Tell Me Something, Meredith McNerney
At 42, Meredith McNerney’s life has had its share of peaks and valleys, but there is always one thing to which she clings.
McNerney is a new principal; she has been at the helm of Gaithersburg Elementary School for a year and a half. It’s something she’s been working toward since she was 12 years old.
“I went to a leadership conference when I was 12,” she says. “I told my parents I wanted to be a school principal. Ever since then, I have wanted to be a principal. Life took a lot of twists and turns, but I’m thankful for that now.”
Twists and turns, indeed.
McNerney’s health has been a concern from the day she arrived in the world.
She was born with an ear deformity, which caused vertigo. It was soon discovered that she also had a deformity in one of her kidneys. Throughout her childhood, she had bouts of severe sickness and frequent kidney infections. Doctors hoped the kidney would eventually repair itself. That never happened. When McNerney was 11, she had a kidney removed.
“My health has been my cross to bear, but it has helped me have amazing relationships and a great perspective on life,” she says. “I know what’s important.”
McNerney was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Prince George’s County. Her father owns a furniture repair and refinishing company, a business that’s been in the family since her great grandfather immigrated to the United States from Romania. Her mother was a dance teacher and owned a studio. Neither of her parents graduated from college.
She started her career in Charles County, Md. After graduating from East Carolina University, she found a job as a fourth grade long-term substitute at J.C. Parks Elementary School in Indian Head, Md. She was hired full time the following year.
“I loved it but a lot surprised me about it,” she remembers. “I worked in a high-needs population. The students had a lot of stress and that translated into a lot of physical aggression. I had a difficult time working through that. I felt defeated and a little let down.” She stayed two years, but in the course of that time, she met the man who would become her husband. A Montgomery County native, Mark McNerney had graduated from Springbrook High School. The couple relocated, and Meredith landed work as a fourth and fifth grade teacher at Rock Creek Valley Elementary School.
Then came her 31st birthday. It was February.
Her husband was teaching full time and she had taken a leave of absence to stay home with their daughters, then 2 and 4 years old.
“I had what I thought was a tiny pimple on my face that wouldn’t go away,” she says. “I was a mommy; I was busy, but I thought, ‘I’ve got to get this stupid thing off my face.’” She went to the doctor, who told her it was a cyst and gave her a topical treatment.
It didn’t work. Doctors suggested they cut it out and she agreed.
They biopsied it.
It was cancer. Merkel cell carcinoma. A rare but aggressive and fast-moving cancer.
“They called and said, ‘We got your biopsy and it’s not good,’” McNerney says. “They said, ‘We want to see you tomorrow. This is serious.’ It was shocking. I can vividly see my husband coming home from work with his backpack and how devastating it was for both of us.
“I remember at one of our first appointments, I was thinking, ‘I just want to live. What do I have to do to live?’ It wasn’t until later that I learned how it was going to go. The doctor said, ‘I need you to understand this is serious. We’re going to get this out, but it’s going to impact what you look like. In the end, we’ll do plastic surgery.’ I remember asking the doctor, ‘What will my face look like?’ And his answer was, ‘You won’t look like a monster.’”
She had one surgery to remove the cancer, then two others to cut out even more. In the end, the left side of her face was removed down to the bone. She wore bandages to cover it up. She then underwent 36 treatments of radiation.
Nine months later, McNerney was not ready to begin the reconstructive process, and she was financially strapped. “I had to go back to work,” she said. She got a job as a reading specialist at Highland Elementary School. She had arrived just before Highland had been placed in corrective action by the state of Maryland.
Ray Myrtle came out of retirement to lead the school as principal. “The transformation going on there was amazing,” McNerney said. “I learned so much about school reform and being a principal and running a school. Any contribution I made could never outweigh what I learned by being there at that time.”
While at Highland, McNerney had one major reconstructive surgery.
“I needed the reconstruction because there was no fat there,” she explained. “All the nerve endings were cut and exposed. It wasn’t just vanity; the pain would take my breath away.”
She eventually had four other reconstructive surgeries. She celebrated when she hit the two-year mark and was cancer-free. She was ecstatic when she hit the five-year mark and was cancer-free. Today, at 11 years past her initial diagnosis, she is cancer-free and the chance of recurrence is less than 1 percent.
Though she still wanted to be a principal, she didn’t feel ready, so she moved on to central office and spent three years on the Elementary Integrated Curriculum Team. She later became the assistant principal at S. Christa McAuliffe Elementary School and principal intern at Roscoe Nix Elementary.
“I think my stories and my struggles impact my work every day,” she says. “I really believe in equity. While the circumstances may be different, I know what it’s like to be different and an underdog and to go through traumatic situations when you’re young. I missed a lot of school because of illness. I was teased a lot.
“It made me stronger and extremely passionate about sticking up for people and sticking up for kids. When there is something going on, there is a story behind the behavior or the disability. You cannot be afraid to work with families and parents to find out the stories so you can start to help [students] instead of feeling sorry for them. You can help them feel empowered. While they may have hardship, there is always hope.”
While she was healing, McNerney wrote a book about her experiences, Facing Cancer: A Spiritual Journey from Pain to Peace. About a year after her diagnosis, she launched a foundation, A Message of Hope Cancer Fund. In 10 years, the foundation raised $1 million. The fund provides direct financial assistance to families who face monetary burdens associated with cancer, including co-pays, prescription drugs, rent/mortgage, groceries, and gas to and from treatment. The foundation continues, but McNerney has stepped down as executive director to focus on her work as principal.
“Nothing successful is ever about one person,” she says. “It’s been amazing. We’ve saved people from evictions; we’ve done some really big stuff.”
McNerney believes that her medical and career journey has led her to the right place at the right time. Gaithersburg Elementary School is a Title I school; it is heavily impacted by poverty. Many of its students have escaped war-torn countries and their parents are often not literate in their native languages, much less English. The school has a school-based health center, and offers parenting and GED classes, Spanish and English literacy classes, and financial literacy classes.
“We build resilience in children if we can help them understand that in suffering, there is an opportunity for transformation,” she said. “I’ve taken that approach with my students. ‘I don’t feel sorry for you; I don’t pity you. I’m going to help you overcome your suffering with some strategies.’”
Though she loves her job, McNerney says the biggest challenge is the burden she carries as the principal.
“It is a complex and complicated job,” she says. “I do think a lot at night and on weekends and in my dreams about ‘Am I doing enough? Am I giving enough? Am I making enough of a difference?’”
Tell Me More
Family: Husband Mark, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Forest Oak Middle School; daughters Danielle, 15, and Kaitlyn, 13
What’s one thing you couldn’t live without: Prayer
What is one thing you wish for your students: That they have as much hope for their futures as I do.
Three traits that define you: Passionate, energetic, strategic
Favorite place to be: Home
If you could learn to do anything, what would it be: Sing
If could do another job for just one day, what would it be: TV news anchor
Favorite movie: The Help
Favorite book: The Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools
First job you ever had: Dance teacher at my mom’s studio. I taught tap, jazz and ballet to 3- and 4-year-olds.
If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be: Mother Teresa