I had been thinking and worrying about Maddie’s first day of high school all summer. Heck, I’d been thinking about it for years. Maddie, like her sisters, was fortunate to attend a very small catholic elementary school — grades K through 8. Maddie was diagnosed with alopecia in October of her kindergarten year at Sacred Heart, so the 12 kids that she graduated from eighth grade with did not remember her with hair. I would like to say they were protective of her, but it went deeper than that. They didn’t see any reason to be protective of her–she was just Maddie. Silly, artistic, smart, sometimes clumsy, always friendly Maddie. I got the feeling if Maddie’s classmates were asked what her hair color was, they might hesitate because it barely resonated with them that Maddie was bald.
Maddie’s eighth grade graduation night was surprisingly emotional for Maddie, her Dad, and me. The unspoken thought among the three of us, “Why do we have to leave our safety zone? Everything here is perfect,” caused us all to feel heavy-hearted, nostalgic, even frightened.
It was not as if Maddie was going on to a huge high school. Berks Catholic has about 200 freshman, but going from a class of 12 to a class of 200, from a school of 150 to a school of 750 was a huge jump, especially for a girl with no hair. Maddie had her 12 classmates and a few other students she knew from some of the other feeder schools. She had her older sister, Helena, who is a sophomore, and all of her friends. She joined the tennis team, which was another huge advantage to starting fresh in a new school. Helena and her friends and the girls on the tennis team were very welcoming and encouraging to Maddie as she prepared for her first day at Berks Catholic.
As we approached the school on the first day, Maddie was a little nervous, as any freshman would be. In the car line, she saw that her best friend, Devon, was only a few cars ahead of us. She urged me to “catch up.” We watched Devon disappear into the doors of the school, but felt content knowing she was in there surely waiting for Maddie.
As Maddie got out of the car, I couldn’t help but notice a girl in the car in front of us. She was blatantly staring at Maddie. A freshman herself, she was probably not intentionally staring and was possibly even nervous herself, but she wouldn’t take her eyes off of Maddie. I was flooded with emotion as I watched my summer nightmare unfold before my eyes. For nine years, I dropped Maddie off at a school where she didn’t have to worry about bullies, starers, questions, or comments. How was she going to handle this?
Just as I was about to jump out of my car and take her back to eighth grade where she would be safe and secure, I saw a second girl get out of the same car. It was Lynn, who was also a freshman on the tennis team. I watched her mouth, “Hi Maddie,” and the three girls walked into school together. I choked back my tears and realized that even though my biggest fear had just become a reality, Maddie had been unscathed by it. She hadn’t even noticed the starer, and she was fine. She was going to be fine. She is going to be fine.
A few weeks have passed, and just yesterday Maddie told me that a new friend of hers had passed her a note saying, “I am sorry you have cancer; I am here for you.” Again this is a scenario that I didn’t want Maddie to have to encounter. But once again, Maddie handled it. She explained to the girl that she had alopecia, and, of course, her friend was relieved.
I really think that Maddie is going to be fine.