LYNNWOOD — While most 11- to 12-year-olds might feel self-conscious and easily embarrassed, anxiety seems to melt away in Marylee Penhollow’s classroom at Oak Heights Elementary School in the Edmonds School District.
Last week her sixth-graders sat cross-legged together and erupted into laughs while sharing cringe-worthy stories and poking fun at themselves. Penhollow offered context to their stories and even volleyed a few playful jabs.
Penhollow said she lets her students relax and just be kids, a fleeting privilege at a time when they are confronted with pressure to grow up too fast.
Not to say her students are immature.
Last November, Penhollow was diagnosed with infiltrating lobular carcinoma, a form of breast cancer. Twelve days later, she underwent surgery.
She returned to teaching Jan. 4.
Penhollow said her students’ knee-jerk reaction to the news was to ask what they could do to help her.
“I told them they needed to be strong,” she said. “I told them I won’t have the energy to worry about you.”
Her students agreed they felt relieved and happy Penhollow was back.
“It felt great; she’s my most recent teacher ever,” said Cole Anstice, alluding to one of the class’ inside jokes with Penhollow.
One student said most teachers keep their personal lives private, but it helped that Penhollow didn’t.
Ethan Han said they trust Penhollow, who helped them bond by sharing stories about “how her life is going.”
“When there are difficult times, she makes them fun times,” Auryana Ashoori added. “When she told us about the breast cancer thing, she told us a funny story.”
Tanner Mack said the class celebrated with Italian sodas when Penhollow returned.
“It was fun,” Mack said. “She had told us at some point we would have Italian sodas. It was really cool.”
Mya Svay said she and her friends started screaming and hugging when they spotted her.
Penhollow said she and her students need a new word to describe their bond; something to combine her students with her four children.
“I’d have to blend ‘students’ with ‘kids,’” she said. “They’re beyond students.”
“Still-dren,” offered Dmitriy Torchilo, one of her students.
Penhollow said wanted to be the one to tell her students about her diagnosis as she has known most of her students’ families for years.
When the time came, Penhollow eased the blow by focusing on their strengths.
Her students wrote essays vowing to be strong by trying harder to get along with their siblings, completing their homework and praying. Her students even decorated a tote bag with puffypaint for her and folded more than 150 paper cranes, a nod to Eleanor Coerr’s novel, “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes.” A handful of girls sprang to their feet to show the pink T-shirts they decorated to show their support. Some students wore red and white bracelets which read “Penhollow Power.”
Amy Sutton said her dad helped her order the bracelets, and she opted to stray from the traditional pink to support breast cancer.
“I just thought it would be a cool thing,” Sutton said.
Penhollow said she wasn’t surprised when she heard about her students’ efforts to show their support.
“You have to find a piece to love in each of them and make sure they know it.”