Fifth-graders show their teacher the value of compassion

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

For Flippen Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Stephanie Marquez, a personal tragedy enabled her to see a side of her students that many in her profession never get to witness.

“I truly believe without my students this year would have been so much more difficult than handling it alone,” she said. “The relationship that we forged went beyond a teacher and a student. We became a family that leaned on each other, laughed with one another, and loved.”

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The students spent much of the 2016-17 school year raising funds for cancer research. They did so, said Marquez, after learning that her father was battling the disease.

“My father, Leonard Steven Newman, was a combat soldier in the Army,” she explained. “During his time in Vietnam, he was exposed to Agent Orange. Toward the beginning of last year, he began to get sick. He could not keep anything down. His doctor ran him through a multitude of tests from blood work to biopsies. In late September/early October, they told him that he had Amyloidosis, but that he was lucky because it was not found in his heart - from what the doctor said, that is the place they normally find it and by that point it is too late. About a week later, we found out that he had stomach cancer.”

Throughout the year, through weekly Family Meetings, students at the school discussed ways to give back to the community. It was through one such meeting that Marquez told the students about her father’s condition, which affected his kidneys, bone marrow, and blood.

“As I told them about my dad, many teared up,” she said. “Some of the students spoke about their own parent who had passed and about people they have known with cancer. As we got ready to go home, each student gave me a hug on their way out of the door.”

Marquez emphasized that the class, who had been learning about the value of compassion, decided on their own to raise money to help Newman and to put into practice what she had taught them.

“I had let them know that another class was raising money for needy families at Christmas earlier in the week to share some awesome ways students can make a difference (the Family Meeting theme of the week) and they became inspired,” she said. “I was told about the plan after they had already raised some money. I was shocked into tears.”

The class initially set a goal to raise $25. They quickly met that goal, said Marquez, and set a new goal of $50.

“When this one was met in February, they set the new goal for $100,” she said. “After my dad’s newest hospital scare, we talked about which cancer group to donate the money to and they decided Relay for Life since Henry County schools do so much with the charity. It was during this meeting that the students told me they wanted to donate it in my dad’s name. When I got home, I brought the cards that my students wrote to both my mom and my dad where they told them they loved them and wished them well. The students drew pictures for them and all signed their names. When I told my dad about what my students were doing, he could not believe that a class who had never met him cared about him so deeply that they would do this for him. He was in awe and said, ‘There is hope for the future.’”

In all, the students raised $150.77 to benefit Relay for Life. Sadly, Newman passed away on April 20, just a few days before the Relay itself, said Marquez.

“My dad had made plans with me to come in to the school to meet them before the Relay, but he passed away too soon to do so,” she said. “When he went into the hospital, the students knew and made more get well cards for him. When he passed, they knew and made ‘I am sorry’ cards for my mom. When I came back to the school, the students hugged me and many of us cried together. We had another Family Meeting and we just talked about loss, life, and how special they were to me.”

Despite the heartbreak of losing her father, Marquez said she is proud of her class for everything they did to help her cope this year. She is confident that they will take their experiences with her well beyond the classroom walls.

“My students will go on to do wonderful things someday,” she said. “I hope that they’ll always carry the memory of the time we spent together and how amazing they are for not only what they did for my dad, but what they did for me.”