GRANITE FALLS — Dozens of cheering teenagers greeted teacher Tracy Orr outside of her classroom when the lunch bell rang on Thursday.
Clapping and whooping echoed through the corridor and down the stairs as she made her way to the Crossroads High School cafeteria. A chant of “Team Orr” followed her. Almost everyone was wearing matching T-shirts made in her honor.
Orr stopped to hug many who lined the hallway. When she reached the lunchroom, confetti and Silly String shot in the air. A large purple banner was hand painted with the message “We love you Mrs. Orr.”
About 140 students are enrolled at the school, according to state data. Many have dealt with difficult situations, such as homelessness, becoming young parents or taking care of themselves and their siblings. On such a small campus, they all know Orr is facing her own challenge now.
Orr teaches math and psychology, and is vice principal at the alternative high school in Granite Falls. A couple of years ago, she started a prom for the kids where everything was paid for.
Orr was diagnosed with a non-cancerous brain tumor the day after Christmas. Thursday was her last day at school before surgery to have the tumor removed. She hopes to return on her birthday, April 27.
She started teaching in the district 21 years ago, and has never left her class to another teacher for so long.
“It’s going to be hard,” she said. “My daughter makes fun of me that my hobby is working.”
Orr’s daughter, Kayla Land, also works at Crossroads as a social studies and leadership teacher.
Land started to volunteer at Crossroads as a teenager. She graduated from Granite Falls High School in 2011, and later earned an economics degree from Washington State University.
Fresh out of college, she began to teach as a substitute at the alternative school.
“I just love everything about Crossroads,” she said. “So I went back to school while teaching full time and got my teaching degree.”
Land started organizing Thursday’s event in January, less than two weeks after her mom was diagnosed.
Orr first went to the doctor because her co-workers and daughter began to notice she was talking louder than usual.
She got her hearing checked, and was sent to get an MRI on Christmas Eve. A couple of days later she was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.
The tumor was discovered behind her ear, near the base of her brain. Hers is rare and slow-growing.
Surgery is set for Tuesday. Doctors will cut a nerve that could affect her balance.
“All those nerves are close together, it’s close to my facial nerve and my hearing,” she said. “So there’s a chance I could wake up being deaf in my left ear, and a slim chance of facial paralysis.”
Because the mass is still somewhat small and was caught fairly early, Orr hopes her hearing can be saved.
Since her diagnosis, she’s tried to stay positive and has been honest with students.
When Orr learned she had a tumor, she first told the other teachers and then her first period students, said senior Mikayla Thorson, 17.
Thorson is in Orr’s first period class, called Check and Connect. Students go there in the morning to get marked for attendance and then have time to finish work from other classes.
Thorson cried when she heard the news.
Senior Ivy Helm, 17, is also in that class.
“It was sad,” she said. “But it helped that one of the first things she said was that it wasn’t cancerous, so it softened the blow.”
The girls describe the school as one big family, where they can truly be themselves without judgment.
It’s going to feel strange without Orr around, said junior Faith Court, also 17.
“All the teachers have an important part in this school and they all have their own role that fits the puzzle,” she said. “It’s like we’re going to be missing a piece the whole time she’s gone.”
All three call Orr “Mom.” So do other students. Not because of relation, but because they’re all so close.
Wednesday night, students and staff stayed late to get the school ready for Orr’s last day.
When she arrived the next morning, her office was filled with giant purple balloons and her classroom was decorated. Pink cupcakes that resembled brains were waiting for lunch.
Pieces of paper shaped as brains led to her office from the front door. Each included a saying, such as, “I have a brain tumor, what’s your excuse?”
That’s one joke Orr has made often.
“You can be sad or laugh, and I’m doing it with humor,” she said. “Most of these kids have come from trauma, like everyone does, but I think they needed to see that things could be handled in a more positive way.”