OLD TOWN, Maine — When Gert Nesin wants to make her students laugh, she takes off her scarf — revealing her bald head — and reties it in interesting ways.
There’s the “bakery lady,” which looks sort of like a hood. Then there’s the big bow style that always gets a chuckle and probably the classroom favorite. Nesin jokes she might be Voldemort, the nemesis from the “Harry Potter” series, for Halloween.
Nesin, a 52-year-old 8th grade teacher at Leonard Middle School in Old Town, was diagnosed with breast cancer this past summer. One of her three sisters is a 17-year survivor of the disease. It claimed the life of another sister.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Nesin said Thursday at the school. “I made a determination that cancer — I had to deal with it — but it wasn’t going to be my life, it wasn’t going to define my life; it was going to be something I was going to have to deal with.”
She sent emails to her colleagues at the school and parents of students to let them know about her diagnosis. It was Stage 1 cancer, but a protein on the cancer made it aggressive. She said she was going to beat it and began her treatments — rounds of chemotherapy, radiation and long-term hormone therapy.
Her last chemo treatment could be at the end of January, she said.
Inside Nesin’s classroom on Thursday, students — some scrolling through information on iPads — bustled around from table to table, organizing an event to help their teacher.
The school is planning a spaghetti supper in the cafeteria for Nov. 21. There likely will be two seatings, 5-6:30 p.m. and 6:30-8 p.m. There is a suggested minimum donation of $5. A portion of the proceeds will cover Nesin’s out-of-pocket costs that have accumulated during the course of her treatment, and the rest will go to the Lafayette Family Cancer Center in Brewer. The students are organizing the entire event, including making phone calls and ordering T-shirts.
When Nesin asked her class earlier this year whether any of their families or friends had been affected by cancer, about three-quarters of the class raised their hands, Nesin said. Chances are, they’ll all be close to someone with cancer at some point in their lives, some more than once.
“I hope they see that this is adversity that I have to deal with, but it’s OK because everybody has adversity they have to deal with, and life goes on,” she said. “It doesn’t define my life, and I hope they get the message that the troubles they have don’t have to define their lives.”
Nesin’s cancer has served as a teaching tool of sorts, and she encourages students to ask questions. They’ve been learning about the genetics of cancer, how it affects the body, how it was discovered, how it’s treated and more.
Russell Sossong, 13, had recently lost an aunt to cancer when he heard that his teacher had been diagnosed with the same disease. He didn’t know much about cancer until he started researching it for school this year.
“It helped give me a point of view of what cancer really does,” Sossong said.
Nesin has chemo treatments every other Wednesday. After a treatment, she takes five school days off to recover, and then returns to teach for five days before leaving for her next treatment.
“Gert is the consummate teacher,” said Shianne Priest, a music teacher at the school. “Gert is that teacher that is here first in the morning, stays latest at night.”
“She wants to be here. She loves teaching, and she loves the kids. It’s her world,” she said.
A group of friends and co-workers wearing “Gert Strong” T-shirts also walked in September’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Bangor. Tracie Murchison, a teacher in Lincoln and former student of Nesin, designed the shirt.
One educator at the school is teaching students to knit, and some are knitting hats for Nesin to use to keep her head warm this winter.
Standing near a sign over her desk that reads “Gert Strong,” Nesin said the support has been “tremendous.”
After learning about Nesin’s diagnosis, Ed Brazee of Orono, one of Nesin’s former teachers, offered to come out of retirement to serve as a substitute for the year. He wanted to volunteer, but the school district couldn’t allow it, according to Nesin.
Brazee, 65, taught Nesin when she was in the master’s program studying middle-school-level education. He retired in 2010 after 25 years at the University of Maine, where he taught middle school educators at UMaine. Nesin said she looked at Brazee as a mentor, and the two became friends.
Inside Nesin’s classroom, large sheets of paper hang on the walls with questions from students that eventually are used to form the classroom projects and curriculum. They range from science-based issues like “Will we land on Mars?” to questions about what the future holds for them.
One of the questions posed is “Will Dr. Nesin be OK?”
Nesin, who has a doctorate in education, says yes.
“They laugh with me,” Nesin said of her students. “They’ve just been with me all the way.”