In October, I began training for the Country Music Marathon in Nashville. I am Irish and determined—but not a runner. I purposely picked something challenging and sometimes painful, though. I wanted to know, at least a little, what it was like to be Michael.
Michael Lewandowski came into my life on my first day as a teacher. Rambunctious and happy, he was no different from the other fourth graders—at least on the outside. During registration, his mother asked to speak to me privately. She told me about her son’s battle with cancer as a first-grader. Treat him normally, she said, yet cautiously.
During the second week of October, Michael came in smelling like a tube of Flexall 454. Michael lived for hockey and said he injured his leg in practice. No big deal. A few days later, though, he was crying from the pain, and I had to call his mom to pick him up. When she arrived, her eyes met mine and gave me a message that sent chills up my spine—I knew Michael’s cancer had returned.
That week, he was again diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer that affects the nervous system. It was a heart-wrenching diagnosis that set into motion a chain of events that would forever change his life—and mine.
I always believed that the difference between a job and a career is the passion one puts into it. I found that passion in helping others. I was the girl that “taught” her teddy bears. I was the girl who loved all animals and wanted to become a veterinarian or a marine biologist. Maybe it was genetic. My mother was a social worker-turned-artist and my father was a psychologist. For whatever reason, I always felt I had a knack for helping people.
Teaching, by its nature, is a helping profession. But two months into my first year as a teacher, I was faced with this overwhelming challenge. How do I help this boy? What about his classmates? Just what is my responsibility as a teacher?
I decided I would pray. Hard. I would be their teacher and their minister. I kept Michael’s desk in a team and when the kids changed seats, Michael’s desk was always included. If I moved it out of the room or to the side, it would show the kids I had given up. I refused to do that.
On days Michael didn’t come to school, I became his homebound teacher. I brought his books and shared comical stories of his classmates. In turn, I updated them with “Michael Moments.” The students and I showed our concern for him by passing out green ribbons in school for people to wear, and then into the community by selling huge green ribbons for people to put on their mailboxes.
One day Michael and I made a snack run and I asked him if he was mad at God for giving him cancer. Slurping an Icee and snapping into his Slim Jim, he said, “No. God chose me. I’m like that guy in the Bible named Job. God told him if He took everything away from him and he still believed in God, he’d get it all back. I’m like Job, Miss Lynch.”
Through his pain, he found joy in those few days of playing hockey with tumors throughout his body. He found laughter to be medicinal and was greatly disappointed when his whoopee cushion didn’t faze the doctors.
That spring, Michael began treatment at Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York. At the end of the year, my gift from the class was a trip to New York. I spent almost a week with his family at the Ronald McDonald House. I saw an amazing example of what it means to be a mother. I heard the voice of a devoted father who stayed behind to keep the bills paid.
When the family moved to South Carolina, I visited and called. Last spring, Michael and I were about to hang up and he said, “I love you, Miss Lynch.” And I said, “I love you too,” as the lump grew in my throat. That was the last time I spoke to my favorite student. Michael died Aug. 11, 2005, two days shy of his 14th birthday. I missed the first day of school to attend his funeral. I have never felt such sorrow as that day, nor such joy in knowing that on that day, Michael saw the face of God.
When my fourth graders heard about my marathon training, they had “Team Lynch” T-shirts printed. On the day of the race, most came to cheer me on. For me, running that half-marathon was symbolic—one mile for every year of his life. I made it. I endured the pain, I learned a lot about myself and I found out, just a little, what it was like to be Michael.