The first time that death took a seat in my classroom was about 15 years ago. Jessica, a kindergartner in my class, and her brother had died over the week-end in a fire at a baby-sitter’s house. I prepared to return to school on Monday, to face the empty seat at her table, answer the inevitable questions, and deal with my students’ fears and grief.
When I got to school, the staff was told to go to the library for a brief meeting. The principal announced the tragedy and warned teachers not to broach the subject. “Trained personnel” (the school psychologist and social worker) would talk with the children. Teachers could answer questions but were to get on with school business as soon as possible.
“I’m giving this until Wednesday,” whispered the teacher of my student’s sibling. “After Wednesday, we won’t talk about it anymore.”
Death — like sex, AIDS, genocide, racism and poverty — is silenced in the elementary classroom. That silence sends a strong message to children: This may be your reality but it is not the truth that we honor in this institution. You must set aside your classmate’s death or your ancestor’s history or your 13-year-old sister’s pregnancy. You are here to discuss and write and learn about matters of more importance.
The Monday after Jessica’s death, my students gathered on the rug. Many had heard about the fire. They burst out with facts (many erroneous), questions, and feelings. There was an undertone of fear for their own safety.
I took the students’ lead and, ignoring the principal, I moderated a sharing session. After about 30 minutes, the tone switched from curiosity and fear to sadness. What about Jessica? Where was she now? How could we remember her and tell her that we miss her? I asked the students for ideas. They wanted to decorate her table space, to write about her, to draw pictures of her, and to send something to her family. I told them I would clear off a bulletin board for remembering Jessica and sent them to their tables to draw and write.
The bulletin board stayed up until the end of the school year. Questions, stories, and projects about Jessica did not end on Wednesday.
DEATH AND LOSS
Since then, I have often included a unit of several weeks on death and loss in my curriculum. Some years, especially when I taught kindergarten, the unit was precipitated by the death of a classroom guinea pig or by a robin found dead on the playground. Books such as The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst, sparked student discussions on a range of topics: the loss of a favorite pet (Barney was a cat), the death of a grandparent, and the many different views on afterlife.
More recently, when teaching first through third grade, I have incorporated the unit as a regular part of my curriculum, sometimes as part of a discussion on AIDS awareness. The unit’s immediacy invariably becomes clear. One year, for example, while I was preparing for the unit, a student who had been in my classroom the year before died in a car accident. A few years later, the mother of a girl in my class came in to tell me that her
Death, an ever-present reality in life, is too often silenced in the elementary classroom. Does it have to be that way?
cousin was dying of AIDS and probably would not survive the night. Several days later, as part of our unit, this student solemnly shared her eulogy of her mother’s cousin.
This year, in my second/third grade classroom, I planned for the class to create a “death and loss quilt” as a follow-up to a field trip to view panels from the NAMES (AIDS Memorial) Quilt. For students who had several stories to tell, we talked about whom they would choose for their quilt panel; we discussed hard questions like who had meant the most to them and whom they missed the most. For several students, the loss of a parent through separation was akin to death be- cause the parent had dropped out of their lives.
On that particular day, Lisa came in late, which was not atypical. She is often quiet and withdrawn, but she appeared unusually upset and on the verge of tears. She sat down at her seat and laid her head on her arms. With some coaxing, she agreed to meet with me in the hall.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Nothing.”
“You seem to be feeling very sad.” No response. “Did something happen at home?”
“Yeah, but it’s nobody’s business,” Lisa said, her body wracked with sobs. I sat with her a while and asked how I could help. She blurted out, “Well, my aunt killed herself last night, but my mom says it’s nobody’s business.”
I suggested that Lisa speak with a counselor but she didn’t want to. She wanted to go back to the classroom. Feeling as if I were in a movie, I told her what the class was writing about. She sat down and wrote about her dog who had run away. Being unsure myself if it were too soon, I tentatively suggested she write about her aunt.
“No. Too hard,” was her tearful answer.
Then I noticed that Mariah was also in tears. Usually a prolific writer, she had written only her name and the date. I went over to talk to her.
“I want to write about my mom, but it makes me too sad,” she confided.
I told her that Lisa was having a similar problem and suggested they share their feelings. They went to the bench in the hall. When they came back, they were both ready to write. Lisa quickly wrote her story:
My aunt, Linda, lived in Stevensville for a long time, since she was a kid. When my grandma moved out, she had to move out. She got an apartment. And it was very small. It was one room. Everybody said she was a slob because she left cigarette wrappers around. Everybody said she was crazy. She died and I miss her.
When Mariah finished her story, she shared it with the class:
Brenda was my mom. I will never see her again. I loved her and I still do. I always will. Whenever I came over she gave me sea shells because I hadn’t seen her for too long.
When they got divorced I was four. We went out for ice cream from Dairy Queen. We don’t know where she lives. That’s why I’ll never see her again. I have to stay with my dad. I want to stay with her, but I can’t.
She loves Cheetos. I know she loves me. My mom couldn’t take care of me. But my dad could. My mom and dad probably had a fight over me. But I don’t know. I was only four. I wished it never happened.
I wished on a star. It was the first one; I know it. I wished on Lauren’s sea shell that was painted.
I know she loves me. I know it. I just know it. She is a friend and a special mom. She is special because she’s my mom, and I love her. And she’s part of my family.
I love you mom!!
I was having a hard time handling the intensity of the girls’ feelings. I struggled through the day and the rest of the year. Students worked on their quilt squares in art class. They wrote and decorated acrostics (poems or short stories formed around the letters of a person’s name) about their loved ones. I read the chapter bookWords of Stoneby Kevin Jenkes, which paralleled Lisa’s and Mariah’s issues. In this book, two children who have experienced the loss of a parent (one through death and the other through abandonment) discover what they have in common and become friends.
Lisa and Mariah also became friends and continued to write about their losses. While Lisa’s writing seemed to serve as a private emotional outlet, Mariah asked again and again to read her stories to the class. She welcomed questions and input from classmates. She seemed relieved to discover that her loss was not unique.
“Oh, that’s just like me,” contributed Jamie. “But my mom’s in jail. I hardly ever can see her.”
The support that Mariah gained from the class enabled her to begin to heal from her loss. Lisa, however, went on an emotional spiral downward, was treated for depression, and was briefly institutionalized. As the school, her family, and her therapists struggled to deal with her mental illness, writing was one of the few activities that sustained her. She wrote stories about her aunt at every opportunity, even on paper towels used to serve snacks.
For both girls, writing had become necessary and cathartic. As I watched them write about their pain and grief, I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t made room for their stories. Would they and the other children have learned that grieving, compassion, and working through loss have no place in school, perhaps no place in life?
I have always believed that the most powerful lessons are those relevant to the students’ lives. Death, tucked away in the “life cycle” part of our science standards, has never been a major part of our official curriculum. But ever since Jessica’s death 15 years ago, it has forced its way into my classroom. It has taken a seat and pro- claimed its presence. It refuses to move out on Wednesday.