The final score of their final game against Beth Tfiloh at the annual Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament held at Yeshiva University was 68-61. The Pack lost. In fact, they officially only won their first game. However, after this last game the true score for the pack was a tournament win for VTHS. You see, these two competing teams had something more important in common than the shared court they just played their hearts out on. They share a very special student who Valley Torah came to play for as the hashtag #PLAY4YITZI represented on the back of every players t-shirts. You see Mr. Yitzi Teichman was a student at VTHS from 2012-14, is a senior now at Beth Tfiloh and has a rare type of cancer called a Chordoma that occurs in the bones of the skull and spine.
I had the great pleasure of knowing Yitzi most of his life when he lived in Valley Village and later attended Valley Torah. I was not the principal at the time, but I was friends with his family and Yitzi was an active part of our community. To say Yitzi is an amazing young man is an understatement. Even before showing great bravery in tackling his current situation, Yitzi always had a smile on his face. This was true even if the discussion was about things he was less than pleased with. Yitzi had thoughtful opinions and was alway happy to share them, but never without a warm smile. It is no wonder that now in tackling the most difficult challenge of his young life (or anyones for that matter) he continues to keep that smile. In fact, a facebook group started by his friend is appropriately titled #asmileadaykeepssicknessaway. While I am sure the title was meant to support Yitzi, when I first read it, I understood it to be what Yitzi has done for so many with his positive attitude towards others and life. He has kept the sickness away in anyone he has met. Now it is our turn to do it for him, and it is just what our students did at Sarachek.
I had the privilege of speaking with Yitzi yesterday. I wanted to see how he was doing and let him know we are all supporting him. He told me of the events of the last few weeks, from the symptoms (headaches, double vision) that led to his troubling diagnosis to the roller coaster of emotions prompted by the prognoses and treatment plans he had gotten from various doctors. It was painful to listen to, as Yitzi is a young man with a big heart and the last person worthy of suffering anything let alone this disease. However, as difficult as it was to hear, it was not until he said something shocking that the tears I tried to conceal came out in my voice.
I asked Yitzi how he feels about what he is going through. He said “I am lucky.” He said he was lucky it was not someone else, as it is not something he thinks most people can handle. It is not that he does not have bad days, but as he said “it hurts for a minute, and then five minutes later cancer jokes.” Then he continued to tell me how he has been using the “cancer card” lately and how he recently won the student council election, although he did not expect to lose because “come on, I have cancer.” Throughout the conversation he had a positive attitude, cracked jokes and I could hear that smile I am so familiar with from thousands of miles away. However, I was still stuck on how this amazing young man could feel lucky.
Yitzi told me that he has a choice every day. He can either say “this sucks” or “this is awesome and such a journey.” He has chosen the latter and told me that he is focused on all the great people he has met through this and those he plans on meeting, that he has learned so much about the body through all the medical tests and doctors and the astonishing experience he has had with the facebook group created to support him. The only thing that really concerns him is seeing his parents scared. This is why he feels compelled to keep his spirits up and make jokes. Recently, he told me that he was in so much pain, he got to a point where he said “Why me?” and said “that was so stupid, it just made the pain worse.” So, he plans on keeping his spirits up for himself, his family and his friends, but it was clear that when others come out to support him, whether on facebook or at a basketball tournament it makes a difference.
Yitzi was at the first game VTHS played at Sarachek, and when he saw the #PLAY4YITZI shirts our team wore he was speechless. He was later able to say it was “awesome.” He told me he “can’t describe the feeling the support and everyone rallying around him has meant. It was just awesome and great to see. It lifted my spirits.” Dovid Stock gave him his shirt and he plans on having it framed. At the end of the last game between his two schools, which became dubbed the “Yitzi Bowl,” the teams walked off the court together, shared Yitzi stories, said tehillim for him and took the picture above and sent it to Yitzi. Yitzi thought the picture was “mind blowing. It was crazy. To see both schools on two separate parts of the country coming together – that was the best part.”
Yitzi is clearly loved by many, and it has nothing to do with what he is going through. It is because before, during and after this struggle, he has and will always be that smiling kid who cares about his friends, family and anyone he meets. He said he was lucky to have this over someone else. Well, we are truly the lucky ones for knowing him.
Yitzi will be having surgery on April 1st followed by six weeks of radiation. We are sending all our tefillos, love and smiles his way and wishing him a speedy recovery. To Yitzi we say, keep smiling, but we know that you would prefer we keep smiling as you told me to do when we said goodbye yesterday. So, we will do just that and we will continue to #PLAY4YITZI