As a literature teacher for fifth through seventh graders at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Bethesda, Kate Truax is known for introducing students to classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Old Man and the Sea, and trying to instill in them a love for reading good books. She is also known for sometimes surprising her kids, like the April Fool's Day she put water on the boys' chairs. A red file cabinet near her desk is filled with plastic balls that she sometimes throws to students when it's their turn to answer a question.

Recently, though, the students at Our Lady of Lourdes had a surprise for her, one that she, and they, will likely never forget.

After she had been diagnosed with leukemia that required immediate treatment at Johns Hopkins in her native Baltimore, Truax continued to keep in touch with her students via a Skype connection set up in the school library on a smart board. But at one point, she confided to a fellow faculty member that her treatment was causing her to lose her hair, and she wasn't sure she wanted the kids to see her that way.

But some days later, that colleague asked her to do one more Skype communication with the kids. With the students again crowded into the library, their teacher appeared on screen. As she focused in on the students at Lourdes, she broke into a smile as she saw that nearly 60 of the boys had shaved their heads to be in solidarity with her. The children smiled back at her, as she exclaimed, "Oh my goodness, you guys are rock stars!"

By last week, 71 boys currently attending Our Lady of Lourdes and another dozen or so recent graduates had their heads shaved, "for Miss Truax." An equal number or even more of the school's girls had pledged to grow their hair long for the "Locks for Love" program, and then later this year to have their hair cut to provide wigs for cancer patients.

The message the boys were sending to their teacher is "that we're all here for her," said seventh grader Andrew Lutes. In school, he said the boys don't talk about what they did, but outside when people ask why he cut his hair off, he tells them, "That my teacher has leukemia, and we shaved our heads for her."

Fourth grade teacher Rich Dwyer, who was a teaching assistant in her class last year, praised the students, saying, "That's the cool thing. These guys don't think it's a big deal. They heard shaving their heads might bring a smile to Miss Truax's face, and they lined up" to get their heads shaved.
The teacher said the students' example taught him how far they're willing to go to show their thanks, and to show how much they care.

"Cards are nice, Andrew, but this is cool," he told the student, as they were being interviewed by a reporter in the principal's office.

Dwyer, who was one of the first to get his head shaved during a morning prayer assembly in the school gym, said it was the first time he did that voluntarily. "Usually I lose a bet" before getting his head shaved, he explained.

Another leader in the effort, assistant principal David Long, described it as a "small thing for Miss Truax." On a recent school day, the veteran of the first Iraq War wore a red sweatshirt that read "U.S. Army" on the front, and in a gravelly voice with a quick, joking delivery, he said, "Some kids look like Olympic swimmers (afterward), and others look like me!"

A former infantryman, he said, "I'm a soldier squared. The only thing I love more than the Army is the Church."

As they were thinking about how to help Truax, the assistant principal remembered something that Msgr. Edward Filardi, Lourdes' pastor, had said: "As Catholics, we don't pray as a last resort, we pray as a first resort."

So Our Lady of Lourdes School organized a Eucharistic Adoration for 60 hours straight this past week, with students, parents, teachers and parishioners praying the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament for Truax.

"It's beautiful to see how students, families and teachers have responded, even in the middle of the night," the pastor said. Prayer, he said, provides "a means of calling on God's grace on this situation." Kneeling together, they pray for healing for their teacher, and also for peace of heart and for trust in God, the priest said.

On a recent afternoon, several students prayed in the school's basement chapel, including a boy with his head shaved.

"It (prayer) is the best thing we could do to help her," said Andrew Lutes, the seventh grader.

Dwyer said the Adoration demonstrates "how much this community cares." The teacher added, "I had my fourth graders (in the chapel) for an hour yesterday. I can't get these kids to sit still for anything. For an hour, not a whisper, not a rustle!"

Long, who joined members of the school community in late night Adoration, described how moving it has been to witness the faith of the students and their parents, and their love toward the teacher. "I know we're getting it right, that's how I feel," he said.

Patricia McGann, Lourdes' principal, praised the leadership of Long and Dwyer, and she described the sight of that school assembly when the students followed the example of those teachers and lined up to get their heads shaved, after getting their parents' permission. For many of the boys, it was the first time they were bald since they were babies.

"The spirit of the school is that we take care of each other," she said. "One child after another came up and said, 'I'm next!'" Within a few hours, 58 boys had their heads shaved, and they were ready for the Skype connection with Truax.

The Eucharistic Adoration, McGann added, is "the key piece" of the school's outreach to their teacher.

Six years ago when McGann became principal, the first teacher she hired was Truax. "She's just one of the teachers every kid in the building knows her and loves her."

Two years ago, Truax was diagnosed with breast cancer, but the principal noted that the teacher didn't miss a single day of school then as she was undergoing chemotherapy. She said students will remember for the rest of their lives how their teacher with cancer came to school each day, "to be there for them."

Now, the students say it's their turn. "She (Miss Truax) has always been there for us, and it's good for us to show we're there for her," said fifth grader Helena Orrego, who is among many girls at the school growing her hair long for the "Locks for Love" drive.

The prayer effort, and the hair effort, by the boys and girls, "strengthened the whole school's faith, and (shows) how we can improve people's lives, by doing little things with great love," Orrego said.

Regarding Locks for Love, seventh grader Anna Sophia Capizzi said, "We (girls) can't shave our heads. It (this drive) is something girls can do for Miss Truax, and for people with cancer... Miss Truax has done a lot for us, and Lourdes is giving back."

Three Lourdes fifth grade boys, all with their heads shaved, also spoke about their bond with their teacher. Alex Ballestero said he had his head shaved because, "I wanted to do something to say I don't really care about the hair thing." For him, one drawback was that his grandparents who came to pick him up after school that day couldn't find him at first, because they didn't recognize him.

Antonio Gutierrez said of Truax, "She never doubts you. She never gives up on you. She keeps helping you until you understand it."

Marco Espina said his teacher has always been very nice to him, and he wanted to do something nice for her. Remembering the day he had his head shaved, he smiled and said, "I was really happy. In my whole life, that might be the nicest thing I'll do."

Right after the Skype connection, when Truax was surprised by the sight of 58 bald boys and a few bald teachers, she texted to Long, "It seems very paradoxical that a person locked away in a hospital with leukemia and pneumonia, could feel this happy, gratified and loved, and that's most definitely how I feel. Thanks for making it such a wonderful day, and showing everyone what they are capable of, and how wonderful Lourdes is."

In her own show of solidarity, Truax signed the text, "Baldies for Life."

As members of the Lourdes community await the return of their teacher, life goes on at the school. Newly bald boys walk down the hallway, sit in classrooms, and play soccer during recess. Teachers and some parents and students arrive early for the 7 a.m. Mass, to pray for Truax. Substitute teachers run her literature classes, where students learn lessons about perseverance and not being defeated as they read The Old Man and the Sea and they reflect on not judging people by their appearance after reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

In a phone interview last week, Truax reflected on the faith and the love of the Our Lady of Lourdes School family. "The biggest thing is the kids. They don't just learn about the faith. They're expected to live it."

Growing up in Baltimore, Truax always wanted to be a teacher, and she regards teaching in a Catholic school as a vocation. Every day in the classroom, she learns something from her students, and she learned something special about them during that recent Skype connection.

"I was in awe of them," she said. The thought of losing her hair had seemed to her as a "symbol of being sick, now I look sick. They (the kids) turned it into something positive."

Knowing that the students are praying for her, along with losing or growing their hair on her behalf, has given her strength, Truax said.

This illness, she added, "is tough. It's really hard. I just feel blessed, and I feel lucky all this stuff is emerging out of it. I feel like I'm in It's a Wonderful Life."

And it's not about her, it's about the kids, it always has been, she said. "It isn't about me. They would do this for anyone."

Seeing their faith and love "is an overwhelmingly beautiful thing," and she said more than ever, she feels motivated "to get back to them."