He felt helpless over his beloved grandfather’s cancer diagnosis, but 11-year-old Jackson Johnston found a way to show him he wasn’t alone. Knowing the grandpa he calls Papa Rick was starting to lose his hair from chemotherapy treatments, the sixth-grader shaved his head in solidarity.
“I’ve always wanted to be just like him, so I thought I’d shave my head with him to be just like him,” Jackson, 11, told TODAY. He surprised his grandpa with his buzz cut on a recent Sunday visit, telling him: “‘Hey Papa, I thought we could start a new club for shaved heads.’”
While his grandfather, 58-year-old Rick Wilkerson, was touched, Jackson says he was immediately teased at school, with taunts like, “Hey baldy,” and “You look like you have cancer.”
“(Classmates) started making fun of my hair and joked about my hairline,” said Jackson, who attends Pekin Middle School in Packwood, Iowa.
When Principal Tim Hadley learned of the trouble, he considered disciplining the offenders. Instead, he chose to reach a wider audience with a lesson on empathy. He asked Jackson’s mom to send the hair clippers to school, and invited the boy to shave the principal's own head in honor of Papa Rick.
On Tuesday, Jan. 10, Hadley gathered the school’s 175 students and explained the reason behind Jackson’s haircut. He spoke about the importance of standing up for people and for what you believe in, even if it’s different. And then Jackson got to work.
“Before you judge, before you make that comment, before you think about what you’re going to say, really take into account, you don’t know what somebody else’s life’s like. Even if looks great on the outside — Instagram and Facebook look fabulous — they could be broken on the inside,” Hadley told the students afterwards.
“At the end of the day, I just felt like there was a greater opportunity to teach how we approach life,” Hadley told TODAY. “We’re here to educate, and it’s more than just books and curriculum, but about life skills and how we interact with one another.”
Jackson says he had fun shaving his principal’s head. “Then I really realized that someone that’s not even related to my grandpa actually cares he has cancer,” Jackson says. “It meant a lot to me, and it’s probably the nicest thing anyone could have ever done.”
Jackson has been bullied before at school. His mom, Amber Johnston, said her son had been so proud to go to school with his haircut that Monday, but came home declaring it the worst day ever. Since Hadley’s haircut, though, she’s seen a huge change in her son.
“I have never seen that child have so much confidence and so much self-esteem,” Johnston said. “He feels like he’s walking on air.”
At school, Hadley’s seen a change too. “It’s opened up a culture of openness that I hope continues,” he said. “We really do need one another. None of us can do this alone.”
As the story spread, support poured in, from praise for Jackson to the names of doctors and success stories of people with Mantle cell lymphoma, the type of cancer Wilkerson has.
“The one thing he keeps saying is just no matter what else, people from around the world are praying for Papa,” Johnston says of her son.
Jackson admits it was a hard decision to shave his own head. He likes to keep his hair longer in the winter and he likes his bangs. But then he thought of Papa Rick, the man he loves to play and watch sports with, and who taught him to golf and drive his boat.
“I thought of myself like a Justin Bieber without the tattoos,” Jackson says. “At first I thought, 'I love my hair.' Then I thought, 'This is for a family member that has cancer and I don’t want him to go through this alone.'”
“He’s been my role model forever,” Jackson says.
At the Johnston home, the hair clippers are sitting out on a shelf in full view, a reminder of all the good that has come from them.
“I told my grandpa,” Jackson says, “that I’d keep it shaved until he went into remission.”
TODAY.com contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam