WEST TOWN — Chicago Academy for the Arts head of school Jason Patera had already planned to cancel classes Wednesday when he started getting text messages from students asking for a snow day.
Patera, who has been a teacher and administrator at the West Town art and music high school for more than two decades, said he regularly gets texts from students, especially when there’s even a hint of snow in the forecast.
“We have a tradition at our school that the students text me when it snows, the moment that first flake falls out of the sky, they start texting me “it’s snowing, it’s snowing!” Half of them are usually begging for a snow day and the other half are threatening me with mock violence if I cancel school because then rehearsal will get canceled,” Patera said, laughing.
So Patera issued a challenge, having already drafted an official message to announce there would no school the next day.
“I said, ‘I’ll cancel school if you get 20 students to blind copy me on thank-you letters to awesome teachers, or awesome parents. So spread the word,'” he said. “And my inbox blew up.”
Within 20 minutes, Patera already had 20 emails, “and then they just kept coming in.”
Patera said he’s been copied on more than 100 emails from students as of Wednesday morning, addressed to faculty and staff across the school.
“There’s thank-you notes to their academic teachers, to their arts teachers. There’s thank-you notes to the security guard. There’s thank-you notes that they copied me on to their parents. It’s really beautiful. They took it really seriously,” Patera said. “And they got a snow day out of it, it was already coming but it was fun to feel like I was giving it to them because they earned it.”
The outpouring of gratitude and appreciation over the past 24 hours comes at a time of vulnerability for Patera and the Chicago Academy for the Arts community.
In a Facebook post Wednesday morning, Patera, 45, announced that later this month he would be undergoing surgery to remove a tumor from his brain.
“An MRI has revealed a large (almost certainly benign) brain tumor that is causing significant problems with my facial, hearing, and balance nerves, and that has grown to such a size that requires major surgery in the weeks ahead,” Patera wrote. “While the risk of life-threatening complications is very low, I have been counseled to expect a difficult recovery, including permanent hearing loss in my right ear, physical therapy, and facial and balance problems for up to a year.”
The surgery is the latest chapter in two years of health challenges for Patera, which began when he noticed a ringing in his right ear after attending an Iron Maiden concert.
“The ringing kind of came and went and then I noticed my hearing getting bad. I saw some hearing specialists who all thought ‘well, you just need hearing aids. Of course your hearing’s bad, you’re a former rock-and-roll drummer,'” he said.
But then last summer, Patera’s face went numb. Doctors discovered the tumor after a series of tests a few weeks ago.
Patera said he feels incredibly lucky that the surgery isn’t life-threatening, and has adopted a positive and almost chipper attitude about the whole situation.
“It sounds a lot worse than it actually is. … I am optimistic, I’m confident. I’m a little bit excited, because I’m not going to die, brain surgery sounds kind of cool,” Patera said. “Plus, I’m going to have this badass scar and no one thinks I’m intimidating, but maybe with this crazy scar it’ll help with the whole principal vibe.”
Patera said he’s already received an outpouring of support since he made the news public Wednesday morning. His last day before the surgery at the Academy will be Feb. 11, and he expects to return by mid-April.
It will be the longest break he’s had from the school for his entire career, Patera said, which started when he was fresh out of college, teaching piano and drums before becoming an administrator.
“I’m curious to see what I learn from how I feel about not working for a little bit,” he said. “It’s not work, it’s not even a career. The place is a calling. It’s a part of my identity. And so it’s tough to think about being away, but the community is so strong, the teachers are so strong.”
In the meantime, Patera is already using the experience as a teaching moment for his students.
“We can learn from whatever is in front of us. That’s what I want my kids to learn. That’s how I want them to feel, that whatever the situation is, whatever the obstacle is, whatever’s in front of them, you can learn from that,” he said.
“So alright, what can I learn from a brain tumor? What can I learn from half-deafness? I refuse to go into this feeling bad about anything. I’m just not.”
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