‘Hat Day’ honors Grand Lake teacher battling breast cancer
April 19, 2009
First-grader Rowan Kearn wore a towering rolled-up paper bag on her head, festooned with a bloom of purple tissue-paper and cut-out ribbons.
Down the hall, kindergartners crowned themselves with colorful headdresses made out of paper plates ” little warriors more than eager to show them off.
A monkey peaked out of third-grader Brian Irish’s hat and a Colorado Nuggets mountain lion adorned the head of fourth-grader Cassie Leman.
Other classmates masqueraded in hats of pirates, magicians and workers ” one child sported balloons twisted into a fashionable headpiece.
But in Mrs. Simmons’ third-grade class at Grand Lake Elementary School, the teacher herself had a hat that topped all, with cheese, lettuce, onion tomato and a bun, that is.
With a friendly hamburger balanced on her head, Simmons was the honoree in the day’s hat pageantry as the teacher who this year lost her hair in a battle against breast cancer.
The day after Christmas, Simmons’ doctor discovered a lump two centimeters-square during a routine mammogram in Kremmling.
“You feel a whole gamut of emotions,” she said. “You’re worried, you’re nervous, you’re scared. You hear the word ‘cancer’… Just the unknown makes you scared.”
Simmons opted to fight the battle aggressively, undergoing a double mastectomy followed by a series of chemotherapy treatments.
She completed her second-to-last treatment on Friday.
At the onset, Simmons had decided to be open about the cancer with her students.
She talked about her doctor. She explained that she would have surgery.
“I will probably lose my hair,” she told them.
The surgery had forced her to leave the classroom for six weeks, but during that time, she kept in touch with her class by e-mail and letters, as they did with her each week.
“Now remember, you never know what color hair Mrs. Simmons is going to have when she comes back,” she’d say.
When students asked, she’d explain the chemo doesn’t hurt, that she is given medicine through her arm, that the hard part is sitting still for four hours afterward.
“I didn’t want them to be frightened or freaked out,” she said.
“The big thing I wanted the kids to get out of this is that all cancer is not fatal, that it’s treatable,” she said.
Not denying that days can get very difficult, “Overall, you have to be upbeat and positive and roll with the punches,” she said. “Otherwise you’ll be crying all the time.”
After she lost her hair, Simmons started wearing zany wigs and hats to school in the spirit of staying “upbeat.”
For class photos, Simmons wore a purple wig with a cowboy hat.
She’d also conduct lessons wearing the sparkly hat, or her favorite denim hat with embroidered flowers, or she’d surprise her students with bright pink hair.
“And I even went to City Market with my pink hair,” she said.
The school’s official Hat Day and an upcoming “Crazy Hair Day” allow students their own expression of fun in Simmons’ name, days bound to evoke laughs and smiles.
“Students got jealous because I could wear my hat all day, but they couldn’t wear theirs,” Simmons said.
Best of all, the family of this mother of two has assigned her the endearing nickname “cue ball.”
“You just have to laugh and go on,” Simmons said.
“As long as they don’t make me lay down on the pool table, I’m good.”
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.