When she was diagnosed with breast cancer last November, veteran teacher Wendy Musselman's first thought about treatment focused on her fourth grade class at Mann School.
"The first thing I said was, 'I can't miss school,' she remembered. "They have to work this around my schedule."
"She sent a letter out right away once she was ready to tell us," said Chris Pateros-Nowak, a Mann parent whose daughter was in Musselman's class. "She was going to be undergoing treatment. She would be at school as much as she could."
Many Mann families were hit hard by the news. Parent Terry Barcia passed away in October after battling the disease. Another parent, Kathy Rogers, had been going through chemotherapy. Chris Bullock and Diane Bonina decided they needed to take action. They focused on the June 4-5 Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Chicago, a two-day event in which participants walk a marathon-length 26.2 miles and an optional half-marathon distance the second day.
"We had set the goal that we were going to get 10 walkers, and everyone was going to raise $2,000," Bullock said.
The 12-member Mann School Muscle team, named as a tribute to Musselman, ended up raising double that goal?#34;more than $40,000.
"People have been incredibly generous," said Pateros-Nowak. "Every team member has their story, [about] how they've been personally touched by breast cancer."
Bullock took action in part for her kids. She has three at Mann, one in Musselman's recent class.
"I just thought part of the lesson I could teach my kids is that you can be part of the solution," she said. "My aunt is a breast cancer survivor of 17 years; my grandmother died of breast cancer. This is something that's very survivable; it just needs to be diagnosed early."
"When someone dies, you feel so helpless, you don't know what to do," said Ann O'Malley.
By participating on the Mann School Muscle team, she hoped to ease some of her sadness over the loss of friend Barcia.
"I just felt like it was the right time to do something," she said.
Mann School Muscle included Mann mothers Bonina, Bullock, O'Malley, Pateros-Nowak, Angie Dodd, Nancy Greer, Nancy Ide, Kathy Lena, Caroline Stankovich and Susanne Tunney. Veronica Ammons, whose mother is battling cancer, and Dorothy Barcia-Greaney, Barcia's sister-in-law, brought the roster to an even dozen. Though connected in different ways, many of the team members didn't know each other well at first.
"We all just kind of jumped into it," said Bullock, who sent out weekly e-mails to get the group training and communicating.
"We had a standard training schedule," said Pateros-Nowak. "March 6th we started out at eight miles, and I could barely crawl home."
Though not every member made every training walk, the team logged many miles together.
"You get to know them at a whole different level after you walk 20 miles," said Bullock. "I've had people tell me, 'I think I heard you walking by our house; I heard someone laughing at 7 in the morning.'"
Teaching through treatment
While walkers put in miles, Musselman tackled cancer treatments and teaching. Pateros-Nowak couldn't say enough about how the teacher handled her personal battle in the classroom.
"She described weeds in a garden when she was talking to them about her chemo," said Pateros-Nowak. "She has this big, black head of hair. She told [the kids] she was going to get her hair cut short in preparation for losing it. She got it cut twice really short. She said, 'I'm going to spike my hair and dye it blue. I'm going to wear big earrings, and I'm just going to focus on what I've got.'"
Later, Musselman donned a wig that matched her original look. Underneath, she had a henna artist create a design on her head.
"I have a big sun on my head with beautiful rays and flowers," Musselman said, noting that she brought the artist into the classroom but never showed her personal design to the children.
"She is so sensitive and so caring about the kids who might be upset by it. She has never put any of the kids in the position in the classroom where they felt uncomfortable," said Pateros-Nowak. "They each got to create their own design and put it on their hand."
Musselman communicated with parents and students regularly when she had to be absent from school. She proudly reported that in the class "memory book," to which each student contributes, her illness only came up once.
"I've been very lucky. I've been able to do almost 99 percent of what I wanted to do," she said. "My Italian cells are going to win out."
Despite hot and humid weather, thunderstorms, blistered feet and soggy belongings at the overnight campground for those who walked both days, team members reported that the experience was "great," "fabulous," and "really cool."
Both Musselman and Rogers were there to cheer them on.
"I took some pictures and gave them all hugs," said Rogers. "I just couldn't believe how many people were walking and how everybody was so upbeat."
At a later station, Musselman offered her own hugs and tears. When the last team member came through, the two walked together for several blocks.
"I said, 'Keep going, honey.' I felt good enough," the teacher said. "The moms were just wonderful. I felt the support all around me, which I bring to treatment with me."
photo courtesy of chris bullock
The Mann School Muscle team, named in honor of teacher Wendy Musselman, celebrate at the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Team members and friends are, bottom row: Christine Pateros-Nowak, Chris Bullock; middle: Nancy Ide, Mary Ellen Casselman, Veronica Ammons, Nancy Greer, Dorothy Barcia-Greaney, Ann O'Malley, Zelda Rideaux, Caroline Stankovich; top: Angie Dodd, Patti Coogan, Kathy Lena, Gina Harding, Diane Bonina, Susanne Tunney.