Cookie Lee's cancer knocked her for a loop, but she wasn't about to miss school.
Her doctor ordered her to stay home after surgery in October 2006, but this was out of the question. "Miss Cookie,'' as the kids and everyone else at Mittye P. Locke Elementary School call her with great affection, had Thanksgiving baskets to prepare, Christmas gifts to solicit.
At a school where 70 percent of the pupils fall below the federal poverty line, Miss Cookie is an angel. The official title is "parent coordinator," but it hardly describes all the joy she brings, the empty stomachs she fills, the clothing she provides.
She checked her pain at the door that autumn until she was certain poor children would have their holidays. Then she could start the 35 weeks of radiation. Then she could allow herself the luxury of staying home from work, if only for two months.
"You get points in my book for showing up,'' she said.
And at Mittye P. Locke, that's not all. If you're in kindergarten through fifth grade, you get a bike. Of course, you have to show up every day.
Ten years ago, when Miss Cookie was 48 and took this job, a lawyer named Jim Boyko had three kids at the school. He served on the school's advisory board and wanted to do something positive. About this time, school leaders were rethinking how to deal with truancy. As longtime social worker Lydia Kruk put it, "we needed a less punitive approach.''
Boyko, collaborating with Kruk and Miss Cookie, thought it would be nice to present a bicycle to a boy and a girl who had perfect attendance for the year. They drew names from the 27 finalists and a tradition was born.
Every year since, Boyko has come to expect Miss Cookie's first call in January. He then sets about asking his friends and fellow lawyers for contributions. Monday morning, Boyko joined Miss Cookie on the stage in the school's cafeteria. They pulled back the curtain to squeals and oooohs and aaaaaahs from children and parents amazed to see 68 brand-new bikes, matching helmets and trophies. A full 10 percent of the student body came to class every day this year, and Boyko came up with the $3,000 for bikes for all of them.
The children beamed as they slapped high-fives with their principal, Tammy Berryhill. They pushed their new bikes across the stage, fiddled with their helmets and posed for proud parents with cameras. The pupils likely weren't tuned into this lesson, but Boyko and Miss Cookie spelled it out: The program rewards dependability and resolve, not academic prowess. A faithful student becomes a good employee, a good parent, a good boss.
But what about a child who comes to school with a fever? He gets sent to the clinic and then home, but that brief attendance still counts.
Miss Cookie found over the years that there are many other obstacles to perfect attendance. A child might not own a raincoat or umbrella, for instance, "and so what happens when it pours?'' So Miss Cookie started a clothes closet at the school that has everything from socks to sweatshirts, shoes to raincoats. All sizes, all donated.
As the cafeteria cleared Monday morning, Miss Cookie talked about next year. "You can count on me,'' Boyko said.
"I know,'' she said. "I'll be calling.''
But lingering in the background was the question of her health. Doctors recently discovered a small growth on a lung. They plan tests.
To this, Miss Cookie has an answer: "It's in God's hands, and my work here isn't done.''