Ginny Schardt – A Lesson in Living

Ginny Schardt was a great teacher before she got sick.  This past semester, her example became an education in itself.

By Lisa Pollak (Baltimore) Sun Staff
June 10, 2002 – This is the last in a series of occasional articles – timed to coincide with the graduation of the Class of 2002 – about extraordinary Maryland     college instructors. Nothing was going to stop Ginny Schardt from teaching.  Not chemotherapy, not radiation treatments, not the report that said there were “too many tumors to count” in her brain.  She taught without hair.  She taught in her warm-up clothes.  She would have taught in the hospital last fall, if she’d had to, if the doctor hadn’t agreed to unhook the IV just long enough to let her go to Towson University, teach her Psychology of Sports class and come back.

The treatment didn’t work, and the tumors didn’t stop growing, but the adjunct professor of kinesiology kept coming to class.  In 2 ½ years of teaching with cancer, Schardt never started a semester she didn’t finish, and that’s what this story was supposed to be about.  But life doesn’t always follow the lesson plan.  Last semester was different.

Or maybe it wasn’t that different after all.  What was it Schardt said to her students this past term, explaining what an athlete needed to do to achieve his potential?  Remember, she told them, you can control the effort, not the winning. It wasn’t just something she said.  It was something she believed.  Not only on the first day of class, when no one would have guessed she was sick, but also on the last day – which came sooner than anyone expected – when the 44-year-old teacher walked in with doughnuts for her students and transformed her latest setback into a lesson in how to live.

Long before she had a life-threatening illness, that was the kind of lesson Ginny Schardt taught best.

The thing that I really admire about you is your zest for life.  You have a very positive attitude about everything.  You also really seem to care about others.

The first class Schardt ever taught, more than 15 years ago, went so well that she wanted to remember it.  At the end of the term, she snapped a group picture.  She took a picture of the next class, and the one after that, and soon the walls of her office in the counseling department at Howard Community College were covered with photographs of smiling students.

It was a nice change to have a teacher who enjoys teaching so much.

She saved their pictures.  She saved their written comments, too.  The first course she taught was called Human Development 100, in which students worked on improving their listening and communication skills.  On the last day, each person – including the teacher – went home with a sheet of paper covered with positive feedback from the class.

I never really thought of you as our teacher, but as our friend.  Remember when you said sometimes you’d wonder what the “bubbles” above our heads would say whenever you began to speak?  Mine would say “Oh boy, we’re in for another story.  She always got something I can relate to, or always has us laughing.  I can’t wait to hear this one.”

Even when she was just starting out, younger than some of her students, they already were telling her that she was the best teacher they’d ever had.

You know how to make people feel at home here in the classroom.

Maybe it was her master’s degree in clinical and counseling psychology, or the fact that her job at Howard was to counsel as well as teach.  But to Schardt, teaching was always more than conveying information.  It was guiding, inspiring and encouraging students, too, giving them the tools to build successful lives and careers.  It was cheering on Howard’s basketball team, not just at games but in class, by teaching the players how to apply their on-court skills to academics.  It was persuading a bright, self-doubting 30-year-old nursing student to stay in school, then calling her at home to say congratulations on graduation day.

I think your impact will keep on rippling through my life.

“She believed in me,” says Rosina Vanek, the nursing student who is now a nurse, and who returned to Howard a few years ago to teach and tutor nursing students.  “She taught me that education is broken down in little steps along the way.  She would tell me that it wasn’t beyond my capabilities to succeed.”

In class you kept trying and never lost your cool even when we seemed to be “in a daze.”

To sum up a career in one article is hard enough; to ask a single word to do the trick is impossible.  But back when she taught HD 100,Schardt used to start the class by having everybody introduce themselves, using adjectives with the same first letters as their names, such as merry Mary or serious Steve or jolly Jill.

Or genuine Ginny.

You seem to be a very truthful and matter-of-fact person who presents the real you to the world.

It was true in the spring of 1987, when a student wrote that comment, and it was true in the winter of 2002, when spring semester at Towson University began.  Schardt was at a different school, teaching a different class, facing a different future than she’d ever imagined.  But she was still the same teacher, the same genuine Ginny, she’d always been.

Of course it amazed them.  Wouldn’t it amaze you?  A tall, blond woman in a short black skirt comes into your classroom, hands out the syllabus, and says that she hopes the class – Psychology of Sport – will be interesting and fun, nothing you can’t get an “A” in if you make the effort.

And, oh, by the way, there’s something she wants to tell you, because you might have heard a rumor, and she wants you to know the truth, because you’re her students, which means you’re part of her life now.  Her tone is casual, confident and matter-of-fact as she tells you about the breast cancer that has spread to her bones and her brain; about her ongoing quest to find a treatment to control it; about her commitment to keep teaching in spite of the disease.  Her face might look puffy from steroids, she says, and if she’s having a rough day she may wear warm-ups to class, but she’s never let cancer prevent her from teaching and she has no intention of doing so now.

“I thought I was going to fall out of my chair,” said Kimberly Davis, a junior who sat in the front row, and who never would have guessed that this attractive woman had cancer.  “She didn’t make it sound gloomy or anything.  She was even joking – I’ll never forget that – something about the silly old tumors that wouldn’t stop popping up in her head.  A lot of people in her situation would stay home, but here she was still going and acting like everything’s fine.  That was the thing that got to me most.”

It got to everyone.  Not just her students, but all the people inSchardt’s life – her husband and four stepchildren, her mother and five sisters, her legion of friends, the members of her cancer support group at the Wellness Community in Towson.  The 200 guests at the part held in December to celebrate the Ph.D. in sports psychology that she’d earned from the University of Maryland College Park.  The adviser who’d supervised the 88-page dissertation – “as strong as any I’ve seen,” said Professor Emeritus Donald Steel – that she’d written and revised while undergoing treatment.  The oncologist who told her last fall that she might only have six months to live, even as she prepared to teach a spring term course and plan a summer beach vacation, because she didn’t believe the prognosis – and vowed never to ask for one again.

“She’s one of the most remarkable patients I’ve ever seen in terms of her sheer ability to go on in the face of adversity,” said Dr. Gary Cohen of Greater Baltimore Medical Center.  “If you showed her MRI to a dozen oncologists and asked them to predict her status, virtually every one would say the patient was on her deathbed.”

But she wasn’t.  Five months after that prognosis, more than a month after spring semester began, Dr. Schardt was standing in a Towson University classroom, wearing a long purple jacket and low black heels, giving a PowerPoint presentation on how athletes process information to a room full of kinesiology majors in baseball hats and T-shirts.

Schardt clicked the computer mouse, and her notes flashed up on the screen.

Remember, you cannot control the winning.

You need to be concerned with specifics you can control.

“Do we need to know this for the test?” a student asked.  “Should we be copying this down?”

“If it were me,” Schardt answered patiently, “I’d be jotting stuff down.”

People thought she was amazing; they told her so, too.  But the remarkable thing, in a room full of college students, was how ordinary the act of being amazing could seem.  Clicking the mouse, explaining theories, telling the guys in the back of the room to pipe down – forSchardt these weren’t amazing feats; they were blessedly normal ones.  They were her life before cancer.  They were something she could control.

She couldn’t control the tumors.  She couldn’t control the outcome of treatments.  She couldn’t even control what students learned in her class.  The scores on their first test – the average was a low B – disappointed her.  She’d told them exactly what they needed to study to do well on it.  Too many of them, it seemed, simply hadn’t made the effort.

You can control the effort, not the winning. Didn’t the students get it?  Didn’t they see?  These weren’t just abstract concepts, answers on a test, but the reason their professor showed up every week.  Schardt never used herself as an example in class; this was true.  Yet there she was, battling the most formidable opponent imaginable, with a game plan that came straight out of their notes:  Set concrete goals.  Think positive.  Manage anxiety.  Control what you can control.

She had gotten so used to that control, to “fitting cancer into her routine”, that it took her by surprise last term when things began to change, when she felt so tired that coming to class was an effort.  But she took the lack of stamina as a good sign, an indication that the new chemotherapy was working to shrink the tumors in her brain.  After all, she reasoned, she’d felt OK during other treatments, but they’d had no effect on the disease.  The latest drug, an oral chemotherapy calledXeloda, required her to swallow eight tablets a day.

She kept going to class, even as the exhaustion began to overwhelm her; even as walking became more difficult and she got winded from a flight of stairs; even after her doctor advised her not to drive.  Of course she kept teaching.  She was a teacher, not a disease.  Even a bad day – like the one in early April, when the students didn’t seem to be paying attention – could be an opportunity to educate.

“I didn’t think it went well, and I don’t just brush that off,” Schardt said at the start of the next class, launching a discussion about how the future coaches and gym teachers in the room might deal with presentations that don’t go according to plan.

This, she knew, was part of being a teacher:  Some days the students hang on every word, and some days you can tap dance on your desk and not engage them.  Still, after that lethargic class in April, the professor couldn’t help but wonder if her treatment wasn’t partly to blame.

She’d never had a semester this rough before, and there were still six weeks of class left to go.  If a sports psychology professor couldn’t control the winning, what could she control?

She knew the answer, of course.  She’d known it for years.

You seem to be a very truthful and matter-of-fact person who presents the real you to the world.

You have a very positive attitude about everything.

I think your impact will keep on rippling through my life.

Here’s what she could control.  Not why the class ended early, but when and how.  Not what the students thought, but what they saw.  Not the lesson they remembered, just the one they were taught.

The teacher placed the photograph on the overhead projector and the image flashed onto the screen:  Three smiling women in baseball caps and T-shirts.

“I don’t know whether you recognize the person in the middle there,”Schardt said.  “But that’s me, back in October, at a 5K walk.”

The students had noticed the changes in their teacher.  They knew she’d gained weight from steroids and had mentioned being more tired, but all that time she’d kept coming to class.  Now the students looked at the picture, and they looked at their professor, and for what seemed like the first time all term, the room fell silent.

“Wow,” someone said, almost a whisper.

As if to say:  Now I get it.

Schardt has a simple philosophy of teaching:  Every day, she tells her students, you should leave class knowing at least one thing you didn’t know before you arrived.  On the last day of class, April 11, the goal was no different, even though the end of the term was still a month away.

Schardt turned and looked at the screen, at the woman her students wouldn’t have recognized.  The one with the slim, youthful face and unburdened smile that spoke more about what she’d been through than any lecture could have.

“That’s what I need to get back to,” Schardt said.  “I need to look like that.  That’s my goal, to look like that.”

She’d brought doughnuts for the class, an impromptu last-day party, but in some ways, the last day was a lot like the first one.  The teacher’s voice was casual and confident as she explained her decision:  That she needed to be home taking care of herself; that the new chemo had been tougher than she’d expected; that instead of doing oral presentations the students would e-mail papers to her home.  She thanked them for their understanding – and teased them a little, too, for having been “a talky class.”

Sitting in the front row, Kimberly Davis couldn’t help remembering what Schardt had said the first day, how she’d never had to end a term early before.  Now it was happening, and although the teacher’s words scared Davis, Dr. Schardt’s voice was still unmistakably upbeat.  Not in an artificial way.  In a genuine one.

“Will you be back next semester?”  Davis asked.

“I hope I’m back,” Schardt said.  “I certainly plan on it.”

Epilogue:  Dr. Schardt never regretted her decision to end class when she did.  “I never would have made it through the semester,” she said recently.  In the weeks after class ended, her fatigue and weakness worsened.  She contacted hospice and started receiving at-home care, believing the treatment she’d tried last semester might be her last.

Then, on May 10, MRI results brought surprising good news:  The drug had worked, shrinking the lesions in her brain by as much as 50 percent.  On May 14, on what should have been the last day of class, Schardt started another round of chemotherapy.

Virginia Worthington Schardt, 44, professor

By Michael Stroh
(Baltimore) Sun Staff
Originally published August 19, 2002

Virginia Worthington Schardt, a Towson University professor of kinesiology whose struggle with breast cancer was chronicled in June in The Sun, died Friday of complications of the disease at Gilchrist Center for Hospice Care. She was 44 and lived in Perry Hall.

Known to friends and family as “Ginny,” Dr. Schardt inspired hundreds of students during her short career. She also left many awed by her unflagging optimism, humor, and dedication to the classroom, even as the disease spread to her bones to brain.

“She was even joking – I’ll never forget that – something about the silly old tumors that wouldn’t stop popping in her head,” Kimberly Davis, a student of hers, remarked in the Sun article “A lot of people in her situation would stay home, but here she was still going and acting like everything’s fine.”

In the Govans neighborhood where she grew up, Dr. Schardt was known as one of the “Worthington girls,” the second-eldest of six sisters living in small one-bathroom rowhouse.

“You tell that to anybody in Govans, they know exactly who you are,” said her younger sister Kathy Worthington of Federal Hill.

Academics and athletics were an important part of her life from the start. Dr. Schardt attended St. Mary’s School and the Institute of Notre Dame, where she was a star center on the school’s basketball team. She graduated from Towson University and received a master’s degree in psychology from Loyola College in 1983. Dr. Schardt spent the first 16 years of her career as a teacher and counselor at Howard Community College, helping students handicapped by self-doubt or poor academic records find successful careers.

“Ginny just felt like everybody had this wealth of potential,” her sister said.

Many of her former students visited her bedside in the days before she died. One of them serenaded her with his guitar, family members said.

She met her future husband, Christopher, on a blind date, and they married in 1996. He introduced her to what became a new passion: collecting Elvis Presley and Beatles memorabilia. Between radiation treatments, she and her husband flew to London. She dodged traffic to snap her husband’s photo as he crossed and recrossed Abbey Road – which is featured on the cover of the Beatles album of that name. Cancer treatments had left Dr. Schardt mostly bald but with a tuft of blond hair down the center – “a natural mohawk,” her husband recalled.

She got a chuckle out of posing next to a wax mannequin of Mr. T at Madame Tussauds, her husband said. A few months after London, the couple trekked to Graceland.

“She just had the will to live,” said Mr. Schardt, who is the general manager of Towson Town Center. “And she packed it full.”

In December, despite regular hospital visits and bouts of illness, she received her doctorate in sports psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“Most students would have given up,” said Donald Steele, her thesis adviser. “Ginny never did.”

Like others whose lives intersected with Dr. Schardt’s over the years, Dr. Steele said he found himself enmeshed in her constantly expanding web of friends. Long after she left College Park, the two would continue to call one another, sometimes every week. Even when her illness confined her to a hospital bed, Dr. Schardt went to great lengths to keep teaching – at one point even negotiating with hospital staff for a spare room and shuttle bus so her students could come to her. Eventually, doctors relented and let her go to Towson to teach.

She defied the predictions of some of her doctors, who had said she wouldn’t live until summer. “She was late for everything, so I guess she was just going to go out on her own terms like always – late,” said her sister Joan Worthington of Phoenix.

In a final twist that family members say she would have appreciated, Dr. Schardt died on the same date as Elvis Presley. Amid their grief, her sisters couldn’t help but chuckle when someone remarked in the moments after her death: “Now she’s with the King.”

A Mass of Christian burial is scheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow at St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church, 5502 York Road.

In addition to her husband and two sisters, Dr. Schardt is survived by a stepdaughter, Anna; three stepsons, Daniel, Nicholas, and Jonathan; her mother, Virginia Worthington of Govans; and three other sisters, Mary Delfosse of Upland, Calif., Margaret Prado of Raleigh, N.C., and Dana Weaver of The Woodlands, Texas.

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun