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When East Middle School teacher Debbie Meredith lost her hair and started wearing hats in school, none of her students said a word.
For a while, neither did she.
“No teachers told the kids because we didn’t know if she would,” fellow teacher Suzanne Guelda said.
Then somewhere around the second week of this school year, Meredith told her seventh-grade students what she was going through.
Diagnosed with breast cancer last year, she was being treated with chemotherapy.
The other teachers were worried because seventh-graders are capable of saying some hurtful things and may not understand the sensitivity of something like cancer.
“You never know how a kid is going to react to something like that,” Guelda said.
But what resulted was a lesson from the students to the teachers of the MGM (Meredith Guelda McKinley) Stars team.
“We don’t give kids credit sometimes for what they can do,” Guelda admitted.
Since finding out about Meredith’s cancer, students have gone above and beyond to offer “amazing” support.
“I’m amazed how beautifully they’ve handled all this,” Guelda said. “The students have been so sweet. They’ll make pictures, notes. They’ll wear pink. One little girl wears a 'fight like a girl' shirt pretty often.
“They met the challenge and supported her.”
Last year’s students who had Meredith as a teacher started to come back just to give her hugs. She said she was too appreciative to tell them about the biopsy and that the hugs were sometimes physically painful.
“She comes here every day with a smile on her face,” Guelda said. “You never see her down.”
Meredith finished her last chemotherapy the week before Thanksgiving, and her coworkers and students wanted to do something special to celebrate.
“We’re a really strong team together,” Guelda said. “We support each other through good and bad.”
So in math class last Monday, Guelda had her students start figuring out equations using 24-yard roles of pink ribbon, and after establishing an assembly line, they managed to create 105 6-inch ribbons that were then bent and pinned to make the standard breast cancer awareness symbol.
When Meredith returned to school last Wednesday, she walked in to find the entire seventh grade, along with school staff and administrators, wearing the pink symbol to support her courage.
“It’s been more than I can handle,” Meredith said, tears instantly filling her eyes – the reaction mirrored by team teachers in earshot.
“To have that support – that’s half the battle. I think I’m probably on every prayer list in the county,” she said. “The kids have been so sweet.”
On Friday the kids had a surprise ice cream sundae party to extend the celebration.
Meredith has been teaching at East Middle since 1988, but Guelda said her courage throughout this experience has taught students perhaps the most important lesson of all.
“Some of these children already have crises in their own families," she said, "and it’s helping them realize life goes on. I think it’s motivation for them to see her meet this challenge every day.”