As the snow dumped down on an ordinary weekday morning in December of 2008, Linda Hoskins received an alert on her phone informing her that classes would be cancelled at Albia High School and elsewhere that day. This news surely excited a majority of schoolchildren across the community, as it meant they could spend the afternoon sledding, goofing off with friends, lounging in sweatpants, whatever they pleased. But Hoskins, the high school principal in the cozy town of 3,500, lay in bed pumping her fists in silent celebration for a different reason.
“Inside I was cheering because nobody else got to be at school either,” she said.
Hoskins, 54 at the time, was in the middle of fighting off Hodgkin’s Lymphoma with chemotherapy. Her doctor had ordered her to stay home that week while her immune system and energy level were low. Impressively, she missed only 13 and a half days that school year, but it was 13 and a half too many for her liking.
“I hated every day I had to be gone from Albia High School,” recalls Hoskins today, sitting in her office chair surrounded by the many pictures, photos and notes that take care of the interior decorating.
Playing a math game in her mind, she would subtract one from her total-days-missed count every time a snow day occurred, which happened a few times that winter. This brought the official total down to 11. Not perfect, but better.
When the time came to address her staff with the news that she had cancer, Hoskins couldn’t bring herself to say the word no matter how many times she had rehearsed it in front of the mirror. She stayed strong, following her motto, “Fake it ‘til you know it,” not wanting anyone to worry. The opening icebreaker in the form of a story that the nurse had called her Linda “Hodgkins” by mistake at her last visit cracked a few smiles, but she had to work hard to hold the tears back during that meeting. Not everyone else in the room followed suit.
“I wanted to send a message that Albia High School was going to be fine,” Hoskins said.
Albia being an hour and a half drive from Des Moines, it’s not easy for Hoskins to get to the state capital where most of the other 13 cancer survivors who are embarking on the hike to Mt. Everest next week workout as a group. Therefore, Hoskins has been training alone. When her school is empty, she pulls out the bleachers and runs the stairs in the gym she knows so well.
Hoskins has been on the administration for 14 years at Albia High School, including 11 of them as head principal. She has been married to her husband Steve for 36 years, is a mother of five (including her oldest son Matt, who will accompany his mother on her journey to Nepal) and has coached cross-country, basketball, softball and boys’ tennis. She admits to being anal, a list-maker and detail-oriented, but she is also kind and compassionate and champions the cause for the underdog. She was behind the inception of an alternative school and has attended every homecoming for the 34 years she’s been an educator except for one. Though she tried to.
She felt wobbly in the shower, but she still planned to speak at the ceremony. She felt faint in the football field press box, but she chalked it up to the fresh paint job. She snuck away to her office to gather herself, but her coworkers found her and convinced her to go home. The chemo treatment was too much.
“It just didn’t happen,” she said. “I was pretty devastated. It made me recognize I wasn’t going to have this list I would be able to check off. I wasn’t going to be in control.”
Hoskins managed to attend the dance the next evening, so the weekend wasn’t a complete loss.
“It’s hard to get anything over on Mrs. H,” said Hoskins, using the nickname her students gave her a long time ago.
So when she discovered that her entire family, community, staff and students had collectively kept a secret from her, she was floored.
“I was had,” she says now with a smirk and a shake of the head.
The execution of the plan began with a few phone calls to Hoskins while she rested at home during her lunch break on one of the many days she came to work during her illness. She thought it was out of the ordinary that her husband, secretary, and friend all called to check on her within the same hour, but she brushed it off as coincidental.
An early-afternoon board meeting was abruptly interruption informing Hoskins that there had been a brawl at her school. Fights rarely happened. And between two best friends!
The superintendant offered to drive her over to act as an escort in case the situation got out of control. Hoskins took him up on it. He parked behind the school, which Hoskins found odd. When she entered the school, her activities director asked if she could take a look at a banner setup for a winter sports awards assembly that was taking place that afternoon. Hoskins said she had a fight to deal with. Where were the two troublemakers?
Hoskins hurried into the gymnasium where the surprise culminated. The band fired up the fight song. The entire middle school and high school student body donned purple and green shirts which read “Team Hoskins: Faith, Community, Family, School.”
“I don’t know how they cooked this up without me knowing it,” Hoskins said of one of the most powerful afternoons of her life.
Her friends were there, her husband and children, extended family members. They were all introduced to the familiar Chicago Bulls’ theme song.
Even the Channel 5 news crew showed up. And, out of place, six beauticians. They were there to cut off students’ hair in honor of Mrs. H losing hers. Girls donated their lengths to Locks of Love. Boys shed all of it. Ironically, Hoskins hair only thinned and never fell out. But that wasn’t the point.
“Usually with school assemblies, there is not a unified sense of what you’re here for,” said senior Caleb Haselhun, who was a sophomore at the time. “But that was not the case. We knew what we were there for.”
Staff members spoke. The students put on a slideshow with their favorite photos. Then it came time for Mrs. H to give a speech. She took the microphone as everyone stood silently.
“We’re gonna kick ass!” the weak woman yelled powerfully.
The students erupted at the remark. They’d never had a principal who used a bad word before. They’d never had one with cancer either. But this was a tough time like none other in this tiny town, and everyone was adjusting. The high school would be fine. And together they would go on to beat cancer, one ass kick at a time.