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Pearl of wisdom

Teresa Pearl taught her students an unexpected lesson this year. First grader Autumn Malpass was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer, and over the summer had to undergo chemotherapy.

When the 6-year-old returned to Brookside Elementary School in Gastonia, N.C., at the beginning of the year, she was without her hair and wearing a surgical mask as a protection against germs. She also wore a hat to cover her head.

"Students were looking, laughing, and saying things," Ms. Pearl said. Teachers mentioned the problem at a faculty meeting, and that’s when Ms. Pearl, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago and lost her hair during chemotherapy, decided to shave her head.

"I felt led to do it," she said.

Some students laughed at the teacher’s purposeful baldness. Others were concerned.

The 42-year-old teacher said her action was meant as a lesson for the school’s 700 pupils: "Cancer can take your hair, but it can’t take who you are."

The teacher also talked with her students about cancer and chemotherapy. "I didn’t want to bring up sad feelings," said Ms. Pearl, who knew of students who had lost family members to cancer, but "this was a serious thing to me."

The very next week, Autumn returned to Brookside without her hat.

While Ms. Pearl did not mourn the loss of her hair when she shaved it in support of Autumn, she was afraid "the students wouldn’t comprehend what I was trying to do."

But the students did understand, and they supported Autumn. "Compassion took over," said Ms. Pearl, "and there is much more understanding."

According to her teacher, Autumn is doing well. She has one last chemotherapy session this month.

In the meantime, Ms. Pearl’s hair is growing back—and although she is ready to shave it off again, she doesn’t think that will be necessary.

"The point has been made," she said. "The children know not to judge a person by their looks until they know their story."

Adrienne D. Coles

Vol. 19, Issue 12, Page 3

Published in Print: November 17, 1999, as Take Note

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