By Jareen Imam
Middle schooler Katarina Lucardie didn't expect to see her classmates cry when she decided to show them her big secret.
She was bald and didn't know how to tell her peers. But after teaming up with her teachers, the Colorado Springs, Colorado, student helped make a documentary about why she has no hair. Now she is the face of bravery for her classmates.
It all started after Katarina wrote a letter to her school counselor: "I have a disease and it makes me lose my hair," she wrote.
The 11-year-old was born with alopecia areata, an autoimmune skin disease that results in hair loss on the scalp and other places on the body.
The condition affects 2% of Americans, both male and female, according to the National Institutes of Health. People with alopecia generally start losing hair in their youth, which was the case for Katarina. At age 8, she started seeing patches of her hair on the floor of the tub after taking showers and on her pillow after getting out of bed.
With no real cure available, Katarina went completely bald at 9.
She sported a medium-length black wig throughout much of elementary school, but after graduating, she approached her mom and said she wanted to stop wearing it in middle school.
She said the wig irritated her scalp, especially during gym activities, and she felt hot while wearing it. But most importantly, Katarina says, she just wanted to be herself around her friends.
"I was fearful she was going to get picked on. She was picked on a little in elementary school," said her mother, Carmela Aranda.
She had seen students questioning Katarina about her condition, asking her why she was losing her hair and whether she was sick.
Aranda was nervous that by not wearing the wig to her new middle school, Katarina would be subjecting herself to bullying and ridicule.
Bullying was something Aranda was all too familiar with. After a high fever and ear infection, she lost her hearing at the age of 1 and grew up as the only deaf girl at her school.
"I grew up in the '70s," she explained. "The kids at school didn't know how to interact with me. They made fun of my voice." It was the kind of experience she didn't want for her daughter.
But Katarina was determined to stop wearing her wig and approached her middle school counselor, Jennicca Mabe, about her condition in private. Mabe had similar concerns that Katarina might get picked on but worked with other teachers and the administration at Skyview Middle School to figure out how to share Katarina's story with the rest of her peers.
With Aranda's blessing, Mabe and other school officials enlisted Katarina's teachers to help create a short documentary about Katarina and what it was like living with alopecia.
"(Mabe) thought that if you educate people and if you tell them about things and you tell them that it isn't contagious, that people won't pick on me," Katarina said.
Katarina's science teacher, Connie Sandel, was one of the participants in the documentary.
"I was a little bit surprised," she said, when she learned that Katarina wanted to tell other students she was bald.
"Most kids don't come forward in middle school and do something like that. In middle school, kids can be a little harsh, and bullying can be a problem. But I wanted to support her in what she wanted to do," Sandel said.
The documentary was screened this month in the school's library for several groups of students, including Katarina's class.
"I was sitting at the back so all these people wouldn't be looking at me," Katarina said. "And I watched everyone, and people were crying, and I felt sorry.
"I knew that maybe the teachers would cry, but I never expected that the kids would cry," she added.
Her mother was also at the screening and had an interpreter translate the film for her. "I cried. I think everyone in the room cried. I knew we made the right decision. The school was really supportive. They didn't have to do this, you know," Aranda said.
After the documentary, Katarina, accompanied by two of her teachers, answered questions from her peers. She also explained to her class that the following week she would not be wearing her wig anymore.
"It was very inspiring," Aranda said. "The kids were really interested, and they asked a lot of questions like 'Does it hurt?' and 'Was your scalp itchy?' "
Many students were surprised by the film and admitted that they never suspected that Katarina wore a wig in the first place. Some students even told Katarina that she looked even better without a wig.
Aranda couldn't help but think of how brave Katarina was, standing in front of her classmates and answering their questions. "She was just determined to do it. She wanted to be herself and not cover up and mask who she was. She was very courageous."
The following week, Katarina came to school with a hat instead of a wig. It's winter in Colorado Springs, and she says her scalp gets cold without something covering it.
Sandel says her students are reacting normally to Katarina without her wig. "I let my first period class ask her questions, and they didn't. Everyone seemed ready to move on," she said.
Looking back at the screening, Katarina is happy with her decision to tell her classmates that she has no hair.
"I want people to like me for me and not what I look like," Katarina said, "because that's how I can find my true friends."
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