PHILADELPHIA -- Mary Polakow, a teacher at Blessed Trinity Catholic School, never saw it coming.
She didn't suspect anything when asked if she could help out with an assembly in the gymnasium. It wasn't until Polakow got to the door that she noticed that the 600-plus students seemed unusually quiet. But as soon as she walked in and was greeted with shouts and wildly waving Phillies rally towels, she started to put the pieces together.
In advance of Friday night's ENGIE Phillies Teacher Appreciation Night at Citizens Bank Park, Polakow had been chosen as a Teacher All-Star. Making the surprise even more emotional was the fact that she just finished her final round of chemotherapy to battle breast cancer and had recently returned to the classroom full time.
Waiting for Polakow at the podium were Phillies first baseman Brock Stassi, a former substitute teacher; 1983 National League Championship Series MVP Gary Matthews; the Phillie Phanatic; and director of public affairs Scott Palmer.
"This is unreal that the Phillies would come in for this and do all this," said Polakow, who received a personalized Phillies jersey. "I have to say that my kids are the reason I do this. You come in and you teach and you try to make a difference in someone's life. And when they do something like this, you don't expect it, but there's a feeling inside that you guess you made a difference."
Polakow was one of 10 Teacher All-Stars who were selected to be saluted before Friday night's game against the Nationals based in part on essays submitted by students. Hers was written by sixth-grader Megan LoMastro, who read it to the assembly. It said in part:
"Mrs. Polakow is a phenomenal teacher. She has taught me so many things including how to succeed in the classroom. The most important thing she has taught me is to remain optimistic and hopeful no matter what life throws at you."
Stassi and Matthews added their congratulations.
"I can remember teachers when I was your guys' age who not only inspired me but taught me life lessons," Stassi told the kids, many of whom wore Phillies gear, including shirts with names like Franco, Nola, Vitcorino, Howard, Utley, Halladay, Brown, Lee, Hamels, Pence, Ruiz, Thome and Oswalt on the back.
Said Matthews: "MVPs make other people better. She has certainly, certainly done that."
Polakow, who teaches fourth grade but also is in the classroom for some of the younger students and is a technology instructor for some of the older kids, was clearly elated by the entire experience, dancing and allowing her love for the student body and faculty to show.
"I have a whole new lease on life," she told them. "It's just amazing to be alive."
They unabashedly returned the affection. By the end of the assembly, many were wearing T-shirts that said: "Today's Lesson. Fight for Mrs. Polakow."
When cancer patients finish their chemotherapy, they ring a bell to celebrate the milestone. Because of that, and in a nod to the Home Run Bell at Citizens Bank Party, Palmer presented Polakow with a replica Liberty Bell and asked her to ring it for the audience.
With a wide grin, Polakow did. That set off another round of cheers before she took a victory lap around the gym.
Paul Hagen, a reporter for MLB.com, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award in 2013 for a lifetime of excellence in baseball writing. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.