May 6, 2009 / Staff Management

Adviser who had to put her life ahead of yearbook offers advice

Written by Idea File Staff

As a yearbook adviser, you probably consider yourself indispensable. Yes, you trained your editors to oversee staff as they cover events, design spreads, sell ads, keep the financial records, and distribute the yearbook. It is their book, but you are the adviser. But you ultimately are responsible. So there is no room in your life for the occasional cold or the flu. You trudge forward with the yearbook.

But the yearbook staff trudges forward without you when the adviser has cancer.

That is what happened to Sue Farlow. The yearbook adviser at Asheboro High School, Asheboro, N.C., was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer in May 2002. Farlow missed work most of that May following a lumpectomy. Her chemotherapy went from June to December 2002, with radiation treatments from January to March 2003. She worked as much as she could, but some days she was too weak and tired. For better or worse, the staff produced a yearbook.

She had always been there, but not this time. For example, she missed distribution in 2002, which she called “a humbling experience.” But the world did not end because she was not there.

“Things will get done, the sun will come up tomorrow and the students will rise to the occasion,” she said.

Farlow is cancer free and is considered a survivor. It was not pretty sometimes, but her yearbook program made it through, too. What occurred in the yearbook production process from May 2002 to spring 2003 at Asheboro High resulted in changes in staff and procedures that could help any adviser, sick or well.

“I’m more organized. I’m more ready for emergencies. (I’m thinking) this is September, but what’s going to happen in February?” she said.

This is the cure?
Chemotherapy and radiation are abusive treatments. Most people think of hair loss when they think of chemotherapy. But realize, hair loss includes eyebrows and eyelashes. The treatment damages your body – your heart, for example – and transforms your appearance.  Add to that the fear – you could go through this and still die. With the pain and fear, she went to work.

“When something frightening happens, you cling to things that are normal,” she said.

Farlow said she could choose the day for her chemotherapy. So she would teach on Thursday morning, and take Thursday afternoon off for the treatment. At first, she worked on Fridays. Soon, she was taking off Friday and Monday, and by Thanksgiving she was only working two-and-a-half days a week.

“I believe when you are sick you should stay home. When I was sick, I stayed home. When I was well, I worked.”

The harsh treatments began taking their toll.

“I couldn’t focus. My yearbook rep, he would say, ‘you’ve got to get these pages in,’ and it went over my head,” she said. “I had a good staff, but they felt I had to see all the proofs. They held proofs and pages.”

Farlow’s substitute teacher was a friend of hers who was a retired English teacher and had advised yearbook.

“She kept on them, but the bottom line is they were waiting for me,” Farlow said.

And when she was in class to proof pages, the students learned not to give things to her and walk off, because she would forget where she put them.

“They had to stand there while I proofed and take them back,” she said.

Working ahead
Because deadlines were missed, she was informed her delivery date was June 28 – a month after graduation. A new May 9 delivery date was arranged. Of the changes Farlow has made to avoid these problems, most have to do with working ahead.

At Asheboro High School, events that happen after the final yearbook deadline in March, such as prom and spring play, go in next year’s book. Now she makes sure those pages are done before school is out in the spring, instead of carrying the work into the fall.

The next change, “When you walk in the door the first day, get your ladder done.”

Actually, Farlow had it done sooner than that by taking her students to a summer workshop, where the ladder and cover were done before school started.

Underclass photos previously were taken in October. Now the task is done in August. The deadline for senior ads has been moved up to October.

Her overall advice is to stay ahead, “just doing every day and knowing how much time you have from point A to point B.”

She made some staffing changes, too. As always, she picks her staff each March. On their application form the students must explain why they want to be on yearbook, and their English teacher must recommend them. Now she screens them a little more thoroughly.

She adjusted one of the section editor assignments. At Asheboro, only sophomores, juniors and seniors can be on yearbook staff, although the high school includes freshman. In the freshman section of the 2002 yearbook, the names and photos of several people were switched. Usually a senior handled the freshman section, but now a sophomore is assigned to it because they can more easily put names to faces, she said.

While she had a working relationship with her yearbook representative, she makes sure her staff has one, too. Establishing a better relationship means she could ask for help from her representative.

With more training in the classroom, and her annual trip for her junior class editors to the Columbia Scholastic Press Association convention in New York, the staff this past year did a better job of relying on their own judgment, she said.

“My editor-in-chief was conscientious. The book made every deadline,” she said.

Getting support, giving support
Farlow said cancer patients and survivors need a support group of some sort. She said the American Cancer Society has good support groups, but she did not attend one. She already has strong support from her husband, her two sons, her church, the Journalism Education Association Listserv, and her school.

Asheboro’s principal, Larry Riggan, was very helpful. Farlow said among the things he did was move her planning period to first period during the second semester 2003 so she could get her radiation treatments before school.

Her co-workers saw to personal needs. The school’s Hospitality Committee set up a schedule so that every Thursday at noon, Farlow had a box of food to take home with her that would last through the weekend. Different departments rotated the duty, from the English Department to the custodians. On the day Farlow had her “unveiling,” shedding her wig and wearing a hat on short, curly, growing-back hair, the entire faculty wore a hat, too.

When people learn Farlow has survived cancer, they want to share their stories and ask her for advice. It is one way she reciprocates support.

Farlow said she is currently writing a list of the Top 10 Things Not to Ask a Cancer Patient. One of them is, do not ask, “What can I do to help?”

She said just show up at the door to unload the dishwasher or bring groceries. Patients need Gatorade, ginger ale and saltines, but their families still need regular meals. Call and say you will take their child to soccer camp next week. She is also big on telling people to take paper towels and toilet paper to the patient’s house. People remember to bring food, but they do not think about necessities like toilet paper and soap, she said.

Recently the mother of one of her editors was undergoing chemotherapy. She would check with him to make sure he made time for her.

“I would tell that kid, stop by the store on your way home and get one of those frozen, creamy yogurt things, and toilet paper – and not the cheap stuff.”

Cancer patients and yearbook advisers need the same things to survive – a positive attitude, a strong spirit and good support. Farlow watched a friend with those things die anyway from cancer. But when things are going wrong with yearbook you do not give up, and you certainly do not stop fighting when you have cancer, she said.

“Dylan Thomas said do not go gentle into that good night.”

Idea File Staff

Idea File Staff reports are posts compiled by the Walsworth Yearbooks Marketing Department, covering a wide range of yearbook topics.