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The Student Voice of Prosper High School

Eagle Nation Online

The Student Voice of Prosper High School

Eagle Nation Online

The Student Voice of Prosper High School

Eagle Nation Online

Long-term substitute teacher overcomes throat cancer to teach

Gary Spurgeon becomes substitute amidst teacher shortage
Juliana Cruz
At his desk, long-term substitute Gary Spurgeon works on his computer. PISD hired Spurgeon to substitute for English IV for around three months. In the attached article, Spurgeon shares his story overcoming cancer and returning to his job as a teacher.

Driven by his love for teaching and helping the community, substitute teacher, Gary Spurgeon, overcame throat cancer and returned to the field of education.

Before his teaching career Spurgeon was a Certified Public Accountant. In search for something to keep him occupied at night outside of his job, he found the opportunity to teach at Collin County Community College.

Spurgeon’s daughter, Stefanie Utley, notified Spurgeon of the PISD teacher shortage – due to the fast population growth, in September of 2022. At the time Spurgeon ran his own business from home, so he decided to help the shortage by applying to become a substitute teacher. He started at Reynolds Middle School but found his love for teaching high school students. Utley also became a substitute teacher amidst the shortage and found a love for Special Education at Reynolds Middle School.

My Dad has such a positive spirit and an incredible smile. His wealth of experience and wisdom leaves a lasting impact on students. His contagious mentality and outlook make him a great role model.

— Stefanie Utley

“For me personally, you have an opinion of what’s going on in the educational environment,” Spurgeon said. “But you don’t really know until you get inside. And for me, I’m just soaking it all up. All the teachers, all the APs and the principal, everyone, they’re just totally fabulous people. They’re always so positive.”

Last year, Spurgeon held a long-term substitute position for a senior economics class at the end of the school year. A class that he said he enjoyed as Spurgeon has a background in public accounting, marketing and business, and has run his business for more than 40 years. PISD administration offered Spurgeon the English long-term substitute job for Meagan Strain for English IV and AP English Literature, as she is on maternity leave for up to 12 weeks. However, this year being a long-term substitute teacher at the beginning of the year has been a challenge because unlike last year he has to set up the curriculum and base of the school year.

“For me, it’s a challenge, but it’s fine,” Spurgeon said. “I totally enjoy it. And it’s all about the kids. And we have the proper environment here. I’m just wishing we had this all across the country.

He’s really understanding with all of our students, and he really sets us up for success. He cares about his students, and it shows that he really loves his job.

— Ayden Ames, senior

He meets with the other English teachers at least twice a week to organize the curriculum. Two, in particular, are English IV teacher Michelle Furr and AP English Language and AP English Literature teacher Jonathan Smith.

“I have Jonathan Smith, who is absolutely unbelievable,” Spurgeon said. “He keeps walking and teaching me more and more, and the more he teaches me, the more I love it. It’s all coming together.”

Spurgeon said the high school classroom is the smallest audience he has ever taught with his business, which has brought him to speak to audiences around the world and his past as a professor at Collin College.

“When I found out that I had cancer, I didn’t know,” Spurgeon said. “I mean, because I talked on the phone so much, and I talk internationally on calls. About once or twice a year, I’d lose my voice, and it was pretty common. It would last a week or so, and then it was over. That was from, I guessed, straining my voice. This one particular year, I did, it wasn’t going away.”

Spurgeon then visited his general practitioner, who gave him antibiotics, but his voice didn’t get any better. So, he visited an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist to get a biopsy.

“I got the results on Friday the 13th, and they said I had a squamous cell carcinoma in my right tonsil,” Spurgeon said. “I was frightened because the pink C-word tends to scare everybody to death. And they said it was Stage III out of Stage IV. And I said ‘Okay so we need to do something fast, right?’ ”

He said it took weeks for him to find help because he wanted a doctor who had vast experience in treating his condition. As a veteran, he found help from the Veterans Administration.

“Alcohol and chewing Tobacco can cause the cancer,” Spurgeon said. “Since I don’t do those things, what caused it was mouthwash. Our mouth cavity is transmucosal so it’s going to absorb everything that sits in there. And so the alcohol in the mouthwash I used to use caused my cancer.”

Spurgeon had to undergo a tracheotomy, which is a surgery that transferred a vein and skin from his arm to his neck and mouth. Then, he had to transfer skin from his leg to his arm. Originally, the surgeons intended to remove all of Spurgeon’s teeth to treat the cancer, but he took the risk to keep most of his teeth because he wanted to be able to get back to teaching.

“And the bad news is, when they did the surgery, they had to remove the flap at the top of my mouth,” Spurgeon said. “Which meant I could only say two or three words, then I’d have to take a long breath. And so it took a dentist specialist two years after the surgery to build me what’s called an obturator. I actually wear it in my mouth, and if I took it out, my voice would sound totally different and I’d be spitting all over everybody.”

Once he started to recover from his surgery, his doctors called him in to get radiation – despite having clear lymph nodes.

“I talked to the radiologist, and I said, ‘Sir, I really don’t want to do radiation,’ ” Spurgeon said. “I said, ‘I want you to tell me the honest truth because you’re going to get paid whether you do radiation on me or not. ‘If I were your son what would you tell me to do?’ And he said, ‘I’d tell him to get the radiation.’ So then I said ‘Okay.’ ”

He always helps out our kids. I really like him and we love having him at Prosper High School helping our kids.

— Nicholas Jones, principal

Spurgeon visited the VA three times to receive radiation.

“My whole driving force, going through it, going through the surgery, going through the radiation is I wanted to teach again,” Spurgeon said. “And without having the radiation or the obturator, that wasn’t going to happen.”

It took Spurgeon two years to recover from the tracheotomy and surgery, and during that time his son ran his business for him.

“Without being able to get my strength back, (teaching) wasn’t going to happen,” Spurgeon said. “So once I got home from the hospital, I would take a few steps a day, a few more the next day, a few more the next day. And before I knew it, I was walking all over the house. It took a long time to rebuild. It was totally ridiculous. But it has certainly been worth it. And to this day, I work out every single day.”

After his fight against cancer in the 90s, Spurgeon has come back to teaching in schools in 2022 in addition to running his business.

“And then I volunteered to do a few of my company’s trainings here in the Dallas area,” Spurgeon said. “And, I wasn’t sure about voice and it was probably three or 400 people in the audience when I did it. I would always ask people after I’d do a segment, ‘did you understand?’ Because for me, it’s difficult even now when I speak because I don’t sound like the Gary I used to be. And they said, ‘We heard you loud and clear.’ And so then I hit the road and kept going.”

Contributions done by Juliana Cruz.






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Kaya Miller
Kaya Miller, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Kaya Miller, originally from Los Angeles, California, moved to Prosper, Texas in 2017. She attends Prosper High School as a senior. This is her third year on staff, and she is co-editor-in-chief of Eagle Nation Online and editor-in-chief of the print newspaper Eagle Nation Times. Miller is on the Prosper debate team as historian. She is also president of the Spanish Honor Society. Miller is also on the Dallas Rowing Club Juniors team. In her free time, she enjoys baking and playing guitar.
Juliana Cruz
Juliana Cruz, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Juliana Cruz, a former native New Yorker, is a senior at Prosper High School. This is her second year working for Eagle Nation Online and she serves as social media manager, news editor and Editor in Chief. She enjoys writing and wants to continue to expand her coverage. Outside of school and work, she is on the powerlifting team and spends her time with family.
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