Sure, teachers at Union Mill Elementary wear candy-colored wigs on Fridays. But that doesn’t mean they’re not serious about educating their students — it shows they’re standing by a colleague.
That colleague is fourth-grade teacher Melissa Kees, now in her fifth year at the school. “I love Union Mill and I wanted to teach at the same school where my kids went,” she said. “They’re now fourth- and sixth-graders there.”
All was fine for Kees until last winter, when she discovered an enlarged lymph node on the left side of her neck. She didn’t go to the doctor until June; and the first week of July, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“I was shocked because I never go to the doctor and wasn’t expecting it,” she said. “I’m 41, and it usually affects people in their 20s and 60s, so it was surprising. And I have no family history of it. But they said it responds well to treatment and I should have a good outcome.”
Meanwhile, Kees has a long road until then. She began chemotherapy in August and, after her third round, her blonde hair fell out shortly after school began in September. It had begun slowly and, said Kees, “I’d told my [teaching] team that, if it kept falling out, I’d just shave it all and wear a wig to school. And teacher Michelle LaBarbera asked if they could wear wigs, too.”
Kees’s father lives in Las Vegas and knew the treatment would probably make her lose her hair. So, she said, “He thought it would be fun to send me some showgirl wigs.” So the night she lost her own hair, she texted her team that they’d all wear the wigs at school, the next day, Sept. 9, and they did. But that was just the start.
“Since then, some of the staff has decided it’ll be Fun Wig Friday each week,” said Kees. “A large portion of them purchased wigs to wear, and my dad sent more, too.” Because she has to undergo chemo for six months total, she won’t finish until the first week of January. So until then, Union Mill will be an extra-colorful place.
“The school administration and staff, and the community, have been incredibly supportive,” said Kees. “If I have to be gone, we have the same substitute who can step in immediately. I have chemo every other Thursday; so I leave school at lunch and come back on Monday, and it gives me time to recover. I feel more tired and have less energy afterward, but I feel more like myself before each treatment.”
Furthermore, she said, “My students have been amazing. Every day, someone brings me in cookies, cupcakes or homemade cards. Or they’ll give me drawings of a purple ribbon, because violet is the Hodgkin’s Lymphoma color. I’m overwhelmed by the love and support that’s been there for me from the entire school and neighborhood community.”
“I’m incredibly grateful and thankful for all of it,” continued Kees. “And on those days when I’m feeling down or sorry for myself, it gives me my strength — and I know I have help, if or when I need it.”