On the day before April vacation ended, fifth grade teachers George Kneeland and Kelly Hornung learned one of their students, Katy Stewart, was diagnosed with liver cancer. On Wednesday, the day school reopened, Hornung and Kneeland sat down with their students to explain the news.
“I had asked Katy what she wanted us to say and one of her biggest concerns was about her hair because she would most likely lose it,” said Hornung. “Her hair was so long and it had kind of become her trademark.”
In the weeks after Kneeland and Hornung explained the effects of chemotherapy treatment to Katy’s fellow classmates, eight boys from her class decided to shave their heads in support of Katy and her recovery.
“The boys said to me, ‘Mr. Kneeland, I didn’t want Katy to be alone.’ I think they didn’t want her to feel like she was on an island,” Kneeland recalled.
Kneeland says most of his fifth grade students are on the cusp of adolescence, and are starting to become more aware of their appearance.
“I think the kids have a truer understanding of what that embarrassment feels like,” said Kneeland of Katy’s experience of losing her hair.
Student Harrison Yardley was one of the first boys to shave his head.
“The school nurse recommended it to a lot of people. The day Katy lost her hair, I got mine shaved,” remembered Harrison. “I think it will help her because now she isn’t the only one who will have a shaved head.”
After Harrison buzzed off his hair, fellow students slowly followed suit. At first, Jaime Cantrell’s son, Otis Eames, was reluctant to shave his head.
“I told him that it would be a nice thing to do and he said, ‘Mommy do you know how embarrassing that would be?’,” Cantrell recalled. “But I told him that Katy is a girl and she would probably be very embarrassed. A week later when we found out that Katy had lost her hair, he came home and said that he had decided to do it.”
“I did it so that she wouldn’t feel left out,” said Otis. “The class is really small so everyone is friends with everyone.”
Both Kneeland and Hornung believe their students share a special kinship with one another, which has helped them deal with Katy’s diagnosis and help her through it.
“Even though the kids have a school family, we are their class family. We have a very close knit environment. Not everyone is best friends, but they all respect each other and they all know how to rally around each other and be there for one another,” said Kneeland.
The students continue to confirm Kneeland’s observations as Katy proceeds with her treatment. Students write on a webpage created for Katy through the website CaringBridge at www.caringbridge.org/visit/katystewart. Hornung says the children have also worked on several projects for Katy, including compiling a scrap book complete with letters they have written to Katy. Hornung said Katy often reads the scrapbook during her chemotherapy treatments.
Because of her medication, Katy is only able to come to school once or twice a week, but she has already seen the boys’ new hairdos.
“At first I don’t think she knew how to react. I think she is really appreciative, but she doesn’t have the words to articulate it,” added Hornung. “But she said to me that she thinks it is pretty cool.”
Teaching assistant Mary Schiavoni and another female student also recently snipped off their tresses and donated the hair to the not-for-profit Locks of Love.
Externally, the students continue to find ways to support Katy, but internally Hornung believes her illness has had a deeper effect on the children’s outlook on life.
“I think this is a good lessen for the students. It shows them the little problems here and there are nothing compared to what Katy has had to go through,” opined Hornung. “They are starting to appreciate the little things in life, when they see her going through something so serious and she still has a positive outlook.”
For now, Katy’s treatment appears to be going well and Hornung and Kneeland say they are continually surprised by the class’ solidarity in helping Katy through this difficult time.
“It has been a pretty emotional ride, but it has been really nice to see how mature her classmates have been,” noted Hornung.
“I couldn’t be prouder of how the class has handled this,” Kneeland declared. “They have been really encouraging.”