“If I can survive cancer, then you can survive flunking an algebra test,” reads one of my seventh grade students. He has asked to rehearse a speech he has to deliver in front of a crowd at the local high school tonight at an annual fundraiser for cancer victims during our Language Arts class. His speech describes his fight to overcome this pernicious enemy, one that began stalking him in third grade, and after a retreat for more than a year, returned to assail him once again last year near Christmas. He says that he would have surrendered, so weak and rotten has he felt, but without him, his brother and sister, would no longer be triplets. They would have lost their third. He is on what he calls, “maintenance chemo,” much of it administered at home, a happy change from the weekend stays at CHoP, Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania. Matter-of-factly he details what the future holds for him and is happy, if subdued, that he has been given another reprieve.
There is already so much to what he says, but there is more. The high school where this fundraiser takes place has struggled with its reputation as a school with a suicide cluster. In the past five years, seven students have killed themselves. When this courageous young man speaks, he sends a message about cancer, but he also sends a message about resilience and the will to hold onto life and love in the face of daunting odds.
Our classroom is silent as he finishes, then loud with applause. On the wall behind him is the quote from Anne Frank: “Despite everything I believe that people are really good at heart.” Resilient spirits.