Rules of the Heart
Like many elementary school teachers, Elaine Moore started each day with “circle time,” a period when students could share anything they wanted with the class and respond to each other’s observations. But in December 1992, the tight knit circle of students in her 4th grade class at the Ravenwood School in Eagle River, Alaska, was unexpectedly shattered by the illness of Seamus Farrell, who was soon diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Moore, then in her 15th year of teaching, was determined to keep the lively 10-year-old a part of her class for as long as possible, ultimately organizing her students into small groups that visited Seamus every day at home through the rest of the school year.
Based on interviews with Moore, her colleagues, and Seamus’ classmates, now college age, journalist and author Bob Katz tells in Elaine’s Circle (Marlowe & Company) the story of the extraordinary outpouring of support for Seamus, who died shortly after starting 5th grade the following fall. But before the class visits began, Elaine had to break the news to her students, their parents, and her administrator, and Katz shows that in doing so, she relied on equal measures of compassion and intuition.
Circle Time was the emotional centerpiece of Elaine’s teaching style. Each morning, immediately after attendance was taken and Ravenwood's principal had wrapped up his announcements over the PA system, Elaine would move to the center of the room. Like a camp counselor urging everyone into the pool, she’d say, “Circle up.”
Kids hopped from their desks to take up positions on the carpet. It only worked, Elaine knew, if everyone sat together on the floor. Over the years, Elaine had been assigned several student teachers from the University of Alaska, eager young collegians diligently studying the craft of professional teaching.
“Does it really have to be the floor?” they’d squeamishly ask.
“Yes,” she’d insist. “You need intimacy to reach children. Sit with them on the floor.”
Elaine had two ironclad rules for Circle Time: Anyone could say whatever he or she wanted so long as it had some connection to learning, and no one was allowed to criticize or scorn another’s remarks. A boy could say he was mad at his brother for ruining his Lego construction. A child could talk about losing a favorite mitten if it tied in to a lesson or discussion.
Elaine wondered what grown-ups who knew nothing of elementary school norms would make of this. Most adults, she believed, would, if allowed to eavesdrop, be astounded at how sensitive, articulate, thoughtful, and wise 10-year-olds could be. Circle Time was like watching a movie that never stopped being interesting and never failed to enrich. At least, that’s how it was for her.
“Circle up,” Elaine said. The children, newly returned from holiday break, gathered around. Outside the big windows, the January morning was dark and bitterly cold. Everyone felt the coziness of being huddled together again in Room 112.
Circle Time on the first day back after winter vacation was always lively. Everyone had two weeks’ worth of stories to tell. Eagle River families often traveled to the Lower 48 to visit relatives, yielding enthusiastic accounts of first cousins who were so much fun, or an indoor zoo where a gorilla went crazy, or spending the entire night in the Minneapolis airport because of a canceled flight.
Kids who stayed in town had outdoor adventures to report skiing at Alyeska, caroling with their church group.
“I want to tell you about Seamus,” Elaine began. She had conferred with his parents, wanting to respect their wishes concerning what information to disclose. “Seamus is very ill.”
“I thought his surgery was OK,” said one boy.
“We thought it was,” Elaine said, sighing.
This was going to be difficult, but it was the right thing to do.
She had thought long and hard about how to approach this. In all probability, this was going to be the children’s first exposure to death. One of the side features of living in Alaska was that many families were cut off from elderly relatives. They had little experience with aged or dying grandparents. Not that there was a true comparison. Children think they are immortal. And why shouldn’t they? The odds favor them. One of the wonderful benefits to being young is being able to plunge into the moment, the sweet center of here and now, like there’s no tomorrow. Part of what allows kids to be kids is precisely this.
Facing up to Seamus’ situation was bound to affect them. Ignoring his situation was not, Elaine believed, an option.
“Seamus has cancer, and we’ve learned it is very serious,” she told the class. “He may not be able to come back to school.”
The children froze. No squirming, no movement, no chatter, no noise. Seamus not coming back to class? Not popping through the door first thing in the morning and scrambling to find a place among them on the floor at Circle Time? It didn’t seem right. It didn’t seem fair. And it didn’t seem that there should be nothing at all they could do about it.
“He is still part of our class,” Elaine reassured them. It sounded like the right thing to say. But even as she said it, she had no clear notion of how this fact might be borne out. She only knew that the kids could not be cut off so abruptly from their bubbly classmate.
“He loves getting your notes,” she added. “He knows how much you miss him.”
“What happens if he dies?”
This one caught her by surprise. Elaine composed her answer carefully. “That is something each of you might want to talk about with your parents. People have different beliefs about that.”
“But we’ll get to see him again, won’t we?”
This, she could see, was going to be one tricky balancing act, fulfilling her promise to be honest and yet somehow going onward with hope. ”I hope so, yes. I’ll find out more from his parents,” she promised.
There was a lull in the classroom, which was not typical. A teaching colleague once asked, expressing some skepticism about Circle Time, “What happens when nobody has anything to say?”
“It’s never happened,” Elaine had answered bluntly. And that was true.
The lull did not last long. The kids, Elaine could tell, were thinking hard. “He’s too sick to come to class, right?” someone asked.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Can we visit him?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I mean as a class, can we visit him?”
“Possibly,” Elaine hedged. The reality, she recognized, would be more complicated. It was not her style to equivocate, but she could see where this might be going. The children were eager to do something. Such a response was natural. As a practical matter, however, they were 4th graders in a public school that operated under strict guidelines.
Schools, for all the improvised, unpredictable, seat-of-the-pants magic that so often constitutes the grand moments of learning, are famously bureaucratized environments. So whatever gestures the kids might want to make toward Seamus, to help ease their sadness and his, protocol was involved.
Schools have rules.
But so does the human heart.
Elaine prepared a letter for the parents. The letter was written in the same straightforward tone as the other missives the parents had received from her related to teacher conferences or upcoming field trips. The note read:
As you know, Seamus has an inoperable brain tumor. I would like to begin talking with the children gently and honestly about his condition. I have excellent videos and books to help the children understand, as well as open up lines of communication. A hospice volunteer will be available to speak to the students and help answer questions. My hope is that it will become an open topic of conversation in our classroom. We will spend a lot of time talking about our feelings and questions. Your child will need lots of support in coping with their classmate’s terminal illness. But I believe children have an amazing ability and capacity to deal with the truth. Even sad truths relieve the anxiety of uncertainty.
This will be a learning opportunity for your child. I know from my own experience that when you learn about death, you actually are learning about life.
Thank you for your continued support.
Before running off copies of the note, Elaine paused to read it over. It looked OK. Yes, it made some references to Seamus’ condition that could have been phrased differently. But she could not think of a better way to state it. Seamus didn’t have long to live. The kids cared about him. Time was running out. That monumental fact had to be part of their class. How else to put it?
At the end of the afternoon, Elaine told the class that she had a letter to give to their parents: Would they please put it in their backpacks and be sure to give it to their mother or father?
The bell rang. Kids grabbed their coats off the racks, yanked their caps from the sleeves, and tumbled out to the bus. Elaine sighed. The day was done. An important first step had been taken. There was no way to know exactly the right way to handle this. She had only her own instincts to go on, her instincts about kids.
After school, Joan Johnson stopped by. Joan and Elaine were part of an informal group of teachers, imbued with ideas of outdoor education and eager to explore innovative ways of reaching children, who met after school once a week. Elaine told Joan about the note. Joan urged her, if only to cover her bases, to show a copy to the principal. Elaine grumbled but agreed that Joan was probably right.
Elaine walked down the corridor and found Arge Jeffery in his office. From his window, you could see the kids boarding the school buses beneath the gleaming floodlights. Elaine handed Arge the letter, saying she wanted him to be aware of how she was handling the seriousness of Seamus’ situation.
Arge was a stocky, balding, carefully dressed man with a neatly trimmed gray beard and a habit of jingling change in his pocket while he conversed. He was a stickler for institutional procedure. It was said that he was somewhat misplaced in education and that he would have made a keen trial lawyer.
Elaine and Arge had their disagreements yet maintained a professional respect. She chafed at some of his bureaucratic ways but understood he was ultimately responsible for governing a larger apparatus. Similarly, he wished Elaine were more conventional but admired her skill with students.
He quickly read the letter.
“What?” he bellowed. ”“Terminal”? Elaine, you can’t say a thing like that!”
“Arge,” she replied, calmly dropping her voice tote level of a whisper, “he has six weeks to live.”
“Well, you can’t use a word like ‘terminal’ around kids.”
“What word, then? Tell me.”
“I don’t know, Elaine. Something like ... like ... “
She dared him to say it: something happier, more uplifting, something sugarcoated and optimistic?
He tossed the letter back. “Rewrite it!”
“The letter,” Elaine quietly informed him, “has already gone home.”
With that, she turned and went back to her room to pack up for the day.