By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGHI MENA
When Melissa Hodgins, a former Charles H. Bullock Elementary School teacher of eight years, stepped outside her Maplewood home to meet a longtime friend’s brother, she had no idea what was in store.
Four days earlier, Hodgins had to go to the hospital due to kidney stones, and ongoing daily radiation treatment for her recurring cancer diagnosis. What she saw, Hodgins said, helped her pain go away.
More than a dozen of her close friends, former colleagues and students had gathered in front of her home on Dec. 22 for a surprise flash mob — singing and dancing to songs including Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
“So, this is a flash mob and carol singing event that I organized for my friend Melissa,” Bonnie Schwab, who has known Hodgins for the past 15 years, said in a video posted to Vimeo of the event, captured by photographer and videographer Matthew Peyton. “And this has been almost two months in the making — a lot of nerve-racking ups and downs. But [we] got incredible support from, obviously, the friends of Melissa and my friends. And so, we’re about to get this done.”
Montclair Local spoke to Hodgins several days after the surprise. Hodgins said she was still thinking about it, remembering how it made her smile, made her pain easier to take.
“It was amazing. To have something like that held for you and to see all the people that had actually come from around the country to be part of that meant so much to me,” Hodgins said. “In that video, I just kept pointing to people that I would see because I couldn’t believe that they were there. I just wanted to run down the stairs and throw myself at them.”
Hodgins had always wanted to teach. She said after spending 18 years working in a corporate job testing mainframe computer programs, she decided to enroll in Montclair State University at night to become a teacher.
“When it came time for student teaching, I quit my job,” Hodgins said. “My wife covered me for that period of time and I was student teaching at Rand School (now Renaissance at Rand Middle School). Then they were building the new school in Montclair, Charles H. Bullock, so I did my student teaching there.”
In 2015, Hodgins said, she started as a substitute teacher at Bullock, for about a year and a half. She got hired as a full-time fifth-grade teacher, and eventually switched to fourth grade, where she started teaching science and social studies.
“I really loved it,” Hodgins said. “To be able to find what you love to teach so much just makes your life so much richer. I was able to teach my students about equality through history and LGBTQ rights. And the fourth graders were just soaking it up because they were learning about things [that were] really all new to them. We talked about some really difficult subjects in a very safe environment, and it felt so good to be able to do that.”
Hodgins said that during her time teaching fourth graders, she did anti-bias and anti-racism training, and she shared the principles she learned with her students. She said the students, their parents and staff were very supportive.
“I really felt I was just getting going like I was feeling really strong in what I was teaching,” Hodgins said.
In the summer of 2017, Hodgins was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. She said her doctor recommended chemotherapy to fight the cancer, which meant she wasn’t able to teach during that time.
Hodgins left the school temporarily in September of 2017.
“I came back to work in May of that [school] year with a clean bill of health at that point from chemo. I had a full year with the next group of students and then my cancer came back that summer,” Hodgins said. “There was always this kind of hope that ‘Oh, OK, we’re going to do chemo and we’re going to knock it out and I’ll be back to school in no time.’ And things just kind of went downhill from there.”
A CT scan found that the cancer had spread throughout her abdomen. More recently, her doctors found it had metastasized to her brain.
Hodgins is currently undergoing radiation treatment. It’s been difficult, but she said she has a great support system, including her Charles H. Bullock School family, made up of students, parents and staff.
Hodgins said her doctor has told her she will likely be on chemotherapy for the rest of her life, and that she won’t be able to go back to work.
Even though there is a possibility she might not teach again, Hodgins said she will continue her treatments and push forward, something she taught her students to do when they’re faced with adversity.
“I just remember the first time that lesson came up. It was about a time when I was on a hiking trip and I didn’t think I could take one more step. I had been hiking for two and a half days at that point. And I took a picture of myself in my worst moment and I said, ‘I want to show my students this picture and tell them that I pushed on because I am stronger than I think,’” Hodgins said. “Your hard times are no less or greater than anyone else’s but you have to persevere, to fight through it, to help you become the person that you want to be. And if that person that I want to be is going to be something that a student remembers 10 years from now, then maybe that is my legacy, you know?”