Colleen Lynch left Xavier with a teaching degree in 1999, eager to take on her first class of students. She never dreamed one of them was about to teach her the most important lessons of her life.
After returning home to Hendersonville, Tenn., to begin her teaching career, she found herself inexplicably drawn to one of her fourth graders, Michael Lewandowski, when life-threatening cancerous tumors snaked their way back into his young body just a few weeks into the 2000-2001 school year. The neuroblastoma–an aggressive tumor that strikes young children–reappeared in his spine, leg, chest and neck for the first time since he was initially treated in first grade.
“In the first week of October, he started to have pains in his legs and I asked if it was from playing hockey, because I thought it was just a bruised bone,” Lynch says. “But it got worse and I remember he was sitting in class one day and I looked over at him and he’s crying at his desk. I said, ‘Michael, what’s wrong,’ and he says, ‘Ms. Lynch, it just hurts so bad.’ It was deep inside his bone.”
The worst day was when Michael was in so much pain he couldn’t walk to the bus. In an effort to help, Lynch put him in her chair and wheeled him gleefully through the halls and out to the curb.
When Michael went to Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital for treatment, Lynch made her commitment to stick with him. Beginning that October, after she wrapped up her daily classroom duties, she gathered the day’s schoolwork and drove 45 miles to the hospital, where she taught him the day’s lessons.
“I just felt the need to be with this child,” she says. “He was missing so much school and tutoring wasn’t going to do it.
She continued the daily visits when he was recuperating at home, but she became frustrated every time he went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for additional treatments because she couldn’t be with him.
“To be with him is phenomenal,” she says. “God brought me home from Cincinnati, and if I had not done that I would never have met him. The child has this indomitable spirit that just won’t die. The way he made me feel, it made me want to be around him more. For the first time I knew what it felt like to be a parent. It’s just the way a child can get into your heart. To love a child is an amazing experience, but to be loved back by one is an experience all its own.”
Lynch continued tutoring him over the summer so he could complete fourth grade, and the parents of the children in his class raised money to pay for her trip to New York in June so his schooling wouldn’t be interrupted while he continued treatment at Sloan-Kettering. She took him Mickey Mouse ears on her first day and he looked at her groggily and said, “How did you do that? How did you get here?”
Michael recently moved with his family to Charleston, N.C., and is now in the fifth grade. He’s sick again, and Lynch misses him terribly. Still, knowing he’s gone because he moved with his family is better than losing him to the cancer, so she’s content to visit him sometimes and stay in touch through email. What lives on in her are the lessons he taught by the way he lived through all the treatments, the pain, the baldness and sickness.
“He actually taught me how to love,” Lynch says. “At our talent show for him, I told the crowd to imagine something they loved more than anything else and to multiply that times a million, and that’s the way Michael makes me feel. I never thought a child would teach an adult how to love, but he did it and it made me a better person.”