School rallies around teacher

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is news that nobody hopes they ever receive. New England Public School third grade teacher Michelle Petri unfortunately has had to hear those words twice in the past six years.

Petri was first diagnosed with breast cancer on Sept. 14, 2009. After surgery and chemotherapy, she became a breast cancer survivor of six years.

Michelle Petri’s third grade class has been supporting their teacher since her diagnosis.  (Photo by Rachel Bock/The Herald)
Michelle Petri’s third grade class has been supporting their teacher since her diagnosis.
(Photo by Rachel Bock/The Herald)

By RACHEL BOCK | Herald Reporter

This past fall, Petri started to feel like something was not right, and decided to act on her instincts just to make sure everything was ok.

After doctor appointments, tests, and scans, on Dec. 4, 2015 Michelle Petri received the dreadful news, and was diagnosed again with breast cancer, now she is beginning the fight she fought six years ago.

“It (cancer) is always in the back of your mind. The six years that I was a survivor, it is always in the back of your mind, it never goes away. It’s very scary. You try to think positive thoughts, and hope for the best but in the back of your mind you are always going what if,” Petri said.

In her second bout with the disease, Petri is not short on support.

After the school heard about Petri’s diagnosis, the staff and student body joined together to help one of their own, with tremendous support and numerous acts of kindness.

Every month the Kindergarten class at New England picks a ‘giving back’ project that they work on together. In January, the class learned about compassion and how to be compassionate. The class, along with their teacher Laura Greenwood and Kindergarten paraprofessional Jodi Olsonawski, decided that their project would be to raise money for the medical needs of Mrs. Petri.

The Kindergarteners decided to have a pajama day. The entire school was asked to participate and were given the opportunity to wear pajamas, for the small cost of $1. The money that was raised went to Petri. The Kindergarten class went around to each grade school class explaining their compassion project and asked the other students in the grade school to join them by having a fun pajama day, while raising money for Petri’s medical services.

“The main reason we started it is because at this age they are just starting to learn how to be compassionate to their friends, or to have a feeling that somebody might need help,” Jodi Olsonawski said.

What started as a class project on compassion, would spark more inspiration. After the Kindergarten class explained their fundraiser to the sixth grade class about their fundraiser, they, along with their teacher Shawn Flaherty, decided to sponsor a bake sale to raise money. One sixth grade student, Will Schmidt, started thinking about how cool it would be to get the other grades in the school involved.

“When I got home I was thinking what if we class-challenged all the other grades to come up with something fun to raise money, and what if I could get the whole school to do it? What I really thought about is sometimes after school I can have an hour long conversation with Mrs. Petri, and with the cancer I don’t want to lose someone I can have an hour long conversation with,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt did just that, and challenged the rest of the school to sponsor fun days. The students could pay money to participate in various events, with the money going to Petri.

The Kindergarten class hosted a pajama day, first grade class sponsored a bubble gum day. The second grade class sponsored a crazy hair day, third grade had pink day (where everyone paid money to wear pink to honor Mrs. Petri). Fourth grade hosted a ‘wear your favorite jersey’ day, fifth grade sponsored hat day, and sixth grade held a bake sale. The fun days started in the month of January and went throughout the month of February.

“There are people that gave very generously for me, through all of these different acts of kindness that they have done for me,” Petri said. “People have opened up their hearts and have been so gracious.”

The grade school challenge was only the start of kind acts that supported Petri.

After hearing the news of her cancer diagnosis, one of Petri’s third graders, Grady Bock, went home and told his parents that he wanted to do something for his teacher. Bock sold pink bracelets to honor his teacher’s fight and to raise money for her medical needs.

Bright pink t-shirts donning the words “Tigers believe in a cure”, and with black shirts reading “Team Petri” were also sold to raise money for the adored teacher. All the money that has been raised during all of the various fundraisers has been put towards medical expenses.

During parents nights of the girls and boys basketball games, the Kit Katz dancers honored the teacher with special dance performances during half time of both games. The dancers dressed in pink, and everyone in the gymnasium was moved by their performance.

“I am so humbled by everybody’s generosity, caring, and compassion. So many people have been so supportive. Everything that they have done from the school from administration to staff, to community people, churches, the prayer chains, the meals that the teachers brought to my house, the Kit Katz dancers, and the performance that they dedicated to me,” Petri said.

“I don’t have to look far to find somebody to lift me up when I am having a bad moment or bad day. Rachel Bock being one of them that will give me a hug and be my first cheerleader in line to give me a boost when I am losing my hair or having a moment. I don’t have to look far past Rachel, there are always people giving me a hug or a high five. I will get a card in the mail saying that they said a prayer for me. You don’t have to look far for encouragement and support,” Petri said.

Petri has taught for 20 plus years in various school districts and different elementary grades, and is in her second year as the third grade teacher at New England Public school. Swhe has barely taken any time off from teaching, even through the surgeries, chemotherapy appointments, and doctor appointments. Petri feels that teaching, and being with her students has helped her more than not being at school.

“Busy is better. I am better when my mind is occupied. I have more to give to the kids, than sitting at home dwelling on it, pouting about it, researching it. I can give more to the kids at school, which is better for me,” Petri said.

Even though she is fighting her second battle with cancer, Petri feels that her problems have been small compared to what others may have been faced with. She has been taken back by all the kindness and compassion, that sometimes she can’t believe that she is the one on the receiving end of all the generosity.

“I feel my problems are small in comparison to other people in this community. Other people in this community have suffered great losses and have challenges way beyond my challenges. My heart goes out to them in their struggles and their battles,” Petri said.

She encourages anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis, or is fighting cancer to just stay strong, positive, and continue to keep on fighting.

“Stay positive, be strong. If you have an inkling that something maybe wrong go pursue it, don’t wait. Act on any instincts that you may have. Early detection, early intervention is the best,” Petri said.

Michelle is married to Rob Petri, and they have two boys, Mason and Caydon. Mason is a senior and Caydon is a freshman at New England.

“I would like to give a special thanks to my church families of New England and Amidon for all the kind things that they have done. For all the continued prayers, kind words, and acts of kindness shown to me and my family. I would also like to thank all the students and the community for supporting the classroom challenge fundraisers, and for purchasing the Team Petri T-shirts. It was great to see all the participation that was awesome!

I would also like to give a special shout out and many thanks to Melissa Kirscheman, Marjean Schulz, and Rachel Bock for being my biggest cheerleaders. Where would I be without you!!

A thank you to the New England School, administration and staff for all of your encouragement, kind acts, and understanding during this difficult time.

Finally a special thanks to my family for all of their support, encouragement, and love shown to me.” Michelle Petri said.

Editor’s Note: Rachel Bock works closely with Petri and had these words to say about the teacher: I work alongside Michelle Petri everyday as a third grade paraprofessional. I see how she gives everything that she has of herself to her student’s every day in class. Even the days that chemotherapy has made her extremely tired, or maybe not feeling the best, she is still there every day unselfishly putting her own needs aside for her class. She is by far one of the strongest people that I know, and I am thankful that I get to work beside her every day. You are truly an inspiration Michelle!

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