November 2010 Issue
October 24, 2010

First Person: For the love of Jake

Author: Valerie Hecht
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Valerie Hecht's second-graders shaved their heads in solidarity with for their classmate, Jake, center, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia. Even Mrs. Hecht, shown left of Jake and his parents, Ken and Deb Amato, shaved her head.

As a seasoned teacher I have had contact with hundreds of students and their parents. Sometimes they have just as much of an impact on me as I have on them.

Four years ago Jake was diagnosed with leukemia. His brother was in my first-grade class and moved up with me to second grade the following year. Last year I had Jake in my class. In January he went into remission and we all celebrated.

We all kidded Jake and told him no more special privileges — he was just like everybody else. What a smile I received when he heard that.

On June 2, I learned that Jake's leukemia was back. It was devastating to him, his family, the kids in the class, all the parents, and me. How could I help him? Everyone sent me notes asking what they could do.

I asked my class and his brother's class to donate money so I could buy gift cards to local restaurants so the family didn't have to worry about preparing meals. His brother's teachers wanted to help, too.

Then Jake's mom told me that he dreaded the thought that his hair was going to fall out again. He was so sad and afraid the kids would make fun of him.

After a heart-to-heart discussion, the children decided they should shave their heads so they would look like Jake. I told them I would shave my head for the girls. Now Jake would be known as the boy who got Mrs. Hecht to shave her head, not the boy without hair.

Things started to spiral. Parents who work as hairdressers volunteered their services. Another parent researched the length of hair needed to donate to "Locks of Love" because the girls wanted to do something too.

The technology department began planning a video conference so Jake could watch us shave our heads.

The next thing we knew the media wanted to come and record it so they could share the class's compassion.

We then learned that Jake could come to school if he wore a mask. So he wouldn't feel different, the class told him we would all wear masks, too.

On the last day of school, all the boys and I shaved our heads. Four girls had their hair cut and donated their tresses to Locks of Love. (Others grew their hair over the summer and plan to donate their hair once it's long enough.) 

The biggest surprise came as I walked out of the building with my class. The entire playground was filled with parents who were picking up their children. They stopped, gathered around and applauded us for what we had done.

Who knew that one small act of kindness would have such an impact on the entire community.

Postscript: Jake has a long recovery ahead. He is in the hospital now and will be for at least another month. When he returns home, he will be in isolation for one year. No visitors, no takeout, no contact, except immediate family and myself. (I will tutor him for the year.)

It's a long road, but hopefully one with a happy ending.

Valerie Hecht is a member of the Farmingdale Teachers Association.