‘Nothing can comfort you like a hug from a child’

Story and photos
by Sonja J. Keith

Among the most memorable years for Conway educator Cheryl Harbison was the kindergarten class who offered love and support even though they were too young to understand their teacher was waging a personal health battle.

“This class was such a ray of sunshine and a joy to be with each day as I jumped each hurtle that I faced concerning cancer,” she said. “This group is very special to me and I’ll never forget them!”

Cheryl has 27 years in education, with 15 years at Ellen Smith Elementary School. Now a second-grade teacher, she was in kindergarten classes for 10 years. She earned her bachelor’s degree in childhood education and a master’s degree in reading from the University of Central Arkansas.

A Greenbrier resident, Cheryl was a kindergarten teacher in the Conway School District in the fall of 2004 when her doctor discovered a lump during her annual checkup. While he didn’t think it was cancer, he wanted her to have it checked.

With no family history of the disease, the diagnosis was shocking. She got the call while at school, during recess. She even asked if they were certain they were looking at the right records. The results were hers.

Cheryl underwent a lumpectomy followed by a year-long series of chemotherapy and radiation treatment. “I never missed a day of school,” she said, adding that her doctors worked around school holidays when scheduling treatments.

Cheryl was never really sick from the treatment or even got a sore throat that year, but lost her hair, which was devastating. “That’s when it hit me that I had this illness.”

Perhaps the best medicine for Cheryl during that year was her students.

“The kindergarten class was awesome,” she said. “They kept my mind off what I was going through.”

Cheryl shared with her co-workers and the parents of students in her class her health situation. “They were very supportive,” she said, adding that one parent would serve as a substitute teacher when Cheryl would have to be out of class so she did not have to take a sick day. Several parents also participated in the annual Race for the Cure in Cheryl’s honor. She also received “pink” gifts.

“The support was overwhelming,” she said. “It made a close bond. I still stay in touch with (one of the parents) Roberta White.”

Her Ellen Smith family also helped, becoming prayer warriors, offering to take her recess duty and providing meals for Cheryl and her family. “The response from Ellen Smith was awesome,” she said. “They were very supportive.”

Cheryl’s family also were a tremendous source of support. Her parents, Clyde and Hilda Spurgin of Greenbrier, took her to her treatments. Her husband, Danny, shaved his head in a sign of support. Unbeknownst to Cheryl, he also saved some of her hair which he kept in a sealed bag in his Bible. “I didn’t know it for years,” she said. “It was hard on him, harder on him than it was on me.”

While she shared the news with adults, Cheryl did not tell any of the 16 students in her class that she was sick. She did not want to frighten her students, explaining that one of her students had lost her grandmother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer but whose health had failed from another ailment.

Still, the students seemed to offer just what she needed when she needed it. “They knew when I needed a hug. We really connected,” Cheryl said. “There was a special bond between us.”

Today, Cheryl continues with annual scans to check for a reoccurrence of the cancer. “Nothing has shown up,” she said. “I’m 12 years out, cancer-free.”

Recently, some of the students from that class re-connected with Cheryl during the district’s new “Senior Walk,” a special time set aside for seniors, dressed in caps and gowns, to return to the Conway elementary schools they had attended. Cheryl was excited to see which ones returned, giving her a chance to catch up with them. “I was anxious to see how many stayed in Conway schools,” she said. “I know I planted a little seed in their future.”

While the students have grown and are about to embark on their own adult journeys, Cheryl said her bout with cancer and the experiences with that special kindergarten class are lessons she still holds dear. “Every day is a new day. You see the world totally different – as a gift. Life is so precious and it can come and go in a heartbeat,” she said. “Nothing can comfort you like a hug from a child.”