wrapped around her head, the only indication on her spritely body that anything is amiss. Nothing is amiss with her spirit; it beamed from her eyes, unbowed by cancer. The oncology nurse, Susie, introduces us and tells Peggy this is my first treatment. “When those bad thoughts come into your head,” Peggy says, “You just get ‘em out!” I exhale the breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding in. For the first time in weeks, I feel the tiniest bit of release in my shoulder muscles.
Two months later, I’m still teaching from home when a parent drives 20 miles to my house to drop off a small hand-painted plaque proclaiming “Teachers Are Heroes.” Facebook overflows with appreciation for teachers from families who’ve suddenly realized how hard education really is, especially conducted at the kitchen table. I keep the plaque because I appreciate the gesture, but I put it in a drawer out of sight because I can’t bear to be reminded of lip service.
Time is compressed in the chemo room. We are people trapped in a tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes, hunkered down together, knowing we won’t all make it out alive. The chemo room is never without casualties. We are strangers for only a few moments. Once settled into our blue pleather recliners, IV pumps humming, we see our own terror and hope mirrored in the faces looking back at us. These are faces we will never forget. We forgo the formalities and go straight to the important words.
“I love you and I pray for you every day,” Peggy says, releasing me from a hug, a blue turban wrapped around her head. For a second I wonder what her hair looks like.
“I love you too, Peggy,” I say, letting my hands linger on her slender forearms, then giving them a gentle squeeze.
When we cautiously resume in-person school in the fall, I tell my new 10th graders my story: how the bleomycin ravaged my lungs and I balked when my oncologist said we needed to stop it, even though it was 25% of my chance against lymphoma. “But I want to cure the cancer,” I had pleaded. He then asked if I wanted to carry an oxygen tank for the rest of my life. I stopped the bleomycin.
The day after my second chemo I get my white blood cell booster shot. Peggy had been there earlier, Susie tells me, handing me a glittery gift bag with chocolate Easter bunnies Peggy left for my kids.
This is why I’m going to be a stickler about masks, I tell the teenagers in front of me. They are quiet and attentive. A few readjust their masks to cover their noses. I want to be sure they know why, and I remind them that other teachers may not share their own concerns as openly as I do. I ask them if this all sounds reasonable. They say it does.
A week after my fourth chemo, I get my red blood cell booster shot. The $2500 one. Peggy was there earlier, Susie says. She opens the small refrigerator and hands me two packages of organic strawberries. A gift from Peggy.
Today I get an email from my principal, subject line: Stupid Question. A parent heard the 10th grade English teacher tied masking to grades. “Do you know where this parent would have gotten that from?” my boss asks. No. I just ask them to wear them. Over and over and over again.
A year after treatment, Susie pushes a butterfly needle into the crook of my arm. I barely feel the stick. Peggy’s cancer is in her liver. Inoperable.
“Please pull your mask up over your nose,” I say again, and again, as students file through my classroom door from the hall. Admin says students are allowed mask breaks in the halls. That means only a handful of our 500 students actually wear a mask in the halls. I don’t go in the halls.
CT scan number 6. All clear, my oncologist says. Now just see Susie for blood work. Peggy is in hospice, she tells me. I go home and write a letter to try and tell her what she means to me. I put it in the mail the same day.
“We’ll just have to agree to disagree,” the administrator says as I make a plea for stricter masking. The athletic director walks by with his mask under his chin. Later, I get an email from administrators advising teachers to be more vigilant about cell phone use in the classroom.
I call Peggy’s home. She isn’t able to talk anymore, her husband tells me. I will never hear her voice again. Does she know how much she’s meant to me? He says he read her my letter. Even though she can no longer respond, he feels sure that she heard my words, and that she understood.
Savannah, one of the tall, statuesque twins in first period walks into the classroom before the bell rings. I know it’s Savannah and not Sierra because thankfully, Savannah wears eyeliner and Sierra doesn’t. Without this visual cue, I could never tell them apart. They are bright spots in another pandemic teaching year, intellectually curious and unfailingly polite. I wonder why she is here so early, and a wave of panic hits that Savannah, even sweet, kind Savannah, is about to register some sort of complaint. Instead, she stands in front of my desk and proceeds to apologize for her classmates. “I don’t get why it’s so hard for them to wear their masks. Especially after you told us your story.” I exhale and my shoulder muscles release. She understands.
Sara Behnke teaches high school English in North Carolina. Prior to teaching, she authored two books on Motherhood, The Mommy Chronicles, and The Must-Have Mom Manual. She has a daughter and son, both in college.