NJ Teachers’ Lounge is excited to continue its Teachers of New Jersey series in 2017. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the series, it will now come out twice a month. This editorial series is curated by photojournalist, Gregory Andrus, creator of the social media series, Portraits of the Jersey Shore. These stories highlight the joys, struggles, and personal reflections that surround being a teacher.
“I teach at Veterans Memorial Elementary School in Brick. I teach second grade, and have been teaching for 17 years. The most important thing I want the kids in my class to learn is that they are members of a team, how to get along with each other, how to have fun, and to be responsible. I tell them, ‘We are a family. When you walk into this room, you are a member of the Fritz family, and you follow the rules. You don’t have to be each other’s best friends, but you do have to be respectful of each other while you are here at the school. That means we help each other out. For the 180 days we are together, we are friends with each other.’ If two kids are not getting along together, sometimes I will have them play board games with each other, to help them figure it out and learn to interact with each other better.
“In December 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through chemotherapy – while teaching. I had surgery, went through radiation, and then had two more surgeries, and I am going in for my fourth surgery this Wednesday. I am in remission now, thank God. That was probably one of the most challenging things ever, telling my kids in class what I was going through. Telling my own kids at home was hard. But then having to tell a group of twenty-five second graders without breaking down… I told them that I had some bad cells in my body, and that I was going to take medicine that was going to help kill all the bad cells, but it was also going to make all of my hair fall out. ”
“Then we read a story called ‘Nowhere Hair,’ which is about a little girl whose mom went through cancer treatments and all the different things she wore on her head, depending on her moods. Some days she wore hats, some days she wore scarves and wigs, and on the days she was confident, she would wear nothing on her head at all. That helped to make it a little less scary for the kids. I never even told them it was cancer, but one of the kids asked me if it was cancer, and I said, yes, it is. They asked where it was, and I told them it was a little lump in my chest.”
“They went through my whole cancer treatment with me, and they knew I had to be out to take my medicine, and they knew when I came back I would have a little box, which was to boost my white blood count. In May 2016, I had to go and have a bilateral mastectomy, and then they had me take precautionary radiation over the summer. I started this school year, but I developed second- and third-degree burns from the radiation. So I wound up having emergency surgery in October. The class went through it all with me. They were so great. They put together this whole thing where they sign languaged the Rachel Platten Fight Song to me, and had this big party for me. I was crying and they were like, ‘Why are you crying, Ms. Fritz?’ And I was like, ‘They are happy tears!’”
“Attitude is everything. One day while I was wearing hats to school last year, I got hat-rash, and it became so uncomfortable to wear hats all the time. But then my 12-year-old son told me, ‘Mom, just own it.’ And I thought to myself, ‘What if one of my kids had to go through this? I would never want them to feel ashamed, so I shouldn’t be ashamed going to class with no hair and nothing else on my head.’ The one little girl who who was making me cards every day said, ‘Ms. Fritz, I wasn’t ready for you to come in without a hat on.’ Most of my students never had any experience in their families with cancer, but those who did have experiences with cancer, ended in death. So the experience they had with me showed them that not everybody who has cancer dies.”
“I am doing better now, the cancer is in remission. I recently won Teacher of the Year for my school. It was announced at our monthly faculty meeting in January. In May, I will go to a breakfast with the other teachers who were picked from Ocean County. It was so nice to be recognized with the award because I really tried my best over the last year and a half to keep a smile on my face and put my best foot forward. It was a great way to start 2017 in a positive way!”