It’s a principal’s job to handle a school’s biggest issues. So when Tim Hadley found out that one of his students was being bullied, he didn’t sit idly by. Instead, he took action and taught his pupils a lesson in an unexpected way.
Iowa native Hadley served as the principal at Pekin Middle School, an educational institution in his home state. In 2017 one of Hadley’s students, Jackson Johnston, had to face some difficult news about a beloved family member.
The 11-year-old’s grandfather, who he called Papa Rick, had been diagnosed with Mantle cell lymphoma. The cancer spread through his lymph nodes and blood, and doctors informed the family in late 2016 that Papa Rick’s case was incurable.
However, Johnston’s beloved grandfather still underwent an eight-month cancer treatment, a combination of a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy. The latter is known to lead to bodily hair loss, a potential side effect that worried Papa Rick.
Johnston’s mom and Papa Rick’s daughter, Amber, explained the grandfather’s fears to The Des Moines Register in 2017. “My dad thought it would be an outward sign that he had cancer. He also believed everyone he saw would be thinking, ‘Poor Rick,’ and he was just dreading that.”
Despite his young age, Johnston seemed to recognize his grandfather’s worries. Then the boy came up with an idea. He decided to shave his head in the first weeks of 2017 to stand in solidarity with Papa Rick.
Johnston’s mom reported that his plan brought so much joy to his grandfather, who had been down since his diagnosis. “Jackson shaving his head for Papa was letting him know that, ‘I can’t do much to help you, Papa, I am only 11, but you won’t be alone,’” Amber said.
Unfortunately, though, not everyone received Johnston’s gesture so warmly. In fact, the boy himself had trouble dealing with the trim at first, according to Amber. She said he “loved his bangs” and held the locks of falling hair in his hands during his haircut.
Still, Johnston wasn’t the toughest critic of his haircut. In fact, pleasing his grandfather had helped him feel better about it. But when he returned to school with his freshly-shaved head, his classmates had plenty to say about his buzz cut. Sadly, few of their comments were nice.
Reportedly, students at Pekin Middle School hurled insults at him, such as, “You look like a cancer patient.” Others asked, “Why would you want a cancer patient’s haircut?” And some went with the simpler, “Hey baldy!” Needless to say, this hurt Johnston’s feelings.
The distressed boy confided in his mom after school, telling her just how upset his fellow students had made him. Upon hearing this, Amber reached out to the school’s principal, Tim Hadley, who was also disappointed to hear what had happened.
“We take the issue of bullying seriously,” Hadley explained to The Des Moins Register. But the principal realized that wasn’t enough of a statement in this case. “I thought, if you believe in something, you have to find a way to stand up and literally show your support,” he added.
So, after speaking to Amber, he came up with an even better way to teach his students a lesson. “I was lying in bed, and I thought maybe I will get hold of his mom and ask her to send those clippers in,” Hadley said.
Yes, he decided to show his support for Johnston – and take a stance against bullying – by shaving his head, too. And the very next day, Hadley planned a school assembly so everyone could watch as he had his hair buzzed.
However, Hadley would have a very special hairdresser do the trick. During the 9:00 a.m. assembly, it was Johnston who would shave the principal’s head. And, unlike the day before, he only heard cheers of support from his classmates.
This was all part of Hadley’s plan. He admitted that he could have followed a more traditional protocol to discipline the students who had made fun of Johnston’s haircut, but he thought the assembly would make a stronger impression.
Still, surely he couldn’t have imagined just how much of a statement he would make with his actions. Indeed, Hadley said his students later offered their own experiences with cancer to Johnston as well as words of encouragement and high-fives.
Furthermore, it seemed the special assembly had tugged at the conscience of the bullies. As Hadley explained, “Some of the kids who said something Monday found out that it upset Jackson through this event and apologized. I never addressed any of them individually. They chose to apologize.”
Moreover, the principal’s gesture rippled into the local community, too. People texted and called the Johnston family to extend their support. Other children shaved their heads, and one local cancer patient decided to stop wearing her wig. This all delighted Papa Rick, too.
But, most of all, the experience taught the impressionable students of Pekin Middle School an important lesson. Hadley said, “One of the last things I told the kids at the assembly was you never know what someone else is going through. What they have may look so perfect on Facebook and Instagram, but inside they could be broken, so before you… pass that judgment, stop and think.”