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A rally-like atmosphere greeted about 50 Thoreau Middle School girls and two boys who awaited hair cuts in the school’s gymnasium this past Friday.

Dressed in purple shirts that read “Make the Cut,” students fidgeted with their hair while hairstylists took wooden rules to each head — measuring out a minimum of eight inches (a requirement of hair being used to make wigs) before marking the length with rubber-banded ponytails.

Eighth-grader Lija Lusis, 14, smiled as she stood behind friend and classmate Pearl Wilcock, 14, priming Pearl’s auburn pigtail with a pair of scissors, awaiting the signal to begin cutting.

“Ready… set… make that cut. Go!,” announced drama teacher Bernie DeLeo over a loudspeaker.

Pearl’s hair, once near shoulder length, was cut just above her ear.

“It feels so short and light,” Pearl said as she flipped her hair around to try out the new length.

At an age when most children feel self-conscious, Pearl and her fellow students gave up a little bit of their identity in a selfless act honoring one of their own.

The student’s hair was donated to Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, a charity in partnership with the American Cancer Society that turns cut hair into wigs. While Pearl’s hair was cut by a student, most of the hair collected was cut by area hairstylists.

The hair-cutting event was created by DeLeo, whose students are performing the 1920s themed musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie” this spring.

Lija, who is part of the musical’s cast, was the focus of the hair-cutting rally. The teen was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in December, and began chemotherapy in early January, which caused her to lose her strawberry blonde hair.

“She has been so stoic about this from the get-go,” said DeLeo of Lija.

Lija said after she was diagnosed, DeLeo phoned her parents looking for a way to help out. Because the 1920s hairstyle included short bobs, the school’s musical helped shape the hair-cutting event, she said.

“When I first lost all my hair, I was so nervous about being seen bald,” Lija said. “In middle school having your hair is almost your identity. We spend hours on it … When girls said they would cut their hair, I was really surprised.”

Lija wears a thick, long length brunette synthetic wig, which she said cost about $500.

“At the place where we went, real-hair wigs would start at $1,000,” she said. Real-hair wigs have the advantage of being styled, washed and feel like the real deal, Lija said.

Lija’s mother, Ingrida Lusis, said Lija has completed one round of chemotherapy, and is in remission.

“We caught it very early. There are a lot of stages in Hodgkin’s; she’s in stage two,” Lusis said. “Most chemo patients lose their hair. We got her a wig but wigs are expensive … She doesn’t want to go anywhere without her wig.”

When Lija’s hair started to fall out, she had her hair cut into a short bob. But one Saturday, the teen told her parents she was ready to shave her head.

“We both took one side and shaved,” Lusis said. “When Mr. DeLeo approached me with this, I thought this is such a show of the support for Lija… It’s a selfless act that [the students] are doing.”

Lija said she was surprised at the number of students who offered to cut their hair.

“I am astounded by how big our group is today,” Lija said. “Hair is really important to all of us, right? I mean we all spend 30 minutes on our hair in the morning… your hair is your identify.”

Several of the students who made the cut this past were not involved in the school play, nor directly friends with Lija.

“It’s the right thing to do. Our hair is going to grow back but these cancer patients are going through chemotherapy and radiation,” said seventh-grader Maille-Rose Smith, a blonde 13-year-old who cut eight inches from her hair. “[Wigs] make them feel like they are still beautiful.”

Eighth-grader Isabel Zhong, 13, also cut eight inches from her black hair.

“It’s for a great cause. It’s just hair, so it will grow back,” she said, adding that she’ll miss being able to try out different styles on her long-lost locks. “But I’ll get over it.”

During the rally, Lija’s child life specialist Holly Senn, from INOVA Fairfax Hospital, spoke to student hair donors.

“This is a huge thing you’re doing. I’ve done it twice myself, cutting 15 inches the first time and 16 inches the second time,” Senn said. “I know it’s a big deal… One of the most shocking things [for cancer patients] is the loss of hair and something as simple as a wig is not that simple anymore.”

To learn more about Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program, visit www.pantene.com/en-us/beautiful-lengths-cause/Pages/default.aspx.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com