Students, parents join MS Walk to honor teacher
By Jennifer Toomer-Cook
Deseret News staff writer
Highland Park Elementary first-graders might be affected forever by multiple sclerosis, the disease that forced their beloved teacher into early retirement.
But now, some of them want to have an impact of their own - both on teacher Connie Nelson and generations to come.
Connie Nelson, who had to retire early from Highland Park Elementary due to MS, rides alongside students on MS Walk.
Johanna Workman, Deseret News
Saturday, some two dozen children, their parents and Nelson's colleagues laced up their walking shoes and, sporting paper hearts inscribed with Nelson's name, took to the streets in the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's 11th annual MS Walk in West Jordan.
Nelson wanted to come, too, to ride beside them in her candy apple-red scooter every step of the way.
"I'm so flattered the kids and the parents would get so interested in doing this," she said of the six-mile walk. "It's hard to even have words for it."
Nelson, who always dreamed of becoming a teacher, led Salt Lake City elementary classrooms for most of her 25-year career. She taught at Mountain View and Lincoln elementaries before coming to Highland Park four years ago.
Last decade, her life took a turn. Nelson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease of the central nervous system. Symptoms range from mild numbness of the limbs to paralysis or vision loss.
The disease is unpredictable.
Nelson recalls good days and bad days in the past 10 years. She used a walker and electric scooter to conserve energy walking long school halls or overseeing rowdy ones on the playground.
"That's the thing that I think makes me so angry and upset. You never know what the day's going to bring . . . you always look good, but you don't feel good," Nelson said. "It really does take over your life."
But Nelson apparently never showed it in class. Colleagues and parents say she commands respect through kindness. She taps the knowledge children crave and teaches with ease. Her quirky impersonations make colleagues laugh. And she has "all the T-shirts," meaning she went to probably every teacher workshop there ever was, principal Gene Klatt said.
First-graders loved chatting with Nelson, perhaps because she's about their height when sitting in her scooter. Her scooter also was a hit on its own: Nelson offered rides the first week of school, parent Kristin Brown recalls.
"She just exudes warmth," Brown said. "She never let her sickness get in the way of loving our kids."
But in the past few months, the disease dealt unexpected blows. By January, the fatigue and stress were too much to bear.
Nelson knew she had to leave. But how do you break that to a room full of fresh and freckle-faced 6- and 7-year olds?
An ice cream party was just the trick.
And as the children sat, undoubtedly blissfully unaware, the ice cream's sweetness coating their throats, hands and faces, Nelson told them about the disease that would make it so she couldn't see them every day anymore.
"This has been traumatic enough for her, yet she's more worried about how it's going to affect everyone else," parent Gina Thackeray said. "They loved her so much and didn't want to give her up. They still talk about her and miss her."
Gwen Stubbs emerged from a three-year retirement to take Nelson's class, which just so happened to be in the room where Stubbs taught the last years of her 40-year career.
The school threw a going-away party, complete with food, gifts and balloons, courtesy of parents. It also plans to honor Nelson in an appreciation luncheon before school ends, Klatt said.
After Nelson left, kids had questions. Why did MS make Ms. Nelson sick? How come there's no cure?
For Thackeray's little Callie, the MS walk channeled that curious energy even more than long talks. It seems to have that effect on a lot of people, even folks from schools where Nelson used to teach. Everyone could join hands to help Ms. Nelson.
"She always taught her first-graders one person could make a difference. And her first-graders want to show her they care and want to do something for her," Brown said. "It's a good experience for me to teach my little boy (Nathan) he can do something in return."
Callie counted down to the day she would raise money - Utahns were to bring in at least $150,000 of the $20 million expected nationally - so doctors could find just the right potion to make Ms. Nelson better.
"She said to me, 'If we raise enough money and find a cure, will she be able to teach us again before the end of the year?' " Thackeray said. "She doesn't quite grasp everything, but she does understand she's doing something to help her teacher and research to help her feel better."
Nelson comes back to school from time to time. She conducted parent-teacher conferences alongside Stubbs soon after departing. She came to the Valentine's Day party, making the elementary school's ultimate bash of the year all the sweeter. She even visited the kids just a few days ago.
"They maul her - poor woman," Thackeray said with a chuckle.
Meanwhile, Nelson enjoys gardening, scrapbooking, tickling the ivories and curling up with a good book at home. But her passion remains schoolchildren. Who knows - maybe she'll return as a volunteer.
"I've told her to just come walk around. We just want her around here,"
Klatt said. "She knows that she can come here and be here and have things
to do. And we will love her."