Teachers battle is a lesson in courage
By MICHAEL SANDLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 11, 2001
HUNTER'S GREEN -- Carol Woodson makes her home among the stocked bookshelves and miniature desks where children learn to read.
For nearly 30 years the woman with sparkling blue eyes has taught young boys and girls how to lift words with their eyes. That's what she loves. She believes that's what she was put here to do.
So when Carol developed a cough last fall, one that made climbing the stairs painful, she continued showing up each day at Hunter's Green Elementary School.
The same held true after she agreed to have a chest X-ray six weeks later. Carol scheduled the appointment around her lesson plan, as she did with all the doctor's visits that were needed once they confirmed she had spots on her lungs.
And when the doctors called her in on that December day to break the news, that the cough was really cancer, with grim statistics that -- at best -- gave her a year or so to live, Carol wanted to know if the cancer would keep her out of the classroom.
Carol could live if she could teach.
"I've never felt that I'm going to die this year," said Carol. "I say, let's get through this year and see next year."
Someone has to beat small-cell lung cancer. Why not Carol? This 52-year-old grandmother plans to fight as long as she can, and she's always found courage in those innocent eyes that light up when they realize the letters form words.
But those same eyes would notice her suddenly bald head. What would she tell them? She could not lie.
How would parents explain this to 6- and 7-year-olds? Was it too soon to replace the brush that paints life a perfect picture with one that sketches the more stark reality?
As Carol began chemotherapy in January, her hair fell out in clumps. Still, she taught. She added a few hats and a short explanation after Christmas. For the most part, the lessons stayed the same.
Someday, when the children are grown, they will realize how Carol Woodson taught her finest lesson this year by simply showing up for school.
"Who more do these children look up to at this point in their lives than their parents and their teachers," said Alexis Bessinger, who has a daughter in Carol's class. "How she handles this will lay the foundation for how our children handle life crises and challenging situations."
History repeats itself
You can spend a lifetime praying never to hear those three words, you have cancer. Woodson has heard them twice.
Three years ago she beat a rare case of vaginal cancer. Doctors found it early, shrank it down and cut it away. She missed only a week of school.
"There was no question that it would be easy to beat," she said.
For the Woodsons, cancer is a fact of life. Her mother died from brain cancer at 48. Her grandfather died from prostate cancer, and her three uncles all survived prostate cancer.
But who would ever suspect trouble from a cough?
"I thought, the little critters gave me a bug," said Carol, who let it go awhile. It was September and she had worked all summer on an application for the Blue Ribbon contest, which rewards the nation's best schools.
It was coincidence, perhaps even fate, that Jill Woodson moved in with her mother in October. Jill, with two children of her own, urged her mother to have a chest X-ray.
"The cough just wasn't right," said Jill. "Not loud. Not wet. But it was hard for her to get up steps."
Last year doctors diagnosed 161,000 cases of lung cancer in the United States. Approximately 35,000 were small-cell lung cancer, a rare form that tends to attack smokers. Carol had never smoked a day in her life when she returned from a Thanksgiving visit to her family in Pennsylvania to learn she made the list.
Doctors told her that, left untreated, she could die in three months. With chemotherapy, she might live a year.
"She wasn't tired. She wasn't sick," said Jill, who was at her side. "She just had a cough."
Jill left the room so her mother would not see her tears.
Carol started asking questions. How long could someone live? Were there studies? Could she enter them?
"I'm not happy about it," Carol said. "When I was told I had 9 to 11 months to live, I did not accept it. I asked what was the longest time you've had?"
Two years, they said.
"So I said, at the end of two years, we'll talk again and set a new goal."
Carol does not feel sick. Except for the missing hair, she does not look sick, either.
On most days, the sugar-fed students need to keep pace with the teacher.
"She's remarkable," said fellow teacher Pam Taylor. "She's focused, positive, and the children are her first priority. Carol was born to be a teacher."
Carol learned to read by age 4 and discovered her vocation as a sixth-grader in Belle Vernon, a rural town outside Pittsburgh. Her principal and teacher, a friend of the family, empowered her with an assortment of duties. Carol graded tests, collected lunch money and tutored children with disabilities.
"That's why I like it when my little kids come up and say, "I'm going to be a teacher, just like you,' " she said. "Some of them will."
That passion kept her going as a divorced mother who brought her two children to Tampa in 1981. She has been teaching in Hillsborough County public schools ever since, joining Hunter's Green Elementary when it opened in 1992.
Through the years, she has filled her classrooms with stuffed animals and books, and the children with much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
Elizabeth Dodson remembers entering Carol's first-grade class in 1992, insecure because she was small for her age.
"Miss Woodson is short, and that's something we have in common," said Dodson. "She'd say, don't worry, you'll grow."
Elizabeth, 14, is now a freshman at Wharton. Though barely 5 feet tall, she's as confident as her classmates. She got over being short, but she never got over Miss Woodson. She still goes back to visit her each year on her birthday, a trip she makes for no other former teacher.
"We were like her kids," Elizabeth said. " She would tell us about her own life so we would feel comfortable telling her about ours."
A sensitive issue
Not long after she was diagnosed with cancer, Carol went to see the school's principal, Barbara Hancock.
"I think we worried that you never know how much to tell the kids," the principal said. "You never know how much they've experienced. It's a very sensitive issue."
Now, Carol no longer wanted to teach. She needed to teach.
"If they can work, I recommend it," said Dr. George Simon, an oncology specialist at Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. Though he is not Carol's doctor, he says many doctors agree that attitude can be the difference in a fight against cancer.
"When people go to work, they have a better sense of self-esteem and are less prone to anxiety and depression."
Carol had always been generous with her time and showed good judgment. She was chairwoman of the school's advisory committee, the Blue Ribbon committee, and involved parents in her class.
School administrators reasoned that because Carol was feeling well, there was no need to assume the worst.
"Each person is different," said Barbara Hancock. "We just don't know. We have to take it day by day."
Carol waited until after Christmas to tell the children. When she returned in January, and her hair had fallen out, she donned a hat and kept the news simple.
"What I explained to the children is that I was sick," she said. "that I have something called cancer and that I would have to take medicine called chemotherapy. I told them the chemotherapy killed cancer cells, but it also kills hair cells and that I would not have hair for a while."
Parents were free to elaborate. Most found her presence to be a mighty lesson in courage.
"She shows up every day, dressed beautifully, makeup on," said Alexis Bessinger. "With the exception that she has a hat on and the obvious draining from treatment, you would not be able to see it. She has not brought the problem into the classroom."
Carol has helped her students feel comfortable by designating Fridays as hat day.
"We don't want her to think about it," said Jacqueline Bessinger, 6. "We'd rather have fun than think about a sickness."
The families pitched in, too. They sent casseroles over during Carol's chemotherapy, and gave gift certificates for restaurants and grocery stores.
The teacher was just happy to have her students.
"My families have been wonderful," said Carol. "I thought they might not want their children in my class, would not want them to see this." No one felt that way, she said. "The support is just incredible."
Five months have passed since the initial diagnosis. Carol finished her first round of chemotherapy in April and will likely have a six-week break before another evaluation.
She has consulted a holistic doctor and, on his advice, eliminated nearly all her favorite foods from her diet. No more cream sauces, chicken or chocolate for this self-described chocoholic. Nothing that promotes growth, such as soy, eggs or yeast. She subsists on fresh fruits and vegetables with a little beef and seafood.
The treatment has helped stabilize the cancer, but the tumors have neither grown nor shrunk. If they start to grow, she will undergo a second round of chemotherapy. She has also discussed entering a trial group at Moffitt.
"People who have this type of cancer don't live long enough for them to do trials on," Jill said. But her mother told her, "That's going to be me. I'm going to be your high end of the spectrum."
For her perseverance, the school district gave her this year's E.D.D.I.E. award. Parents embroidered the words "A Very Loved Teacher" onto a straw hat they gave her during teacher appreciation week. Several will participate in Friday's Relay for Life at the University of Tampa, which raises money for cancer research. Carol will be walking alongside them.
"Most people would roll themselves into a ball and feel sorry for themselves," said Lorrie Noble, a parent. "If attitude has anything to do with this, she's going to beat it. I've never seen anyone with an attitude like this under the circumstances."
Learning to think
Carol splits her class up into small groups so they can tackle their stories together
"It's the most important thing for you to read," she told five students during one such session. "So you should like what you read."
As they read, she asks them questions about the stories, making sure they learn to think as well as read.
The group begins a story called "Who Took the Farmer's Hat," and Carol stops to explain that the apostrophe used in "farmer's," is used to show ownership.
She also tells them she likes this story.
The children might prefer to read about Superman or Batman. They will learn someday that real superheroes wear hats and sit at small tables. Real superheroes can explain to 6-year-olds how a simple mark connects a hat with a farmer, and that a simple cough stole the hair from her head.
"That's a nice big hat," she tells them. "Could really keep the sun off his head. I might have to go borrow it."
- Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472.
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