Cook: I think of you and persevere: the lesson of Peggy Michaels

Cook: I think of you and persevere: the lesson of Peggy Michaels

April 24th, 2015 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

GPS students and teachers (from left) Peggy Michaels, Jane Henegar, Lara Lukens-Smith, Caroline Igou and Kakki Huffaker put the finishing touches on a presentation they are giving to the GPS student body in this 2000 file photo.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Strange, how God works.

Look at Peggy Michaels. Please.

"She's the strongest person I have ever known," said her friend and colleague, Jenise Gordon.

And most days, Peggy can barely walk.

Ever since I've known her -- we taught together at Girls Preparatory School -- Peggy has had to use a motorized wheelchair-scooter. Or a walker. Or one in the morning, when the pain isn't so bad, and the other in the afternoon, when it is.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

Her legs weren't always like this. Peggy used to be all over the place, her legs graceful and ropy with muscles. She played tennis. She ran. More tennis. She breathed athleticism. Her legs were her life.

Then came multiple sclerosis.

Slowly, her legs stopped listening to what her mind told them to do. Like two unruly students, they did their own thing, which was sometimes nothing at all. She got what MS folks call floppy foot.

"It's like wearing flippers," she once told me.

Flippers?

To the rest of us, you wore your MS like a crown.

"I doubt that you understand the full impact that you had on me," one student wrote her. "You taught me to own who I am, imperfections and all."

For 26 years, Peggy has been teaching physical education at GPS, and this June, she's retiring. Thursday, students threw her a surprise party. (I heard one teenager, on crutches, hobbled up to her and said: whenever I hurt, I remember you. That makes me persevere.) Saturday, during alumni weekend, they'll name her faculty emeritus, and endow a teaching-chair-of-excellence in her honor. Two years ago, she was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Before that, the Tennessee MS Hall of Fame.

She's been named the Physical Educator of the Year. Received the Betty Probasco Lifetime Achievement Award. Written award-winning curriculum.

They're all profound honors.

And so are these:

* The million times she has told GPS girls all the things 21st century America doesn't: Be strong. Being skinny is not the same thing as being healthy. You are so precious to me. Always remember how much I love you.

"I will never forget your encouragement when I tried out for volleyball in the 8th grade and couldn't even get the ball over the net with an underhand serve," one student said to her. "You were so determined to help me improve and learn and grow. I would have never made the team, much less had the opportunity to end up as captain in my senior year, without you there to cheer me on."

* The way she's prayed until it turned her inside out, always for other people.

"You gave a warm welcome to every girl that walked through the doors of GPS," said one alum. "You always pulled for the underdog. You reached out to girls that you knew were hurting, that were shy, that were struggling in friendships, school, family situations. You pursued them and prayed for them. Your smile might have been the only light in their day and it made a difference."

* The joy she radiates, this woman who could be so upset about life who is instead the most grateful of all.

"I admire you deeply. I respect you fully. You showed the love of our God in all you did at GPS," said an alum.

Take whatever you care about in life -- health, family, career, friends -- and then slowly watch it fall apart. Your heart crashes off the castle wall, like Humpty Dumpty. Then, the question becomes: What puts it back together again?

Anger? Resentment? Do you raise the drawbridge and make life your enemy?

Or does your heart somehow pick itself off the floor, and with some divine glue, what was once painful and broken comes to resemble something more beautiful and powerful than before?

"Of all the teachers I had during my time there, you are the one who has most impacted my life as a mother and a pediatrician," said another.

"W.W.P.D.? What would Peggy do?" one colleague said.

Peggy's is not some cheap, Hallmarky gratitude. It has been forged in the deep waters, with more midnight prayers than any of us know. That's why people are drawn to her like gravity.

Because she's real. She doesn't just teach lessons.

She is the lesson.

"Thank you, Jesus," she'd always say.

Yes, and thank you, Peggy.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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