My sister, Cheryl was an outstanding educator. When we were four little girls deciding on what games to occupy us, she always wanted to play school. Of course, she was the teacher. The smallest of the four. The bossiest. The mouth.
She never deviated from her earliest dream of becoming an educator. Elementary School Teacher. High School Guidance Counselor. Director of Alternative Education. Elementary School Principal. Central Office Administrator.
In preparation to achieve her highest ambition, Superintendent of Schools, she enrolled in the University of Illinois-Urbana’s Education, Policy, Organization and Leadership doctoral program. She commuted to Urbana on weekends to complete her coursework after putting in a full week as principal. She submitted a research proposal and was granted permission to complete her dissertation in January 2004.
During 2004 she received the Frederick A. Rogers award for outstanding academic and professional accomplishments. The merit-based award supports doctoral candidates in the UIUC College of Education who are working full time as teachers or administrators with underserved students in an urban environment.
In March 2004, six months after accepting a Central Office Administrator position, Cheryl was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer and given a devastating prognosis if she survived the extensive surgery to remove the tumor. Ten days post-surgery, hospitalized, reconciling her to living with a colostomy bag, months of chemotherapy, and an uncertain future; she declared, “I have cancer. Cancer does not have me … Joyce, bring your laptop and my book bag to the hospital. I want to get back to my study.”
Sitting in a hospital bed, attached to intravenous drips and with nurses popping in to administer pain medications, Cheryl began dictating. Her first chapter set out the questions she hoped to answer during the study as well as how the answers would benefit elementary school principals engaged in desegregation efforts around the country. Once the chapter was reviewed and edited, she emailed it to her dissertation advisor. He returned it to her with his comments and his approval to continue.
During her previous three years of coursework, she’d compiled over two hundred pages of research on desegregation cases along with the positive and negative impacts for students and communities. She was required to pare the research into approximately forty pages of the most pertinent cases related to her study questions. She compared the results of her investigation with the latest research on academic success and the role of principals in ensuring successful student outcomes.
She reviewed, discarded, amplified and strengthened her case. This was interspersed between working a full time job, regular chemotherapy sessions, nausea, and chemo related side effects. She generated a list of questions to be answered during the study. Emailed Chapter Two. Approval received.
The third chapter focused on who would be included in the study and the best methods to answer the study questions generated from the literature review. Cheryl made calls to former colleagues and followed up with letters. She conducted one-on-one interviews with six principals. Another eight principals participated in a focus group.
Many of her colleagues had not seen her in the six months since the surgery. The focus group time line was extended for them to deal with her changed physical appearance. She was wearing a wig. She was high school skinny. They connected with the megawatt smile lighting up her face and the passionate energy she’d brought to her career in education.
Acting as her assistant, I taped the session, took copious notes to assist with the focus group documentation, and questions raised by participants. Together we pieced together the session in the weeks following the focus group. She replayed the tape, combing through answers for consistencies, inconsistencies, new points, and unresolved issues. She sifted, sorted, and wrote a set of recommendations as the oncologist prescribed a second, more intensive chemo regimen, which included four days of chemo. A Procrit shot on Friday to ward off infection and to increase her energy level. One week off to deal with the side effects. Resume chemo.
Early in 2005, Cheryl sent the completed draft dissertation to her committee chair and waited. After requesting nominal changes, he forwarded the document to the two other committee members. Finally, a date was set for the defense.
While preparing the PowerPoint presentation and anticipating questions, Cheryl prepared for her second surgery to remove more cancerous tissue. We drove to Urbana, spent the night in a hotel. The next day she defended her dissertation. The committee conferred for less than an hour. We heard the words “Congratulations, Dr. Box. Make the few changes we’ve outlined and prepare to march in the May 2005 graduation.
One week later, she met with her chair, having made the changes suggested, and presented him with the final revised copy of her dissertation.
May 8, 2005, Cheryl Marie Box, recently released from the hospital, marched with her classmates during two ceremonies—the first for the College of Education where she was hooded and received her diploma, and the second university-wide celebration. Fourteen months after a life-altering diagnosis, frail but exuberant, she completed her educational journey.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.
Her most recent novels are Getting Away With Everything, What You Can Get Away With, and she is also one of twelve collaborating authors in Baring It All: The Ins and Outs of Publishing and a contributing author in a romance anthology titled, Signed, Sealed, Delivered … I’m Yours.