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Music teacher Michele Michaelis teaches sixth-graders about composing music with the help of a parrot puppet Aug. 26 at Holy Name School. SUSAN SZALEWSKI

Faith, music help teacher rebound from cancer

Not everyone is excited about Monday mornings.
 
But on a recent Monday morning at Holy Name School in Omaha, music teacher Michele Michaelis is enthusiastic, greeting students in a hallway with high fives or a “Hi, sweetie, how are you?”
 
Inside the second-floor music room, starting class with a group of eighth-graders, she shouts: “Are you ready? Woo!”
 
If the students weren’t awake yet, they soon would be.
 
As a teacher with more than 20 years of experience, four at Holy Name, she disciplines  and guides mostly with encouragement.
 
“Hey, that was nice. I like what I hear,” she says as one student’s singing voice stands out to her during warm-ups. Or “I like the smile on your face. Keep that up!” to another eighth-grader.
 
But several months ago, Michaelis wasn’t so bubbly. Chemotherapy treatments for ovarian cancer drained her energy and restricted her mostly to bed.  Last year’s stage 2A cancer diagnosis, which indicated that the cancer was just starting to spread, forced her to step away from her classroom with no promise of going back.
 
But Michaelis (pronounced mi-shale-is) has rebounded. And buoyed by the prayers and support of family, friends, and co-workers and students at Holy Name, she’s regaining her former life, stronger in her Catholic faith, she says.
 
Michaelis, a member of St. James Parish in Omaha, said she didn’t experience a radical change in faith, but more of a recommitment that has helped her deal with her health problems. Because of her relationship with God, “I felt like I had a good handle on stress,” she said.
 
Michaelis returns to teaching with a full schedule, not only at Holy Name but at Sacred Heart and All Saints Schools in Omaha as well. She partners with another music teacher, Mark Morello, to take on that workload.
 
She no longer has her long, curly hair, but co-workers compliment her on her short, stylish look, thanks to chemotherapy.
 
STUDENTS THRILLED
 
And the Holy Name students who lost their music teacher last year are thrilled to have her back.
 
“She’s one of my favorite teachers,” seventh-grader Kierra Bradley said before her music class.
 
“Something was missing from Holy Name” when Michaelis was gone, Kierra said, and now, “that something is back.”
 
The teacher brings a sweetness and love of music to her students, Kierra said, and she keeps them clapping, dancing and moving.
 
After Michaelis left last year, students made cards for her, which she enjoyed reading when she was laid up, she said.
 
The students prayed, too – in school and at home. Kierra said she and a friend wrote “Pray for Mrs. Michaelis” on their arms as a reminder.
 
INSTRUMENTAL SUPPORT
 
James Bass, also a seventh-grader, used to wait for his music teacher outside of school in the morning and help her carry bags and supplies inside, “even when the bags were bigger than him,” Michaelis said. He insisted on it.
 
When she was gone from Holy Name, its show choir pretty much fell apart, and James lost one of his favorite activities. He said he prayed a lot for Michaelis as she struggled with her illness, and started praying the rosary regularly.
 
“She’s like a good friend to me,” James said.
 
Eighth-grader Carter Gintz said he lost enthusiasm for playing the saxophone when his music teacher left and he “kind of stopped playing.”
 
He was learning to play the instrument through the Music in Catholic Schools program, but Michaelis found extra opportunities for him to showcase his talent at Holy Name events. This year, Michaelis is encouraging Carter to continue playing.
 
He said Michaelis knows a lot about music and “always has a smile on her face, even when she’s sick or down. She has a positive energy, never negative,” he said, even when she has to be strict.
 
Mynor Strong, also in eighth-grade, agreed, calling his teacher “joyful” and “funny.”
 
“If someone had a bad day, she would cheer them up,” Mynor said. “When you went to the class, you felt loved.”
 
GAINING MOMENTUM
 
Michaelis isn’t at full speed yet.
 
At the end of her work day, she’s drained, she said. “I’m exhausted, but it feels good.” 
 
Her husband, Scott Michaelis, has been incredibly supportive, she said, letting her set her own pace at work, while he takes care of everything at home and focuses on her needs.
 
The cancer and its treatment knocked her back for most of the last year, beginning with the diagnosis in October and including two surgeries, chemotherapy that ended in March, and a related weakened immune system that hospitalized her in May with
pneumonia and other health problems.
 
Friends and family helped in many ways, including cleaning her house or by hiring professional cleaners, Michaelis said.
 
Meanwhile her dog, a three-legged, “scrappy little guy” named Indie, stayed by her side offering comfort and protection, Michaelis said.
 
The chemotherapy affected her brain for a while, she said, and she especially had trouble coming up with the right words to say.
 
But along with her faith, music helped her recover. Practicing a method of teaching music called Kodlay – which she’s learning in a graduate certification program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) – helped her thinking skills when she was unable to read because of problems with vision and staying focused, she said.
 
Michaelis, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNO, is halfway through the program and plans to keep going.
 
CHANGED FOR THE BETTER
 
She said having cancer has changed her, but she doesn’t want it to define who she is.  “It will always be part of my narrative, but not my main narrative. It’s a thread in a tapestry.” 
 
She said she has learned from her illness that people don’t have as much control over their lives as they might think they do.
 
Being forced to quit teaching was hard, she said, especially when her doctor told she might never return to work.
 
But she’s regained much of her health, especially over the summer. Work is helping her cope, Michaelis said, and she’s glad to be back.
 
“I’m just grateful for what I’ve been given,” she said. “I’m just grateful to be alive.”
 
She said she wants to set an example for her daughters – twins Kaylen and Thara, both freshmen at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln – on how to “get back on the horse after taking a hit.”
 
Morello, her fellow music teacher and a liturgist, says her comeback has been remarkable.
 
“She’s a dynamo,” he said. “She’s going to beat cancer, because cancer won’t be able to keep up with her.”

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