The first slap

The first slap
This photo was taken the day after I was diagnosed, and it is my first bitch slap at cancer. I'm the one with the icepack symbolically placed on my boob. My teammates changed our team's uniform to pink at the last minute, and I came off the soccer field that night with one goal and a whole lot of love. Several of these women are my close friends, but they are all warriors, and they all helped me set the tone for this fight.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Are you afraid?"

One of the awesome things about my job as an educational researcher is that I often get to spend time in classrooms and schools, interacting with thoughtful teachers and students. As some of you know, I'm currently conducting a research project in a fourth grade bilingual classroom, and the classroom teacher is the co-principal investigator of the study. I've been spending one to three hours, two to three days a week, in this classroom since September, and that will continue through the remainder of the school year. In the process, I've gotten to know the teacher and the students fairly well. When my breast cancer diagnosis came down in November, my data collection activities were interrupted as I devoted huge amounts of time to meeting with doctors, undergoing various procedures, and planning out and beginning treatment. And, oh yeah, getting my emotional life under some semblance of control.

I told the teacher I'm working with about my diagnosis right away so that she wouldn't wonder what was going on, and because she has become a professional companion and friend. But I didn't tell her students; at least not right away. I wasn't sure how, and I also just wasn't there at the school as much. I had planned to tell them before the holiday break, but I was only in the classroom for short spurts here and there during December, and the time didn't seem right when I was there. By the time I resumed regular data collection activities in January, I had lost a significant amount of hair, and was wearing hats regularly. The teacher let me know that she hadn't told them yet, and she asked me if I wanted to tell them. Right then, on that day, in that moment. I hadn't been planning on it, and was a bit worried about it. I wasn't worried about whether they should know or what they would do with the information. Instead, I was worried that I would break down in the process. The teacher encouraged me, however, remarking that sometimes it's good for young people to see others' emotions and how they work through difficult things. She was right. So, then and there, she grouped her 14 kids into a circle on the carpet, and sitting down in the circle, I told them. I didn't break down, but I came pretty close.

I actually think I didn't cry because I was so focused on finding the words in Spanish to explain what was going on. (The teacher speaks in Spanish with them in the mornings and English in the afternoons, and it was mid-morning.) But the students helped me out. When I didn't know a word in Spanish, I would provide it in English, and they would then help me learn the Spanish word. This process prompted a few side discussions among the students as they debated the best translations for things like "chemotherapy" "breast cancer" and "tumor shrinkage." What really struck me, though, were the questions that these young people asked: "What is it about the treatments that makes your hair fall out?" "Is cancer contagious?" "What does cancer look like?" "Are you going to be okay?" "Did you cry when you found out?" "Do your kids know?" "Are you afraid?"

It's important to note that these are nine and ten year old kids who know about joy and pain--serious joy and pain. Actually, I think most kids know about serious joy. Like many young people, they have had experiences like having a new baby sister or brother born, or a parent getting married to their partner, or going to their uncle's ranch to go horseback riding, or getting a new dog. But many of them have also experienced serious pain: A father disappearing, parents going to jail, a cousin or uncle dying in an accident, a family member getting deported, or a parent getting sick. And they've written about their experiences. The teacher introduced them to the memoir genre early in the school year, and they wrote down their stories--stories that make you smile, laugh, and cry. Stories that make you ask "Why." Stories that make you wonder what the hell policy-makers are thinking when they want to impose curricula enforcing skill, drill and kill instruction and battery upon battery of standardized tests. In these stories, they wrote about their "moments of change" (momentos de cambio) in their lives. When I told them my news, they knew what kinds of questions to ask because despite their young ages, they'd also had significant moments of change--experiences that have become locations from which to understand the world, understand others, and from which to write and read. And on that day, in that circle on the carpet, they recognized that I, too, had experienced a momento de cambio, and they told me as much: "Maestra, you had a momento de cambio." "I think you should write about it." Yes, I will, I told them. And I am. And it helps.


  1. Lara,
    I am sitting in my office in New Zealand and after reading this piece what I feel is honored to be your friend and colleague. I am grateful for the space that you fill in my life.

  2. Thanks, Jan! :-) Also, one postscript for curious readers: I intentionally left off the name of the teacher/my co-PI as I didn't want to risk revealing the identities of her students by association with her name. Seems weird to refer to her as "the teacher" rather than by name, but it's necessary so as not to compromise the students' confidentiality.


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