By Sara Bondell - August 09, 2023
When the first bell of the new school year rings, sixth grade math teacher Tarik Mowatt will be in uncharted territory. He’s never taught middle school before and knows — like his students —he still has a lot to learn.
But the unknown doesn’t scare him. He knows what it’s like to have to start over. He’s beaten cancer, so how scary can middle schoolers be?
Mowatt started teaching elementary school in 2019. A new job, a new wife, he was a 24-year-old ready to dive headfirst into building his career and family. Things were going well, except for a nagging lump on his neck that keep growing. Then came night sweats and chest pain.
April 1, 2020, he got the news he wished was a joke: He had Hodgkin lymphoma. He began chemotherapy in Jacksonville, where he was living at the time, and transferred his care to Moffitt Cancer Center in July when he moved to St. Petersburg.
Mowatt continued treatment through October and, because of the pandemic, was able to continue teaching virtually. He explained to his third graders what was going on so they wouldn’t be scared.
“I sat them down and explained I was going for my adult medicine, that I am OK right now and I am still your teacher,” Mowatt said. “We made it into a health lesson, that this is why we move around and eat healthy. We don’t know the reason for my cancer, but let’s use it to try and teach them about health and how to avoid bad habits.”
No matter how he was feeling, Mowatt vowed to continue showing up for his students. Even if he spent the night in urgent care, he would return home and log on to teach. “The kids just really kept me going,” he said.
When Mowatt’s cancer returned on Christmas Eve in 2020, he switched to an immunotherapy treatment and then underwent a stem cell transplant in July 2021. He was able to return to teaching that November.
“I wanted to go back, I wanted to keep learning and learning how to teach,” he said. “It was my third year as a teacher, and I had never started or finished a school year. It was hard not being able to get into a rhythm.”
Mowatt was able to finally teach an entire school year last year and was recognized by the school district as an inspiring teacher. He and his wife just celebrated two years cancer free in July.
“I am still waiting on my best. I want to go back and get my master’s and just see what life is about now that I know life is going to happen,” he said.