Being a high school teacher is a lot like being in high school in general. When you make the slightest change in appearance or attitude, the faculty speculates and the students comment. These little known facts are why I avoided telling either until I had all the details. So I adorned pretty much every outfit with a scarf to hide the very visible three inch lymph node biopsy scar that was just to the right of the center of my throat. I didn’t think telling my students I was in a gang fight was quite appropriate, so I covered it up for the time being. Once I finally had some definitives like when chemo was going to begin, the duration of my treatment, and potential issues; I felt as though I could finally tell my students why all the scarves and my suddenly trendy chic new short hair cut.
I spoke with my administrative team about how to best approach this difficult subject with my students ranging from eighth to twelfth grade. I was most concerned with my seniors because they lost a dear friend to a form of brain cancer (Gliomatosis Cerebri) the previous winter. She had fought long and hard for the majority of their high school career and the word cancer alone dredged up awful memories and raw emotions for her closest friends, all of which presently sat in my Advanced Placement European History class. I knew I needed to tell them first, so the news would not leak out to them before they heard it from me. Administration agreed that this particular group needed to be the first ones told and they thought it would be better if the conversation also included the guidance counselor – Jaime, who happens to be one of my dear friends. I spoke with her as well as the adjustment counselor as to how to proceed, but in the end I chose to to tell them the way I would tell them anything- straight forward and direct. I am not one for sugar coating anything and this bombshell would be no different. Once I told them my other classes would be easy, after all my other classes hadn’t developed a relationship with me over the past four years.
I sat down at the back table, where we always sit, and waited for everyone to arrive. They exchanged confused looks because normally Jaime was not part of class. I explained that I needed to tell them something rather important and she was here to support both me and them. They were aware of my absences as of late and were smart enough to connect the dots of how the remainder of this conversation was going to go. I explained to them that I was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma a few weeks ago and would need to undergo chemotherapy treatments that may have an impact on my physical, emotional, and mental state. I joked that I didn’t want them to think I had a Britney Spears moment and just shaved my head for no reason or that I decided to try some new fad diet, etc. I wanted to be as honest and as positive with them as possible. I was very optimistic about my situation and was determined not to let my cancer dictate my life. I explained that I fully intended to continue working and that I would still be their teacher. Nothing would change other than that I would have to miss class on Wednesday every other week and potentially some other days. They looked at each other with wide eyes, the ones I expected to cry -cried, one of the boys acted distracted and the other was not impressed by my humor; but all in all it went very well. They didn’t ask any specific questions, so I assumed they were all set and began class as usual. Apparently they waited until next period to flood guidance and talk about it with Jaime.
After I told my seniors, I felt much more comfortable giving a similar spiel to my eighth and ninth graders. I opened the floor for questions. I wanted all of my students to know that they could ask anything they wanted pertaining to my cancer and how this may impact them. I saw this as an opportunity to be completely transparent and to show them that how you react to the bad things that happen in your life makes all the difference. It was one of those rare teachable moments, the kind you always hear about on television but rarely have in the actual classroom – at least on this level anyhow. I refused to let my cancer diagnosis disrupt my life or my otherwise cheerful demeanor. Some asked how I could possibly be so optimistic. Others asked specifics about Hodgkins and the treatment. They asked some really good questions, all of which I tried my best to answer for them.
I have to admit the two days that it took to tell all of my classes were the hardest days of my teaching career. It was like being in the hot seat at the front of the room. I was unsure of their reactions and they were equally as unsure of what I intended to tell them. I also found it difficult because I have spent the duration of my ten year career keeping the details of my life private and for the first time that was not possible. It was as if my teacher self collided into my ‘real’ self in front of an audience. And once it was over, it was a huge relief. I could stop hiding behind my scarves for a little while at least until my hair fell out.
On a side note for those of you wondering, my news had absolutely no impact on their behavior or their expectations. They treated me no differently than prior to my cancer confession. And I am so grateful for it!