I grabbed my dad’s hand as he led me to the far end of the school, the fourth-grade hall, the big-kid zone. I frantically waved to my friend, Hannah Alling, and we walked into our new classroom together. We exchanged smiles when we saw our desks placed side by side.
At the time, I didn’t realize Mrs. Katie Stevens knew this was Hannah’s first day of public school and sat her by me to make her feel comfortable. That’s what Mrs. Stevens was known for; her compassion and care for others.
My fourth-grade teacher lost her 13-year battle to breast cancer Feb. 3. Back then, my 9-year-old mind could not fathom the gravity of cancer. I knew on occasion she would visit the doctor, but I never understood why. I just remember wanting Mrs. Stevens there to explain the lesson, not a sub who shushed Hannah and me every five minutes. I recall telling my mother about a “mean sub.” My mom sat down with me as she explained to me what cancer was. It was my first experience with cancer.
“But Mom, Mrs. Stevens doesn’t look sick,” I said. “She always smiles and laughs, and she’s nice to me when I can’t do my fractions.” Mom explained that Mrs. Stevens’ cancer was in remission; however, for the time being, she would have to do check-ups
I always forgot Mrs. Stevens had cancer. She was still the same empathetic fourth-grade teacher I always knew. When a problem arose, she treated me like an adult. I liked feeling that way. After all, I was one of the big kids.
There was a specific order to my desk cubby. I had Mrs. Stevens’ class in the morning, and I went to my language arts class in the afternoon. Every morning, my books and binders in my desk were rearranged. After three weeks, I reached a breaking point. I talked to Mrs. Stevens about my situation, and she simply said, “Madeline, I’ll take care of it. Thank you for telling me.”
As it turned out, the student who sat at my spot during rotation pulled out my math binder and used it to cheat on his homework. Apparently, he wasn’t smart enough to get away with it.
There was another time when I got in trouble for talking to Hannah during our class activity time. She told me I lost 15 minutes of recess that afternoon. However, this didn’t upset me. Before recess began, I told her about this great book I was reading, “The Tale of Despereaux” by Kate DiCamillo.
“Would it be OK if I could read this book during time-out?” I asked. She chuckled and said it wasn’t a problem. It was truly one of the greatest recesses. I could finally read my book in peace. When the 15 minutes were called, I remained seated and read my book. Mrs. Stevens walked over to me and said, “Madeline, you can play now.”
I looked at her and asked, “Do I have to? I’m almost finished.”
She smiled and said I could continue reading. Once I finished my book, I gave her a hug and thanked her for letting me read. She said, “I’m proud you took the initiative to ask.”
Since then, I realized how much control I have. Sometimes, answers are just a question away. Mrs. Stevens stressed the importance of asking questions when you don’t understand what is going on. She established bonds with her students that opened the door for questions. She answered them with respect and would follow up with something such as, “Good question.” To this day when I raise my hand in class, her words ring through my head, “There are no stupid questions. Ask away.”
Maybe that’s why I love journalism. Every day, I’m given a chance to ask questions. And in turn, I receive answers. One of the questions I still ask is why people like Mrs. Stevens have to suffer from cancer. This is a question I hope will soon be answered by finding a cure.
I’m just one of thousands of people Katie Stevens touched. Her love for others was so big, and I know she received the same, if not more, in return. She was truly a blessing in my life. I’ll always remember her kindness, but most importantly, the love she established with everyone she encountered.
Madeline Pena is a senior at Decatur High School. To read more from our Youth Spoken reporters, visit WCMessenger.com/youthspoken.