Beloved Lakelands Park Middle School (LPMS) health and PE teacher Mr. Matt Bittner passed away on Dec. 12, 2011 from liver cancer, but his spirit lives on, inspiring old colleagues and those he never knew, as well as current students who never had the chance to know him personally. The school has held a memorial walk during eighth period each year since 2012, always attended by Bittner’s family, and this has grown into a day of celebration with a walk, a football tournament, fundraising and remembrance. This year’s Bittner Day was held on Friday, May 25.
Bittner’s fellow health and PE teacher Stacy Azizirad said that Bittner Day “will continue as long as possible. It’s a great time. The kids really enjoy getting out there and playing and having that time to celebrate somebody not necessarily that they knew, but I think they can relate to somebody that’s had cancer … and we teach them that this is a way for us to cope with that, too, and do something about it. Like coming together as a school and remembering.”
In fact, the growth of Bittner Day from a memorial walk to a full day of celebration happened, in part, because of Ty Williams and the school’s desire to help another member of its community. “The first year (of the football tournament) we actually didn’t do it for the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation, we did it for Ty Williams who was a former student of ours who got injured playing football at Georgetown University. We did that for him, but we also we wanted to tie in the whole focus to Matt Bittner and bring more awareness and funds to the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation,” Azizirad explained.
Veronica Krivos has been a speech pathologist at LPMS for two years and is the current sponsor to the Student Government Association (SGA) that was instrumental in organizing Bittner Day. “I did not know him but it’s inspiring to me, and I would hope that maybe the kids understand, too, that when you leave a legacy of love and kindness and truly caring about this environment, this school, people love you back and remember you for that,” she said. “I think that’s a really positive message to send to the kids, especially at this age when they’re starting to mature and be faced with real-world problems and sad and scary things. This man who left the world early is remembered so lovingly.”
Bittner, who was among the teachers who opened Lakelands Park Middle, had a rare form of cancer, cholangiocarcinoma, that is always fatal. According to the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation website, “As a rare and lethal disease, cholangiocarcinoma lacks attention and sufficient resources. There is a vast, unmet need for education about cholangiocarcinoma across the entire disease spectrum—from bench to bedside.” Funds raised through Bittner Day are donated to the foundation to support this mission.
Azizirad, who came to the school three years after it opened, taught with Matt Bittner. She remembers the 18 months that he battled the disease—and how he continued to teach and inspire others up until two months before he passed away. Bittner, she said, was very popular with the students “and he was chosen every year by the students to be the eighth-grade speaker—every single year—and the last speech he gave was after he was diagnosed. He gave an amazing speech. The last quote was ‘Don’t ever give up.’”
Bittner himself had the idea for Bittner’s Brigade, something that Azizirad and others have supported and continued in order to raise funds for the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation. “The first year we sold t-shirts and (wrist) bands,” she said. “He had the bands made, and I thought about doing it as a t-shirt. He loved Tigger so that’s why they’re orange and black, that’s what his character was like, really super energetic, and we sold those to raise funds for the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation in that first year. We sold so many t-shirts that it’s continued, and they’ve sold lollipops in the past and now it’s turned into Krispy Kreme donuts.”
The SGA sold 200 dozen Krispy Kreme donuts at this year’s Bittner Day. Krivos and Lindsey Donnellan, health and PE teacher who came to LPMS five months before Bittner passed away, picked the donuts up in their vehicles. Together with nominal registration fees for participation in the Bittner Bowl, the SGA raised more than $1500 for the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation on May 25.
SGA President Sebastian Zeineddin and Vice President Afsara Nowrin agreed that it was fun but hectic selling that many donuts.
This Bittner Day was the second that Nowrin helped to organize, but the first time she had the opportunity to meet Bittner’s family, who were “really nice,” she said.
This year’s event was Zeneiddin’s first as a member of the SGA, and he noted that “I never knew Mr. Bittner personally, but it was nice to meet the family. You almost get to know him better by talking to the people who knew him best.”
Comments from students, many posted after he passed away, are still up on www.ratemyteachers.com, a testament to Bittner’s caring and compassion. “He was my favorite teacher. He wasn’t boring, and I learned a lot from being in his class. When I was having a bad day, he would always make me smile and laugh, and he greeted everyone with a smile. I miss him and can never forget him. He was so inspiring to me and I will never give up :).”