Part 3: Returning to school means facing new challenges
Editor’s note: This is the third part of an occasional series on Dianne Young, the Bolton High School yearbook sponsor who learned in April that she has a rare form of brain cancer.
Dianne Young sat in a student’s desk on the last day of teacher in-service. Her head was partially wrapped in a scarf to hide a scar from her biopsy and her thinner hair from chemotherapy.
But the 45-year-old teacher was smiling and laughing at times as she interacted with colleagues who stopped by to see if she needed help. She appeared to be more comfortable with her new normal as she prepared to step back into the classroom for the first time since mid-April this week.
Yet, the return to her classroom also meant taking on a new set of challenges.
“It feels a little bit weird, because obviously I’m moving into uncharted territory,” said Dianne, who was sitting in her Bolton High School classroom on the last of the Shelby County School District’s in-service days. “But I feel better now than I did at the beginning of the summer.”
Dianne is taking a chance at returning to her job as a 12th-grade British literature teacher and yearbook adviser. She is more honest with herself these days about what she can and can’t do. Yet, she’s determined to try to make it work.
“It feels strange in that I don’t know what’s coming next,” said Dianne.
In some ways, Dianne said she feels a little bit ahead of the curve. She was part of a team selected to attend conferences in Nashville during the spring where teachers talked about implementing core curriculum. That’s a state-wide change in teaching assessment this year, and all teachers have to adapt. Add onto that a number of unknowns heading into a newly merged district where everyone is learning about changes every day, and Dianne said she feels OK about where she is.
“Because I’ve worked in Nashville on common core, I feel better about it than some people do,” she said. “If it’s going to happen, it might as well be now.”
Still, talking about the changes in common core brings Dianne back to reality. She had to stop the work she was doing in April to start radiation and chemotherapy, and to learn to adapt to the tolls it was taking on her body.
“There was just no way I could do it,” she said. “I was all over the place. They had me on way too much medication.”
In addition to other hard-core cancer treatments, Dianne was placed on large doses of steroids. The drug affected her ability to sleep and to function the way she was accustomed.
“Now we’ve leveled off, and things are much calmer, smoother, much more manageable,” she said. “We’re at a place where all of my medicines are working out better for me.”
That doesn’t mean that she’s out of the woods. Although an MRI in early July showed positive signs of her tumors shrinking, Dianne still faces the fact that her Glioblastoma multiforme has a grim prognosis. There’s no guarantee the tumors are continuing to shrink, or that they will even hold the smaller size they were when she had her last brain scan.
The next test will be in early September. That will be a CT scan of her brain. It will let Dianne and her friends, family and colleagues know just how much progress she’s made, but it will also help her doctor’s decide what treatment to start next.
“A lot rides on that test,” she said.
Meanwhile, scheduling remains one of her biggest concerns. Because Dianne burned through all of her sick leave last year and the district has a new policy this year, she will have only about 12 days to use all year long. Not only does she not know what she might need in the future, she already knows that she will have to leave for part days as every two weeks as she attends regular doctor’s appointments.
“These treatments that I have to have are going to be on certain days,” Dianne said. “I’m going to get this scheduled so I have to have my rides.”
She’s also worried about scheduling before and after school. Most days, her friend Vanessa Moore will take her to and from school from her home in nearby Rosemark. But a bigger issue is with her kids.
Jacob, 12, doesn’t catch his bus to Arlington Middle School -- where he’s in the seventh grade -- until two hours after Dianne leaves for work. Her 10-year-old son, Justin, leaves earlier for his fifth-grade class at Barret’s Chapel Elementary. That means Jacob will be home alone.
In some ways, even that is a blessing. Despite being told earlier this summer that her husband, Robert, would not be able to get a full-time teaching job with the new district, he finally landed a job teaching 12th-grade economics at White Haven High School.
“It’s a huge prayer relief,” said Dianne, despite the 30-minute commute and additional scheduling struggles the new job will add to their lives.
She credits Robert and her friend and fellow English teacher, Kristen Kellum, for helping her get through all of it. Kristen has made herself available to help take care of Dianne’s kids and take her to doctor’s appointments, and is one of Dianne’s primary resources.
“I cannot do without Kristen and my husband,” she said. “They are a team helping me get through all of it.”
Other teachers know that they can come to Kristen if they have questions or concerns about Dianne. That’s been a blessing, but also a curse, she said. Kristen said she’s had several people approach her with concerns about Dianne’s abilities to function this school year.
“They’ve been very supportive unless they have something negative to say,” Dianne said about her co-workers. “And then they come and say, ‘She’s doing too much, she’s doing too much.’”
Even though Dianne admits that she’s had to be more honest with herself and slow down, she believes she can make it through this year.
“If I felt I was overworking myself, I would stop,” she said. “And lately, I have forced myself to stop, and it’s made a difference. I feel like I’m holding my own, I think I’m I’m doing the right thing for my family, I think I’m doing the right thing for that which is important to me.”
Not everyone knows about Dianne’s cancer. Although her yearbook students were around last year when she first received the news of her diagnosis, she’s never met her 12th-graders. She expects questions from them, but said she may be slow to answer them all.
“I think I want to approach the year as we start normal,” she said. “This isn’t there business yet.”
Still, with frequent part-day absences on the horizon, Dianne knows that she won’t be able to ignore her issues completely. But even with an uncertain future, she continues to keep her outlook positive.
“I’m excited about this school year, I’m excited about making this work and I’m excited about my prognosis,” she said.