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A Lesson Before Dying

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Told his cancer would likely kill him within six months, Dennis Frederick returned to school to teach his 3rd graders that death is a part of life.

Sauk Rapids, Minn.

In the cluster of homes sur-rounding Pleasantview Elementary School and extending down a gently sloping hill toward the Mississippi River, twinkling bulbs dangle from rooftop rain gutters and peek out from snow-dusted trees and bushes. A huge five-pointed star overlooks it all, shining from high atop a spindly tower at the crest of the hill. It's December, and the town of Sauk Rapids looks like a scene from a child's model-train set.

Like most of the world, Sauk Rapids is preparing for the holidays. So it is in Dennis Frederick's 3rd grade classroom at Pleasantview, where candy-colored construction paper lights are strung from wall to wall. But Frederick, a teacher at Pleasantview, rarely gets the chance to share in his students' anticipation. A little more than two years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was 35 when he learned the news. Hopeful of beating the disease, he took a leave of absence and went through a year of chemotherapy and radiation, only to find that the cancer had spread. Last May, his doctors told him he had six months to live. Given the option of more-aggressive therapy, he declined. Instead, he made plans to return, for as long as he was physically able, to his classroom and his students.

"I never thought that I would not go back," he says to a recent visitor, "even though I was tired, even though I didn't feel good. I looked forward to seeing the kids." When school opened in the fall, Frederick resolved to teach with the enthusiasm that is his trademark. He would make the year the best of his career. What's more, he would integrate his illness into the lesson plan. Dying, in other words, as a teachable moment.

His decision to teach, and his school district's determination to let him, introduced

Dennis Frederick and his classroom to the world. His story drew reporters and television news crews to his classroom door. And what he taught the children touched a much broader audience. His was a lesson on death and how to face it, but was also a lesson about life.

Frederick continued to teach until Nov. 11, Veterans Day. By then, the pain was unrelenting. He was too exhausted to stand. He started to say goodbye.

To find Dennis Frederick's home at Christmastime, follow the star. The modest frame house is just down the block from the towering display on the hill. A Christmas tree decorated mostly with an assortment of bear ornaments is in the living room. Against the far wall stands a Baldwin upright piano. Potted plants and a "Praying Hands" statuette top the divider between the living room and the dining room. Frederick's wife, Sandy, is in a back bedroom overseeing homework with the couple's two sons, Sam, 10, and Andy, 6.

On a bookshelf near the front door, in a place of prominence, is a small placard that reads: "If you pause to think, you'll have cause to thank."

He's tall—six feet, two inches—but he now looks frail, almost birdlike, his face pale and creased.

When Frederick emerges from his bedroom, he shuffles over to the couch and gently lowers himself onto the cushions. He's tall--6 feet 2 inches--and though he once carried 190 pounds on a solid, athletic frame, he now looks frail, his face pale and creased. He knows that his appearance is unsettling--he describes himself as "gaunt"--and he quickly moves to set his visitor at ease, speaking about his life and his illness with almost childlike openness.

Dennis Frederick was born in Dover, Del., the middle child of Ronald and Patricia Frederick. His father was an Air Force mechanic, stationed at the nearby military base. In the mid-1960s, when he was about 7, the family moved to northern Minnesota to be closer to Patricia's ailing mother and began to put down roots in the town of Chisholm. In high school, Frederick started at center for Chisholm's basketball team, a longtime powerhouse. He averaged 10 points a game and won all-district honors. In his senior year, Chisholm fell two wins short of making the state tournament.

Like many athletes, Frederick found a role model in his coach, Bob McDonald. "I patterned my life after him," Frederick says. "The similarities between the two of us were always there. We believe a lot of the same things. He gets the most out of you. He takes a little and does a lot with it. He always puts his heart and soul into everything, and I try to do that, too."

McDonald, still rolling over opponents after more than 30 years of coaching, remembers Frederick fondly. "He was always one of my favorites, a dedicated kid who gave you leadership. He was always striving to do more. Everybody in town remembers Dennis as someone who would always give the maximum."

Frederick earned a physical education degree from Bemidji State University in north-central Minnesota, but it wasn't until he started teaching a Bible class at his church on Fridays that he turned to teaching as a career. "I had 26 4th grade boys," he remembers. "And I just had a blast. I really liked it, so I went back and got an elementary education degree."

Religion would continue to play a pivotal role in Frederick's life. Although he grew up a nominal Methodist, Frederick later developed a conservative, fundamentalist outlook, a view shared by his wife, whom he met at Bemidji State. Much of Frederick's personal and family life now revolves around the nearby Fellowship Bible Church. Like anyone else facing death, he hopes and prays for a miracle. But if one fails to materialize, he believes grace will lead him home. "Jesus Christ has given me an understanding of what I'm going through," Frederick says, "and he has eliminated any fear that I have because I know that he is with me totally. He's been working in my life, and I've seen evidence of that. There's no reason to be afraid. It's like having Superman there."

Pleasantview Elementary School is a sprawling complex of pods, built around the time school architects began designing buildings that resembled mission control at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In the hallway across from the school's main office is a large framed photo of Frederick, his co-teacher, Deb Kawlewski, and 24 smiling young faces. Frederick, down on one knee, towers six inches above the tallest student.

Frederick's classroom is attached to the back of the school, in one of those modular "temporary" facilities that in most schools have become all too permanent. Frederick's desk, outfitted with a Macintosh computer workstation, is in a corner. Behind the desk is a large bulletin board, covered by powder-blue construction paper, decorated with bold, yellow block letters proclaiming: "Mr. Frederick, you are the best." Pinned to the board is a student's pencil sketch of the teacher. Everything about this child's-eye view is larger than life--big head, hair, glasses, teeth, and ears. A photo of Dennis Frederick, his wife, and their two children hangs above the drawing. Off in a corner is a poster of Michael Jordan poised in mid-dunk. A snapshot of the teacher's head is taped over Jordan's face.

Frederick is known for nudging his students along with positive motivational techniques and his offbeat, gentle humor.

Frederick taught at various levels for seven years before he came to Pleasantview in 1991. Assigned to one of the 3rd grade classes, he began to make his mark. "It's an age I can adapt to," he says. "I just click with those kids. I've taught 4th and 5th grades, along with some junior high and high school, and I can honestly say 3rd grade is where I belong. It's where I fit."

Friends and colleagues agree. Always the coach, Frederick is known for nudging his students along with positive motivational techniques and his offbeat, gentle humor. He's not above suddenly striking a goofy, storklike pose to get their attention. He's proud of his use of "wow" cards, which are awarded for good behavior and redeemed by the children for toys and other prizes. Above all, Frederick is an unapologetic believer in catching children in the act of being good.

That's not to suggest Frederick's a softie. He still expects hard work. "I've always wanted to help kids enjoy learning and to reach as far as they possibly could, whatever the challenge," he says. "My whole philosophy is to try as hard as you can and then let God do the rest."

Brad Olson, Frederick's best friend and a fellow 3rd grade teacher, taught next door for years. Frederick, he says, is the best teacher he's ever worked with. "Listening to him through the wall, you could just hear the excitement."

Frederick had little doubt that he could maintain that excitement this year, but he knew he might have to convince others--particularly parents--that a 3rd grade classroom was the proper place for a dying man. Even more, a dying man who planned to speak frankly with 7- and 8-year-olds about the disease that was eating away at his body. Frederick told his principal, Jean Clark, that he intended to teach for as long as he could stand. Clark and Sauk Rapids Superintendent Greg Vandal met with Frederick to draft a plan for his return to the classroom--a plan that included putting clergy and mental-health professionals on call to support students and staff members, hiring a co-teacher (Kawlewski), and assembling the parents of Frederick's 24 pupils for a meeting before classes began in the fall.

At that meeting, Frederick told parents that he intended to speak honestly to the children about his illness and impending death. "I wanted parents to know that this was not something I was going to skirt," he says. "I was going to pay homage to what I was going through. I told them that when a teachable moment came up, I was going to talk about it."

Not one parent objected. No one removed a child from Dennis Frederick's class. And so he taught.

Despite the district's care-fully constructed plan and Frederick's determination to teach at his best, the year didn't start well. The first week of school, he was too ill to take his place at the head of the classroom. Deb Kawlewski stepped in, gently beginning the long period of transition, carefully explaining why Mr. Frederick wasn't there.

The next week, though, Frederick returned with newfound vigor. "He became a stronger teacher coming back this fall, no question in my mind," says Clark, who visited the classroom often. "He taught like every day was his last day. The amount of energy he put into it was just exhausting. He put his entire heart and soul into everything he did. His lessons were even more exciting than before. He could take a simple science lesson that may have been ho-hum before and turn it into something magical."

For Kawlewski, who had never met Dennis Frederick before this school year, the first few weeks were eye-popping. "In the beginning, he seemed so strong and so energetic, and his teaching style was so filled with enthusiasm, you just couldn't tell the man was dying of cancer. There was a lot going on here, and the kids loved it."

But as the weeks wore on, Kawlewski could see how the performance sapped her co-teacher's strength. "He had his down times, too," she says. "The last couple of weeks, I could tell he was getting tired a lot. If he was up there teaching, you probably couldn't tell. But at the end of the day, after the kids had gone, he'd be up in the front of the classroom, exhausted and in pain."

Jeff Meade is a Philadelphia-based writer.

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