It all started with a ‘stache.
Sure, I had participated in Movember every November since 2011 to raise money for Men’s cancer and mental health. But I had always shaved off the mustache on December 1, much to the delight of my patient and accommodating wife, Mary Beth, who enjoys facial hair about as much as washing her face with heavy grit sandpaper.
This year, however, was different.
My team teacher at Covington School, Karen Smallwood Fitzgerald, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2013. Karen left the classroom and quickly underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation throughout the course of that school year. After enduring a painful and challenging recovery, Karen was back on the first day of school, 2014, ready to serve her students. A week later, a visit to her doctor revealed that the cancer was back and that it had metastasized to her lymph nodes. Karen hurriedly left the classroom again, and started a new round of chemotherapy. Despite a passionate will to fight, Karen lost her battle with breast cancer in January of 2015.
Our school community felt the need to help any way we could. A team of teachers and parents created Team Fitz in the summer of 2014 and raised thousands of dollars for Race for the Cure, walking in Karen’s honor. While Karen was fighting against cancer in the fall of 2014, our school community held the Fitz Walk at the end of October, which raised nearly 40,000 dollars for Karen’s care. Through t-shirt sales and pink-out Fridays, an idea was hatched by some 7th and 8th grade students who were former students of Mrs. Fitzgerald. A knock on my classroom door, revealed these eager girls who were members of the BCS Spirit Team, dedicated to performing works of service for our community. They were accompanied by a dynamic parent volunteer named Alicia Acey, who helped the girls formulate the next steps.
“Mr Joe? We were wondering if we could use your Movember mustache to raise more money for Mrs. Fitz?”
In the spring of 2012, I was one of five teachers who had shaved their head for hunger relief, so these students knew that I was no stranger to “hair-brained” schemes to raise awareness and funds for a cause.
“Sure, girls,” came my instant reply. “I’ll do anything to help Mrs. Fitz.”
The idea was hatched. The BCS Spirit Committee designed a logo of our school mascot, the Covington Cobra, with a handlebar mustache on its face. Mrs. Acey had t-shirts printed up that featured this image with the slogan “Students Against Mustaches”. When I was presented with my shirt, I hung it proudly in my classroom, right next to the door, for all to see. The idea was that my mustache would be a hook to raise money for Race for the Cure, as Team Fitz was gearing up again to walk again in 2015, this time, in memory of Karen and her valiant effort against the disease. When families donated money to Team Fitz, their name would be entered into a drawing. Two lucky students’ would be selected to use my electric clippers and shave off a half of the ‘stache onstage in front of the kids during lunch.
Much to Mary Beth’s dismay and the delight of my students and kids at home, my mustache was turning into an iconic cookie duster of the handlebar variety, a style which was selected by a popular vote of the students on my team, and required several youtube tutorials and the purchase of Firehouse mustache wax to perfect. Not to mention, an extended growing season.
“So, when are you going to shave it off?” Mary Beth would ask, as the fall became winter and then spring.
“Soon,” was all I could muster, with inserted hope in my voice.
The truth is, I had received a significant number of compliments on my mustache from a random assortment of admirers, usually men and children. Everyone from a passing pedestrian on the Las Vegas strip to a server at our local diner to the bagger at the grocery store would remark, “Nice mustache!” Part of me wanted to keep it.
While my nose neighbor took on a life of its own, it always served as a reminder of the endurance and strength that embodied Karen’s fight for her life. She continued to dedicate herself to her daughters, Mackenzie and Erin, and her fiancée, Malcolm, whom she was actually able to marry, exactly one week before she died. Karen went forward in peace and love.
I felt like every time someone made a positive comment, it was Karen herself who was reminding me that I was doing this for something larger than myself. This was part of the grieving process, and I was healing. I told everyone who asked the story behind the ‘stache, and how I was growing it, to raise money for Race for the Cure, in Karen’s memory.
Rick Joseph with students about to shave his mustache.
As we dedicated the “Fitz-Hive” reading corner in our school media center in honor of Mrs. Fitz, the day neared for the big “shave-off.” Finally, on June 5, after seven months of growth, the mustache was finally finished. I prepared my students by showing them “How to Kill a Mustache” a hilarious video by Youtubers, Rhett and Link. Two grade 3/4 students were chosen, and I brought my clippers to school for the event, to be held on the stage in our cafeteria in front of 200 3rd and 4th graders.
As I faced the kids, I felt compelled to address everyone and articulate the reason behind the mustache. “You might be wondering why I have this handlebar mustache,” I began. “Well, it’s not because it looks cool, or because I like it all that much. Actually, my wife can’t wait to see me without it.” I smiled.
“The reason I grew this was to honor someone who is no longer with us, but who supports us in spirit every day.”
The murmurs of “Mrs. Fitz” rippled from table to table through the cafeteria.
“Yes, Mrs. Fitz. Mrs. Fitz was the type of person who loved people. She loved being a teacher and working with children just like each one of you. She enjoyed reading aloud and would get excited when she could bring a character to life and make you feel like you had entered the world of the story. One of her favorite things to do was to teach kids how to write exciting stories and prove their ideas with good reasons. She believed that kids mattered and that their voices should be heard, not just by other kids but by adults as well. She knew that kids’ hearts are pure, and that we should listen when they speak.”
“You don’t have to grow a mustache to celebrate Mrs. Fitz and her life. You can do something that Mrs. Fitz used to do every day. Just smile. Smile at the people around you. Smile at someone you pass in the hallway, even if you don’t know them. Maybe even say “hello.” You never know, your kindness just might make someone’s day.
“This is what Mrs. Fitz would want. This is the message that she leaves for us today. Remember to smile.”
It all started with a ‘stache.
Rick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher of 5th and 6th grade students at Birmingham Covington School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. He was named the 2015-16 Michigan Teacher of the year. He believes in the power of multi-age education to break down barriers in traditional school settings. Rick advocates for the meaningful use of digital tools on a daily basis to help create meaning and relevance for all learners. He is a member of the Core Leadership Team of the Oakland Writing Project.