Phoenixville teacher's cancer battle earns GRAMMY Found. nomination

Amy Darby at work in the classroom

PHOENIXVILLE — As a music teacher, Amy Darby loves showing her students what they can do.

“I get to watch kids do stuff they never thought they’d be able to do,” Darby said. “That’s the greatest thing. (Students say,) ‘We can’t do this, there’s no way.’ Then, three weeks later, they’re like, ‘You know? We can do it.’ That’s the best.”

This year at Phoenixville Middle School, Darby’s influence carried well beyond showing children their musical talents as she battled through cancer before her their eyes without taking more than half of a day off for treatments.

“She honestly has been such an inspiration since she found out. We have not even noticed that she’s had this situation or this journey to take,” said Christine Trafford, who also teaches music and chorus at Phoenixville Middle School.”She’s taken her cancer journey and she’s taken it and created all this great stuff to go with it.”

For that reason, Darby was nominated for the Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation’s very first music educator award.

One of just 217 quarterfinalists winnowed down from 30,000 nominations total, Darby and only 12 others remain in contention in Pennsylvania.

The 34-year-old, who teaches general music, conducts several different choruses and directs the spring theater show, among other classes and activities, was diagnosed with breast cancer in October. Initially, she figured she’d keep quiet about her diagnosis.

“She wanted to keep it secret at first because she didn’t actually know what it was,” said one of Darby’s students, Kaleigh Quinnan. “She told us that she was going to get surgery on her shoulder. Later, she told us it was breast cancer.”

“She said to me, ‘If I didn’t have any physical changes, I would never have said anything to them. But because I did, I wanted to let them know what was going on.’” according to Trafford.

Once it was clear what she had, Darby informed her students.

“She’s really tough and she’s so strong, she’s always helping people out, so it was a little surprising for her to get something,(like that),” Elizabeth Hussin, another student, said.

In explaining the diagnosis, Darby took a serious, shocking announcement and turned it completely around.

“When she told 200 seventh and eighth grade kids in there, in chorus, what was going on, she was just like, ‘This is going to be fun! I get to wear a different wig every day!’” Trafford said. “It was great.”

Darby’s students have been “great” throughout her treatment.

“Every day (they asked), ‘Do you need anything?’” Darby said. “That’s why we came up with the Fight Back Friday. They wanted to do something and there was nothing for them to do so we said, ‘Let’s raise money for those who need help.’”

Fight Back Friday consisted of paying a dollar to wear a hat or something else to school.

Quinnan said she’s worn bandannas and Hussin wore Philadelphia Eagles hats because Darby is a huge fan.

For her part, Darby wore wildly colored wigs.

“They’re like the rainbow,” said Quinnan, adding that she makes it a point of walking through the lobby to check out what Darby is wearing at the end of each week.

For the year, Fight Back Friday raised about $4,000 for Phoenixville Hospital’s cancer center.

Colorful wigs isn’t where Darby’s energy stops. She happily uses words like “okey-dokey” and claps her hands determinedly when talking about the end to her chemotherapy treatments.

When rehearsing with her middle school choir, the final notes of Coldplay’s “Fix You” barely finished before she asked her students for any questions or comments on the run-through.

“Working with kids, I can’t act sick,” she said. “I can’t be sick today because they need me today. So I was able to not be sick.”

“She doesn’t really talk about (her cancer) that much,” Hussin said. “She doesn’t really make it seem like she’s going to the hospital. She doesn’t complain.”

“She could have been someone who would have just sat around and just moped and complained the whole time and she really wasn’t,” Trafford said.

Liza Grundy, who served as a choreographer for the middle school’s production, “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” watched the GRAMMY’s and saw the announcement for the award for a U.S. music teacher. Instantly, she thought of Darby.

“Just because of having a rough year this year, she was like, ‘If there’s ever anyone that needs to get that, it’s you,’” Darby said.

Grundy, Trafford and the middle school’s principal, Frank Garritano, filled out the paperwork to nominate Darby without her knowing.

Eventually, Darby got an email saying she was nominated, something that she said was very “flatter(ing).”

Shortly after, Darby found out she was in the quarterfinals.

“My response was, ‘I’m sure everybody made the quarterfinals...’ then the email comes out that there were 30,000 nominations and I was like, ‘I guess everybody didn’t make the quarterfinals. Holy cow,’” Darby said.

Eventually, a winner from 10 finalists will be chosen and flown to Los Angeles to attend the GRAMMYs’ Special Merits Award Ceremony where honors like the Lifetime Achievement Award are handed out.

That winner will receive $10,000 and a matching grant for their school.

The nine other finalists will receive $1,000 and a matching grant.

Although Darby doesn’t want to jinx it, she said the school could use a new drum kit and possibly a set of hand bells for students who do not yet read music but might be interested in participating.

“They can jump up there and hit the bell,” she said.

As a part of the quarterfinals, a video has to be sent in showing Darby teaching and answering specific questions, Additionally, a part of the video can feature colleagues and students talking about her.

Tuesday, students came in groups to talk about how Darby inspired them. Many found it difficult to keep their thoughts under the 20 seconds they were asked to keep to.

For the most part, Darby said she likes doing the behind-the-scenes work for productions and concerts.

“I am good backstage. I don’t even like conducting,” she said. “I just like doing the stuff to make it sound good and then step back.”

After “The Little Mermaid Jr.,” Darby was called on stage to be recognized for making the quarterfinals of the GRAMMYs contest, something she said made her a little “embarrassed” to be out front.

By all accounts, even if she wins the GRAMMY teaching award, Darby will never be honored with enough attention for the inspiration she has been.

“Beside the cancer she is just amazing in the class and great with the kids,” Trafford said. “She does so many things.”

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.

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