At times there appear to be too few heart-warming stories in the newspaper business. As reporters we spend a lot of our time covering murders, scandals and assorted other human tragedies.
When I first started reporting, one of my colleagues told me that the job description should include the ability to wallow in bad news. Years later, I have a desk drawer full of notebooks packed with triple homicides, gang shootings and tragic fires that prove him right. I’ve wallowed in my fair share.
But I also have several notebooks that prove my colleague wrong. One of these is filled with notes I’ve collected from the children who attend the on-site school at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange and from Shirley Lewis, the teacher who fills their lives with learning.
Lewis, who works for the Orange Unified School District, tutors hospital-bound children who are too sick to attend regular classes.
When I visited the CHOC classroom, I expected only a handful of children to be there. Thankfully, the kids were smarter. They filled the room. There were broken legs propped up on chairs, IV bottles hanging alongside desks and books carefully balanced on wheelchairs.
I looked over one 5-year-old’s shoulder as she diligently colored in circles while an IV line dangled from her arm. “I like orange,” she declared while putting the finishing touches on her coloring book.
Sitting nearby was Alberto, 13, who was racing across the Oregon Trail via the classroom’s personal computer. It was Alberto’s 23rd visit to the hospital, where he receives respiratory treatment for cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease that fills his lungs with mucous. Like a diminutive Gary Cooper, he coolly observed me with one quick glance and went right back to the wagons bouncing along the trail.
“It’s hard to study and be sick,” Alberto said as he tapped on the computer. “You miss a lot of school and stuff you want to read, like ‘Old Yeller.’ But it isn’t so bad. You get used to it.”
The kids were all matter-of-fact about why they attended Lewis’ classes. Some were bored in their hospital rooms. Some didn’t want to fall behind in their studies. Others simply said they loved school.
Jose Luis Felix Jr., 10, told me without the slightest hesitation that he wanted Lewis to teach at his regular school. Jose, who also has cystic fibrosis, loves math and wants to be a doctor.
“I could help other kids find out more about my disease,” Jose said.
Children come into Lewis’ classroom with vomit pans in case they get nauseated from chemotherapy. Even though there is a toilet in the classroom, they sometimes don’t make it. Even with such accidents and frequent visits by doctors and nurses, the hospital classroom seems like just another school, thanks to Lewis.
It’s been a tough five years for Lewis, who helped launch the on-site school. Even though the majority of the children who attend her classes recover from their ailments, there have been several who have died.
All have left her with plenty of memories.
There was one boy who was so tired of his hospital bed that he engineered a web of string across his room. Lewis had to weave her way through the maze of string to read him his lessons.
Then there was the girl who had a rare form of cancer, but she refused to let her illness stop her from going to high school and trying to get her diploma. The cancer is now in remission.
“I’ve had lots of special moments in this job. The children’s sense of humor never goes away. Even when they are so ill, they give you what they’ve got,” Lewis said.
Driving back to my office after my visits to the hospital, I thought about these kids. Once I began writing, I found a story that was not about sick children, but one that was full of vibrant kids eager about life and learning.
I was lucky to stumble onto a good story. As reporters, we muddle through quite a lot of bad news. That comes with the job. But we also meet people like Shirley Lewis and the wonderful children she teaches. That should also go in the job description.