GLENBURN, Maine — Last September, pre-kindergarten teacher Victoria Grotton noticed that one of her students, Ellie LaBree, had a slight droop in her eye. Concerned, she called the girl’s mother that night and recommended she look into it.
Ellie’s mother, Candi LaBree, said on Monday that she had noticed the eye as well and when she got the call from Grotton she took action.
When Candi and her husband, Rob, took Ellie to the doctor, they were told that the droopiness might be nothing more than an allergic reaction. When it did not got away, the LaBrees took her to an eye specialist.
“They saw a mass,” Candi said.
The next step was to get 90 percent of the mass removed through surgery in Portland and then have it tested.
In October, Ellie was diagnosed with orbital rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of eye tumor that occurs most commonly in children.
“It took us all by surprise,” said Candi. “You just never think something like that’s going to happen.”
Throughout Ellie’s treatment, Candi said Grotton has gone way out of her way to support Ellie and to present the situation to the other 4- and 5-year-olds in her class in a sensitive way. In response, Candi wrote a letter recommending Grotton for a teacher of the year award and on Tuesday, Educate Maine announced that Grotton is Penobscot County’s teacher of the year, meaning she’s a contender for the statewide award announced in the fall.
“She makes these kids a part of her life,” said Glenburn School principal Tom Sullivan.
After she received her diagnosis, Candi said Ellie had to spend one day a week getting chemotherapy in Brewer.
When Ellie had to miss school, Grotton brought out a toy stuffed monkey that she would put in Ellie’s place. She would take pictures of the monkey painting in art class or reading a book during library time and send them to Ellie.
“She loved getting those pictures when she was at chemo,” Candi said.
And over Christmas break, Grotton visited Ellie at the Lafayette Family Cancer Center, playing games and reading with her throughout the day.
Candi said her family was in awe of the way Grotton addressed Ellie’s disease with other students in the class.
“The tumor at one point was growing out of her eye,” said Candi, explaining that after 90 percent of the tumor was removed, it grew back very quickly and made the area around Ellie’s eye look red and irritated. “That’s hard for kids that age. They’re very inquisitive.”
Grotton read books to the children about cancer and had Ellie’s classmates make cards for her.
When Ellie started losing her hair and would wear a hat to school, Grotton gave every child in the class a hat so Ellie wouldn’t be alone.
Candi said Grotton never made Ellie feel like an outcast. In fact, the students have embraced her.
“Whenever Ellie comes back after being away, they’re always hugging her and happy to see her,” said Candi.
She emphasized that it’s not just the way she treated Ellie that makes Grotton such a great teacher.
“Teachers already have so much on their plate,” she said. “The things she does, she doesn’t see them as burdens, she sees them as things that bring her joy.”
Grotton has taught at the Glenburn school for 20 years. She was previously a sixth-grade teacher but said she loves teaching pre-kindergarten.
“It’s been great being the first teacher that they see,” she said, referring to parents and students.
Ellie turns 5 on Wednesday. Last week, the LaBrees got results back from another round of scans of her eye.
Candi said after six months of chemotherapy, including eight weeks in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital, there’s no evidence of the disease in her daughter’s body.
The other county teachers of the year announced Tuesday are:
Aroostook: Kara Beal, Valley Rivers Middle School, Fort Kent, eighth grade, English, language arts.
Androscoggin: Gordon “Skip” Crosby, Poland Regional High School, Poland, grades 9-12, Spanish.
Cumberland: Sarah Brokofsky, Westbrook Middle School, Westbrook, fifth grade.
Franklin: Sarah Reynolds, Cascade Brook School, RSU 9, Farmington, fourth grade.
Hancock: Andrea Beardsley, Ellsworth High School, Ellsworth, grades 10-12, science.
Kennebec: Dan Crocker, Hall-Dale Middle School, Farmingdale, grades 6-8, math.
Knox: Kristi Todd, Union Elementary School, Union, kindergarten.
Lincoln: Cory Chase, Boothbay Regional Elementary, grades 7-8, English language arts.
Oxford: Jeffrey Bailey, Mountain Valley High School, Rumford, grades 9-12, technology.
Piscataquis: Dyan McCarthy-Clark, SeDoMoCha Middle School, Dover-Foxcroft, eighth grade, social studies.
Sagadahoc: Eric Varney, Morse High School, Bath, grades 9-12, science.
Somerset: Jennifer Dorman, Skowhegan Area Middle School, grades 7-8, English, language arts.
Waldo: Phyllis Frkuska-Heeren, Drinkwater Elementary School, Northport, K-5, literacy and math.
Washington: Ann Luginbuhl, Charlotte Elementary School, Charlotte, grades 6-8, all subjects.
York: Kate Smith, Central Elementary, MSAD 35, South Berwick, pre-K-3, music.
Correction: An earlier version of this story listed Paul Sullivan as the Glenburn School principal. It is Tom Sullivan.