The Power of Pink

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I recently gave a talk to students at High Point University, where former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be the graduation speaker in May. That got me thinking about influential women and one woman in particular who helped me shape the way I teach and practice leadership today.

Growing up, I had a science teacher named Mrs. Traister. She taught me in middle school and in high school. Mrs. Traister was a big believer in hands-on learning, but more than that, she knew the most important thing she could give her students was time. From staying after class to get me ready for a big test to challenging me to think outside the box, she always made time for me and so many others.

When I was in highschool, Mrs. Traister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through round after round of chemotherapy, she continued to teach, selflessly giving us her time even though she was very sick. I could see how hard the treatments were on her, and I knew my friends and I had to do something to help her stay positive and keep going.

We came up with an idea and called it Project Pink. Mrs. Traister had chemo on Tuesdays, so every Tuesday, we wore pink clothes as a subtle reminder of our support and encouraged others students and faculty to start doing the same. Eventually, it seemed like everyone in school was wearing pink on Tuesdays, but it didn’t stop there. We started seeing people in the supermarket wearing pink on Tuesdays, the movie theater marquee read something like “Pink Tuesdays for Mrs. Traister.” The whole town was rallying behind my high school science teacher, all because of something my friends and I started.

During her months of treatment, we didn’t tell Mrs. Traister or anyone else that we were the ones behind Project Pink. We remained completely anonymous. It wasn’t about us. It was about empowering a woman who was fighting an ugly disease and reminding her we were going to be there for her just like she’d always been there for us. We wanted her to know that she was not alone in the fight.

When Mrs. Traister announced her cancer was in remission, we decided it was finally time to tell her about what we had done. It was one of the most emotional days of my life. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized what Project Pink had done for her. She told us that she had felt so alone when she was diagnosed, but Project Pink saved her life. A few months later, she presented each of us with a hand-drawn portrait, telling us that we were her guardian angels.

The picture above is the day that we announced to Mrs. Traister that we were the ones behind Project Pink. We walked into her class with the high school band behind us playing music, and presented her with this quilt we made of all of our favorite memories with her. It was a day that my friends and I will never forget.

Looking back, I know now that Project Pink is what leadership is all about. It’s about empowering people and giving your time to help others. Most importantly, real leadership means that you don’t care who takes the credit. Mrs. Traister’s biggest gift to me was her time and support, and because of her example, I try to give my own time and support to everyone I can. I think that’s the most meaningful thing you can give as a leader.

In honor of Mrs. Traister, Student Maid cleans cancer patients’ homes free of charge to this day.

Who is your role model? Who shaped the person you are today?