He called him “grillo,” the Spanish word for “cricket,” because the Messmer High School junior’s chirp-chirping sounded exactly like the real thing.
“He can make a cricket sound probably better than crickets can make the sound,” said Darin DeQuardo, a math teacher at Messmer. “It’s amazing, and when he first did it, I had no idea what was going on and then eventually I figured out that it was him … it’s incredible.”
Juan Torres earned that nickname with what Phil Stollenwerk, junior class’ guidance counselor, said was his trademark.
“He would send out a couple of chirps every once in awhile and you’d always know that Juan was around,” he said.
Teachers and students have been missing that chirping noise and the 17-year-old who made it in the hallways and classrooms of Messmer. They’ve been missing the young man whom DeQuardo said loves the snakes in the science room and whose sense of humor involved scaring other students by walking up behind them with one. They’ve been missing the guy who was always smiling, happy and positive. They’ve been missing Juan, who has replaced his days of schoolwork and being an active student with doses of oral chemotherapy that his doctors hope will slow the terminal bone cancer claiming his energy and confining him to a wheelchair at home.
Read update: ‘Cricket’s’ spirits soar
(March 31, 2011)
Julie Morrison, who teaches math at Messmer High School, first met Juan when he signed up to be a member of the triathlon team in spring 2010 to participate in the July Tri-ing Children’s Triathlon that benefits Children’s Hospital.
“He loved the water and couldn’t wait for our swim sessions to begin,” Morrison wrote in an e-mail to your Catholic Herald. “Whenever we went swimming in the Messmer pool, he was excited to show me and the other coaches his swim stroke and what he could do in the deep end.”
But during training, his leg hurt and Morrison said doctors told him he could no longer train with the group. After a bike workout one morning, the pain was so intense that Juan was instructed by his doctor to stay home and rest, Morrison explained.
“He couldn’t walk,” she said of the last workout Juan attended with the team.
“Soon after, his friend Julio, who was also on the team, called me and said, ‘I have something to tell you: Juan has cancer.’”
School prays for Juan
Morrison, who knows Juan only from the two or three workouts he attended, passing him in the school hallways a few times and seeing him at the student of the month prayer service where he was chosen as the January male student of the month, was touched by the prayer service and comments made by Capuchin Br. Bob Smith, president and CEO of Messmer Catholic Schools, as were many of her students.
“I was really happy to see Juan, especially since I had not been able to visit him in the hospital. It was hard to hold back tears in the classroom immediately following,” she said. “We prayed for him then. We prayed that Juan and his family would know God’s presence in their lives right now and we prayed for healing.”
Morrison said she is inspired by Juan’s smile and how he has touched his friends so deeply.
“Juan’s smile conveys warmth and trust in God, even if sometimes it is masking a fear of the unknown,” she said. “He wants to put others at ease with it, and that to me says that he thinks of others, and not himself, first.
Morrison said Juan’s diagnosis reminds her of how precious, yet complicated, confusing and unfair, life can be.
“We don’t always understand what happens in life and that is OK,” she said. “God is near and loving and present, even in the darkest of times.”
Hopes his story inspires others
Juan’s peers, classmates and teachers shed tears at the student of the month prayer service when they found out that the cancer was terminal, according to Jack Hauser, whose role is family ministry and Catholic identity at Messmer. Yet, he said, the service was “very powerful in a positive way,” because some students who didn’t even know Juan, wrote letters to him sharing a bit of their faith and what he’s taught them.
Hauser said a large number of students stopped by Juan at the end to give him hugs or wishes, and Hauser hopes that Juan’s story of how he pulled himself up, moving here from Mexico four years ago or so, learned English and showed he’s not afraid to ask for help, will inspire other students to put more effort into their studies as Juan did.
Just as his struggle to learn English as a second language didn’t stop Juan from living and learning, neither did the dark news of terminal cancer.
“When he was in class, he didn’t let (his diagnosis) get to him,” DeQuardo said, explaining that Juan went from a shy, quiet and unsure freshman in his algebra class to the more confident, outgoing teen he is. “He was still trying to work hard to complete his assignments even though he was missing some class time and I think that is a credit to him because he didn’t want to miss school.”
Juan is no longer doing homework at home, but DeQuardo, who oftentimes helped Juan after school, said he worked hard to get through the language barrier as a freshman.
“He always worked hard and made an effort to do his best,” the teacher said.
Good attitude always present
Stollenwerk, who has known Juan for three years, said that Juan took advantage of the extra help that the school had to offer, and attended every Saturday Academy from 9 to 11:30 a.m. with his usual smile and good attitude, ready to work hard.
“He’s just such a brave person to go through everything he has and then still have this positive, happy attitude that he has is just amazing,” Stollenwerk said.
Juan’s initial diagnosis last summer meant he had to leave school every three and a half weeks for chemotherapy from about September into early December until he had a break from treatment, explained Hauser.
Despite it all, Juan was still Juan, whether he was sitting in a school desk or lying in a hospital bed. “He never got frustrated, he never seemed to get upset or angry or anything at all, he was just the one that I know so well,” Hauser said.
Treatment was to resume before Christmas, but upon Juan’s request, it began after his Dec. 23 birthday and Christmas. He received high-dosage chemotherapy and had a bone marrow transplant Dec. 27 that kept him in the hospital until Feb. 2. Because the high dosage killed everything, including his immune system, Hauser explained that students and staff were unable to visit him as they did during previous treatments.
“We were really shut out from visiting him or anything during that time, which was freaking us all out,” Hauser said. “Then a week after he got back, on the 9th of February, he felt the pain again and so when he had gone back in they said, ‘The cancer’s back,’ and they said that there’s isn’t much they could do.”
Real understanding of his own life
Hauser, who broke down at the news, said he was touched most by what Juan said to him during his Feb. 21 visit.
“We were talking and he turned to me and he said, ‘Well, you know, Mr. Hauser, we all have to die.’ …he seemed to have a real understanding of his own life and that … was I thought beyond his years and really showed the true wisdom that he really carries with him,” Hauser said.
Hauser, formerly the director of campus ministry for about 12 years, said Br. Bob created the position this year to help families of students at all three campuses through crises like house fires, a failed kidney transplant, or, in Juan’s case, terminal cancer.
“It’s a very rewarding, but also very tiring position….” Hauser said of what has been a busy year. “Br. Bob didn’t think it would be as busy as it is but I think we find more of our students in need, families in need, than we ever thought there were.”
Juan has changed his life, says friend
Mateo Martinez, Juan’s close friend who has known Juan since they attended eighth grade at St. Anthony School, said that he was shocked like everyone else with Juan’s diagnosis.
“It was pretty hard for me,” Martinez said, but he’s tried to talk to him every day through text messages, checking to see if he needs anything and trying to cheer him up.
Martinez had a chance to “play” with radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters in the school gym with Juan and nine other people that Juan invited to participate.
Hauser got the day approved by the school – it was something that Juan, an aspiring pilot, always wanted to do. Juan and his friends spent about three hours in the gym “flying.”
“His flying skills are not that good, at least with the remote,” Hauser laughed as he noted that Juan and his friends seemed to have crashed everything he had purchased at Wal-Mart the night before within 45 minutes.
Martinez said that Juan has changed his life.
“He changed my life because he was always determined to be the best and he tried his best to become a better person,” Martinez said, “and he was always smiling so he showed like his happiness and he showed that there was always something to live for.”
Mom has been strong support
He also said that Juan’s mother deserves credit for what’s she’s going through.
“I’ve got to give credit to his mom because she has been really strong and she has been really patient with him and his therapies and everything like that,” Martinez said. “I mean it’s hard to deal with something like that, plus she has a job and it’s hard, but she really seems strong and she’s not willing to give up.”
Like Juan, Hauser said the teen’s mother puts on a positive face though he sensed the worry of a parent losing a child in her eyes – especially during his Feb. 21 visit.
“I think she’s still dealing with the idea that it is her son and that it won’t be forever that he will be here,” Hauser said. “…I can see in her eyes the worry and exhaustion that she must be going through.”
Messmer will hold a prayer service for Juan March 16, and Hauser said they are currently working hard to get visas for Juan’s grandmother and two aunts so they can visit from Mexico.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Hauser said, explaining that they’re working with U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl’s office and an attorney to try to expedite the process. “Children’s Hospital’s helping immensely with that right now. We understand that the family members have Mexican passports; the visa part is the challenge because they don’t give them very often to people in poor countries right now, especially a country like Mexico where a lot of people come up and they don’t return.”
If they do get the visas, Hauser said Children’s Hospital has already secured Make A Wish Foundation and they will pay for their airfare and lodging while they’re here.
School feels loss, but continues praying
While the “cricket” is no longer roaming the Messmer halls, training for youth triathlons or scaring students with snakes, his chirps still echo in the minds of the faculty, staff and students who continue to pray for him.
“I just think it will be a definite loss to our family community here at Messmer to see him go,” Stollenwerk said. “We’ve already felt the loss of not having him here on a daily basis in class and we definitely will miss him and we’re all praying here, the students and the faculty and the staff, that he will recover. We’ll always keep that hope of recovery strong.”