STOCKTON, Calif. (KTVU) - A Stockton principal battling stage 4 breast cancer could not hold back her tears as her young students surprised her with a moving serenaded of the song, "Lean on Me."
The children held up pink ribbon cut-outs as they belted out touching words of support in musical unison.
"I had no idea. I was totally shocked," Youlin Aissa said of the performance on Friday. "It's just crazy," she said as she told KTVU how overcome with emotion she was.
She joked that it's one thing for parents and staff to have managed to keep the secret but said that it's nearly impossible and a monumental feat to keep close to 500 young kids from spilling the beans.
The students at George W. Bush Elementary are known as Ms. Aissa's "Pink Army."
Aissa was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in Nov. 2016, at the age of 37. She went on medical leave to undergo treatment and returned to work that following school year.
The principal said that she alerted parents that she was dealing with health issues but has never had a direct conversation with the kids about what she was going through.
Nonetheless, children have a keen ability to pick up on things, and they also have the gift to bring on smiles even during the most difficult times.
"I came back after I finished surgery and chemo and was about to start radiation so I didn't have any hair. I wore hats and had cute comments from kids," Aissa said.
Last month, during spirit week, the kids wanted to demonstrate their support for their beloved principal and opted to forego dressing in their school colors. Instead they dedicated a day in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and went all out in pink.
"They wanted to make it a 'Pink Day,' Aissa recalled. "The campus was covered in pink."
Friday's serenade was especially poignant and meaningful as Aissa recently learned that her cancer had returned.
"Unfortunately my battle has continued," she said. "I guess that's what prompted the teachers to organize the most recent show of support. It's spread to my lungs."
The endless show of support she's received just keeps fueling her.
Aissa said she plans to keep showing up for work and be there for her students and staff as much as possible as she undergoes further treatment at Stanford.
She's now started on new medication and said she's just praying the treatment will work.
And in the midst of her struggles, she said she is continually filled with gratitude.
"Despite the illness, I've been shown a lot of blessings," the principal said. "Throughout this whole process, I've been absolutely humbled by the show of support and love teachers, parents, and district personnel have shown me," she added.
While many of the children who make up her "Pink Army" may not truly understand the battle she's going through, she said there's no doubt they wholeheartedly understand what it means to express and demonstrate empathy and human kindness.
And as an educator, that brings her immeasurable comfort and a sense of achievement.
"I've been so humbled, and when I look out at that sea of young faces, you can see they fully understand what it means to show love, care and compassion," Aissa said, "and that shows we've done a good job."