Editor’s note: The following is an article from The Washington Post about the dedication of a teacher in Pennsylvania to one of her students. It is a remarkable demonstration of a teacher’s devotion to her profession, a profession that is too often not given the credit it deserves.
“It’s 3:30 p.m., and though Barbara Heim’s first-grade class is dismissed for the day, she is not done teaching. One student still awaits. Since September, nearly every day after school, Heim, 59, has visited that student: Harrison Conner, who is battling cancer. After a full day of teaching, Heim drives to Harrison’s home for an hour-long, one-on-one lesson — which she does on her own time.
“I wanted to do it,” said Heim, who has taught at Conneaut Valley Elementary School in Conneautville, Pa., for 35 years. “I’ve loved teaching since I was a little girl, and it just extended my day of teaching. There was no burden.”
Plus, she explained, “I knew he wanted to learn.”
Barbara Heim, 59, with her student, Harrison Conner, who was diagnosed with leukemia in early 2020. Since the start of the school year, Heim has gone to Harrison’s house to teach him for an hour every day after school. (Courtesy of Barbara Heim)
Harrison, 8, was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2020.
Heim was one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right with her then-first grade student. “At recess, he would get really tired and have to sit down,” she said, adding that he started to appear pale whenever he was active. Heim notified the school’s principal and nurse about her concerns, and they contacted Harrison’s parents.
That was just before Christmas break. On the first day back at school in early January, Harrison was not there. One of her students immediately approached the teacher’s desk and said, “Mrs. Heim, Harrison went on a helicopter to the hospital last night.”
By the end of the day, Heim learned that Harrison was diagnosed with leukemia. “I was totally gutted,” she said.
The news hit especially hard, since her mother had passed away from leukemia in 2015.
“No child should ever have to go through this horrible disease,” Heim said.
Upon hearing about the diagnosis, Heim reached out to Harrison’s parents and offered her support. Then, she and her students mobilized to bring Harrison as much joy as possible during a scary and difficult time.
“We as a class banded together and started writing him and making cards for him,” Heim said.
They delivered treats, sent notes and organized regular Zoom check-ins to make sure Harrison continued to feel included in the class.
“It was amazing. The kids were all yelling, ‘Hey Harrison,’ and telling him little things like ‘I lost my tooth,’ ” Heim said. “You know, things that are important to 6-year-olds.”
But sometimes, Harrison felt too weak to join the video call. His chemotherapy treatments were mentally and physically draining, and eventually, “He lost his ability to walk; he lost all his strength,” said Harrison’s mother, Suzanne Conner.
Despite the challenges, Harrison has been “so brave and so amazing, and just rolls with the punches,” Conner, 37, continued.
She just graduated from college. She said her Uber passenger made it possible.
As a parent of a child with cancer, though, “you are taking it day by day, sometimes hour by hour. It was really touch and go,” Conner said. In rare moments of calm, “all of the emotion hits you like a Mack truck.”
It’s a feeling Heim is familiar with. Although her mother’s illness was terminal and more acute than Harrison’s, “I knew all too well what they were going through.”
For the remainder of the year, Harrison was unable to participate in school, even as classes shifted to remote-only in the pandemic. While Harrison was absent, Heim regularly checked in with the family, including during the summer.
“Mrs. Heim has been a constant pillar,” Conner said. In addition to supporting her son, “she has been this shoulder to cry on; this ear that I could vent to. And she understands because she watched her family go through it.”
In many ways, Heim said, “I believe that I was meant to be his teacher, especially considering what I experienced with my mother.” But in Harrison’s case, there was more hope: “He could survive this,” she added.
Indeed, Harrison’s condition steadily improved over the summer months, and that’s when an idea arose: homebound learning.
Harrison was still receiving treatment and wasn’t ready to go back to school — which, as of September, was running in-person classes — and Heim worried he might slip too far behind if he missed another year.
Adam Jardina, the principal of Conneaut Valley Elementary School — located in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania — asked Heim what she thought about teaching Harrison the second-grade curriculum from home, and she was immediately on board.
“She didn’t even hesitate,” Jardina said.
While they also considered facilitating remote lessons with Harrison, “the pandemic showed us that face-to-face instruction beats remote or online instruction any day of the week,” Jardina said. “Especially in a case like this, where his parents are so exhausted from all the traveling and everything else.”
He consulted with the Conners and let them know the option was available to them, as long as they were comfortable, and Harrison’s doctor deemed it safe. “We kept the door open, and said, ‘Whatever you need, we got you,’ ” Jardina said.
Although Conner and her husband had pandemic-related safety concerns, “I felt like it was the right thing to do, all things considered,” she said, adding that they implemented a strict coronavirus protocol whenever Heim would visit. “It was fantastic to see him,” Heim said. “We had a lot of laughter going on. It was just like what we would have in the classroom, really.”
During their sessions, both Harrison and Heim were masked and separated by a plexiglass divider. They’d sit across from one another at the family’s dining room table, as Heim went over the lesson of the day, which typically included a combination of reading, writing, science, math and social studies.
Whenever Heim visited Harrison for a lesson, a strict coronavirus protocol was in place. Heim wore a mask and used a plexiglass divider to separate them. Beyond hauling books and lesson plans to Harrison’s home, Heim never showed up without one of her student’s favorite snacks, and occasionally, a small present for him.
“She is simply amazing,” Conner said of Heim. Heim quickly caught Harrison up on all of the curriculum he missed when he was too sick to learn. While “it’s not perfect every day,” and sometimes Harrison’s energy is low, Heim said, “he is an excellent student. He loves to learn.”
As of last week, Harrison’s home room second-grade teacher, Debbie Piper, has started taking over the one-on-one lessons, as Heim is retiring at the end of the school year and wanted to ensure there is another teacher with whom Harrison feels comfortable, should he continue with homebound learning next year.
Since Heim is retiring this year, Debbie Piper, Harrison’s second-grade home room teacher, has transitioned to take over the daily tutoring sessions.
Harrison’s cancer is now in remission, and while he still has another year of maintenance treatment, the goal is to get him back in the classroom — at least part-time — by the fall. The staff at the school are all working together with his parents to devise a plan going forward.
“It’s truly been a team effort,” said Heim, who said she regularly leaned on other teachers at the school to help her manage her first-grade class. When it came to Harrison, Heim shouldered most of the load.
“She certainly went above and beyond, especially with it being her last year and during a pandemic,” Jardina said. “After teaching first-graders all day, she found the energy at the end of a long day to go out and see him.”
She did it, Jardina believes, “out of her love for Harrison.”
The love is mutual, Conner said. In fact, “she’s Aunt B now.” “Through this entire journey, she’s been so much more than a teacher,” she said. “The support she has given our family far exceeds anything I ever expected.”