Donna's fourth-grade classroom looked like many others
I had seen in the past. Students sat in five rows of six desks. The
teacher's desk was in the front and faced the students. The bulletin
board featured student work. In most respects it appeared to be a
typically traditional elementary classroom. Yet, something seemed
different that day I entered it for the first time. There seemed to be an undercurrent of excitement.
Donna was a veteran small-town Michigan school teacher only two years
away from retirement. In addition, she was a volunteer participant in a
countywide development project I had organized and facilitated. The
training focused on language arts ideas that would empower students to
feel good about them and take charge of their lives. Donna's job was to
attend training sessions and implement the concepts presented. My job
was to make classroom visitations and encourage implementation.
I took an empty seat in the back and watched. All the students were
working on a task, filling a sheet of notebook paper with thoughts and
ideas. The ten-year-old student closest to me was filling her page with
"I can't kick the soccer ball pass second base."
"I can't do long division with more than three numbers."
"I can't get Debbie to like me."
Her page was half full and she showed no signs of letting up. She worked
on with determination and persistence.
I walked down the row glancing at students' papers. Everyone was writing
sentences, describing things they couldn't do.
"I can't do ten pushups."
"I can't hit over the left-field fence."
"I can't eat only one cookie."
By this time, the activity engaged my curiosity, so I decided to check
with the teacher to see what was going on. As I approached her, I
noticed that she too was busy writing. I felt it best not to interrupt.
"I can't get John's mother to come in for a teacher conference."
"I can't get my daughter to put gas in the car."
"I can't get Alan to use words instead of fists."
Thwarted in my efforts to determine why students and teacher were
dwelling on the negative instead of the positive
returned to my seat and continued my observations. Students wrote for
ten minutes. Most filled their page. Some started another.
"Finish the one you're on and don't start a new one," were the
instructions Donna used to signal the end of the activity. Students were
then instructed to fold their papers in half and bring them to the
front. When students reached the desk, they placed their
statements into an empty shoe box.
When all of the student papers were collected, Donna added hers. She put
the lid on the box, tucked it under her arm and headed out the door and
down the hall. Students followed the teacher. I followed the students.
Halfway down the hall the procession stopped. Donna entered the
custodian's room, rummaged around and came out with a shovel. Shovel in
one hand, shoebox in the other, Donna marched the students out of the
school to the farthest corner of the playground. There they began to dig.
They were going to bury their
.The digging took over ten
minutes because most of the fourth graders wanted a turn. When the hole
approached three-foot deep, the digging ended. The box of "I Cant's" was
placed at the bottom of the hole and quickly covered with dirt.
Thirty-one 10- and 11- years -olds stood around the freshly dug
gravesite. Each had at least one page full of "I Cant's" in the shoebox,
three-feet under. So did their teacher.
At this point Donna announced, "Boys and girls, please join hands and
bow your heads." The students complied. They quickly formed a circle
around the grave, creating a bond with their hands. They lowered their
heads and waited. Donna delivered the eulogy.
"Friends, we gather today to honor the memory of
. While he was
with us on earth, he touched the lives of everyone, some more than
others. His name, unfortunately, has been spoken in every public
building - schools, city halls, and state capitols and yes, even The White House.
We have provided with a final resting place and headstone that
contains his epitaph. He is survived by his brothers and sisters,
can," "I will" and
"I'm going to Right Away."
They are not as well known
as their famous relative and are certainly not as strong and powerful
yet. Perhaps someday, with your help, they will make and even bigger mark on the world. May
rest in peace and may everyone present
pick up their lives and move forward in his absence. Amen."
As I listened to the eulogy I realized that these students would never
forget this day. The activity was symbolic, a metaphor for life. It was
a right-brain experience that would stick in the unconscious and conscious mind forever.
burying them and hearing the eulogy. That was a
major effort on the part of this teacher. And she wasn't done yet. At
the conclusion of the eulogy she turned the students around, marched
them back into the classroom and held a wake.
They celebrated the passing of
with cookies, popcorn and fruit
juices. Donna cut out a tombstone from butcher paper. She wrote the
words at the top and put RIP in the middle the date was added
at the bottom, "3/28/80."
The paper tombstone hung in Donna's classroom for the remainder of the
year. On those rare occasions when a student forgot and said,
, Donna simply pointed to the RIP sign. The student then remembered that
was dead and chose to rephrase the statement.
I wasn't one of Donna's students. She was one of mine. Yet that day I
learned an enduring lesson from her.
Now, years later, whenever I hear the phrase,
, I see images of
that fourth-grade funeral. Like the students, I remember that