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A Lesson Before Dying

By Jeff Meade — March 01, 1998 20 min read
Diagnosed with cancer, Dennis Frederick stayed in the classroom to teach about death

In the cluster of homes surrounding Pleasantview Elementary School and extending down the gently sloping hill toward the Mississippi River, twinkling bulbs dangle from rooftop rain gutters and peek out from snow-dusted trees and bushes. Overlooking it all, at the crest of the hill, is a huge five-pointed star, shining from high atop a spindly tower. In the weeks approaching the holidays, the town of Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, looks like a scene from a child’s model-train set.

Like most of the world, Sauk Rapids is waiting for Christmas. So it is in Dennis Frederick’s 3rd grade classroom at Pleasantview, where candy-colored construction paper Christmas lights are strung from wall to wall. But Frederick, a longtime 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 from school and endured a year of chemotherapy and radiationonly to find the cancer had spread. Last May, doctors predicted he had six months to live. Given the option for more aggressive therapy, he declined. Instead, he made plans to return, for as long as he was physically able, to the place where he has been happiest, back to the classroom and his kids.

“I never thought that I would not go back,’' he explains, “even though I was tired, even though I didn’t feel good. I looked forward to seeing the kids.’' When school opened this fall, Frederick resolved to teach with the vigor and enthusiasm that are his trademark in Sauk Rapids. 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 his children touched a much broader audience. His was a lesson on death and how to face it, but so much more: It was a lesson about life.

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

T o 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. In the living room is a Christmas tree decorated mostly with an assortment of bear ornaments. Against the far wall stands a Baldwin upright, with Czerny studies and Beethoven sheet music propped on the stand. 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. The boys’ artwork graces the walls.

On the 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.’' An odd sentiment, perhaps, for someone facing death at a young age.

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—six feet, two inches—and though he once carried 190 pounds on a solid, athletic frame, he now looks frail, almost birdlike, 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, Delaware, 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. As a high schooler, Frederick started at center for Chisolm’s basketball team, a longtime powerhouse. He averaged 10 points a game and won all-district honors. In his senior year, Chisolm 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 Dennis 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. Frederick’s a straight arrow: Much of his 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,’' he 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.’'

P leasantview Elementary School is a sprawling complex of pods, built around the time school architects began designing buildings that resembled NASA mission control rather than dingy, hollowed-out monuments of granite. 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 a good six inches over the tallest student.

Dennis 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. In a far corner of the room is Frederick’s desk, outfitted with a Macintosh work station. 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, ears. A photo of Dennis Frederick, his wife, and 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. His Airness, Mr. Frederick.

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. Tall and skinny, he’s not above suddenly striking a goofy, storklike pose to get their attention. He’s proudest of his use of “wow’’ cards, which are awarded for good behavior and redeemed by the children for little 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 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-old children 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, hiring a co-teacher (Deb Kawlewski), and assembling the parents of Frederick’s 24 students 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 carefully 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. 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,’' observes Jean 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 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.’'

By the time their teacher’s pain became obvious to the children, they had been amply prepared. Frederick had made certain of that. In his first week back on the job, he had explained his illness in simple terms they could understand. Cancer is like a big, bad germ that eats the cells in your body, he told them, but it’s not contagious. You don’t need to worry about getting sick from me, he explained. Most of all, Frederick had worked to ease their fears. He told them that he would probably die before the end of the school year, but he made it clear that this was a part of the life cycle.

For many of Frederick’s students, the subject of death was a scary unknown, like the unexplained bump in the night. After all, few adults are eager to raise the subject of death with children. “I asked them, ‘How many times have you sat down and talked to someone who is dying?’ Very few raised their hands,’' says Frederick. “I told them that that was one experience they were going to have this year and that, as much as they wanted to, we would talk about it, bring it out into the open.’'

As the weeks passed, Frederick reported to his students about his trips to the doctor, updating them on his condition. He talked to them about the pain, and he lifted his shirt to show them the morphine patch that he used to control it. On a few occasions, the children saw the pain that morphine couldn’t touch, the deep-down sadness of impending loss. Sometimes, as when he read to the children from Leo Buscaglia’s life-cycle fable, The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, he wept openly. Difficult moments, but a part of the process. The children seemed to understand, responding to him with typical honesty and kindness. They were tentative at first, but gradually they began to ask questions: “How do you feel? Are you getting sicker? Are you going to be with us much longer?’'

He answered all their questions simply and directly. “I really tried to be spontaneous with it. I didn’t have to plan it. I had thought about some of the things I wanted to say, but I really wanted the kids to draw it out and attack the issues from where they were coming from.’'

Death, however, did not shroud Dennis Frederick’s classroom in sadness. A child’s life is crowded with new emotions and feelings, and there’s really no time to dwell too much on illness, especially in the days and weeks approaching Christmas. Not when there’s math to learn, and a new science curriculum to explore, and visions of sugar plums and toys dancing in your head. “They’re just normal 3rd graders,” explains Deb Kawlewski of the class’s reaction to Frederick’s illness. “Most of the time, they’re not thinking about it. They have a whole different perspective. It’s probably harder for adults to understand it.’'

The town of Sauk Rapids could well be the model for Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegone. Although it sits just a five-minute drive across the Mississippi from the populous university city of St. Cloud, it is very much a small town, boasting just 9,000 residents. Benton Drive, a four-lane highway that runs along the river, is the town’s main drag. It is bordered on one side by a cluster of fast-food joints—Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen, Subway, and the like—and on the other by a locally owned jewelry shop, a garage, Czarnetski’s Hardware, the Sauk Rapids Volunteer Fire Co., a Walgreen’s, and, at the lower end, a Coborn Superstore. Along the river, the ducks and geese nestle in the reeds bordering Lion’s Park.

In such a town, the illness of one teacher ripples outward, touching everyone, like a pebble cast into the Mississippi. Cyndi Hartsworm, whose daughter Nicole is in Frederick’s class, has heard some in the town question the decision to allow a dying man to teach. “I’ve heard some people say they thought he was being selfish,” Hartsworm says. “One woman said to me, ‘He’s getting those children involved in his life, and then he’s going to die.’ '' Some parents also worried about the impact of Frederick’s death on their children.

The earlier we talk to children about death, the better their understanding will be.

Still, most in the community know Frederick’s reputation as a teacher and have put their faith in him. For Hartsworm, that faith has been rewarded. Nicole, who has had problems in school in the past, has had an exceptional year, thanks largely to Dennis Frederick. “He’s a very positive teacher,” she says. “I’ve never addressed a teacher like him before. He focuses on what every child does well.’'

Hartsworm knows that her child and others in the class are very much aware of her teacher’s ordeal. She says Nicole scans the obituaries every day to see if Dennis Frederick has died. Recently, Nicole redeemed one of her “wow’’ cards for a picture of the teacher. “We put it in a frame in her room,’' Hartsworm says. “It was more important to her than a toy.’'

But seeing her daughter cope with her teacher’s eventual death has convinced Hartsworm that Frederick was right to continue teaching. “Children don’t usually see death,’' she says. “We shield them from a lot of things. But death is a part of life.’' Frederick’s students, she is confident, have been well prepared for that eventuality.

When Frederick told school officials last year that he wanted to teach his students about his illness and its inevitable outcome, they weighed the likely effects—both positive and negative—on the children. But they eventually agreed. “Talking about death is something that educators don’t do, possibly because we’re afraid we’ll infringe on someone’s religious beliefs or something,” explains Pleasantview Elementary psychologist AnneMary Wielkiewicz. “But it’s important. The earlier we talk to children about death, the better their understanding will be. It won’t be this scary thing you can’t talk about.”

Richard Fingarson, program coordinator for the Central Minnesota Mental Health Center in St. Cloud, finds the district’s approach laudable; the school system, he says, has become a trendsetter in responding to a mental health crisis. “To let the school and the community in on this, dealing with a terminal illness so openly rather than isolating Dennis, is courageous,’' Fingarson says. “They really thought about kids’ needs, recognizing that kids deal with a terminal illness differently than grown-ups do.’'

In particular, Fingarson praises the district’s decision to let children explore the issues of death naturally. The district easily could have focused on death and dying to the exclusion of everything else, he says, but it appears to have struck what is admittedly a fragile balance. “They tried to respectfully deal with the crisis but with the understanding that kids need normalcy and security, too. And the teaching staff has done a tremendous job of doing just that, modeling normalcy, because life does go on.’'

So far, Fingarson and Wielkiewicz say, the children seem to be responding well. Still uncertain, though, is how the adults will hold up. Cyndi Hartsworm worries that many parents are more upset than the children. Pleasantview’s teachers, too, have wrestled with the tragedy unfolding in their midst. For most children, death is an abstraction, explains Kathryn Gainey, another Pleasantview 3rd grade teacher. There’s a limit to what they can truly understand. Not so with grown-ups. “What made it scary for adults is that we know it could happen to any one of us,’' she says. “I don’t think kids come to the same conclusion.’'

Frederick understands that primal adult fear. “I’ve taken care of myself, I’ve exercised, I’ve always eaten well. I’ve respected my body. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I always got the rest I needed. That’s been the real shocker to most people. They look at me, and they think: It could happen to me.’'

Some teachers have taken a cue from Frederick’s calm acceptance of the inevitable. In an interview this fall with the St. Cloud Times, Brad Olsen spoke of a run with his friend that had taken them through a cemetery: “Dennis motioned toward the gravestones and said, ‘Be sure to stop by and say hi,’ and he chuckled.”

After weeks of interviews and unexpected intrusions, he is amazed at the outpouring of love and support and, to a degree, he seems sustained by it.

But in the natural tendency to care for the children, Jean Clark admits, the adults almost forgot to take care of themselves. Dennis Frederick’s illness, she says, had a sweeping impact on the school community in Sauk Rapids. Frederick’s wife, Sandy, is a paraprofessional at Hillside, another elementary school in the district, and the couple has a son enrolled in each building.

“In a sense, we’ve all been grieving for all these months,’' says Clark. The district called meetings at each building and brought in mental health professionals to help teachers and others cope. Dennis Frederick participated in one of the meetings. “It was very tearful,” she says. “It was so heartbreaking. It felt like a goodbye, but it was probably the best thing we could have done.’'

M uch to Frederick’s surprise, his story quickly spread beyond the district and the community. Reporters came from Minneapolis and St. Paul, from National Public Radio. He was featured in two NBC Nightly News reports and was the subject of a long feature on ABC’s 20/20. Camera crews became a regular fixture around Pleasantview, which in its way was as much of an education as Frederick’s continuing presence.

Deb Kawlewski recalls the media siege with some discomfort because, for a time, their prying eyes were also on her. Yet with all the attention, the man in the eye of the storm was calm. “I asked him, how can you deal with this? Aren’t you nervous? He said, ‘I’ve been preparing for this all my life. It was almost like it was meant to happen. I finally get to share myself, and what I believe.’ He knew he was helping other people in the same situation, but he was also helping himself.’'

As more media carried Frederick’s story, cards and letters came pouring in, all expressing support for Dennis Frederick. The outpouring of affection was, at times, overwhelming. “I don’t think we realized the number of people we were touching,’' says Jean Clark. “We’ve had people calling us from around the country. I don’t think any of us could have dreamed it would take this direction. One thing we’ve heard over and over: It was the opportunity for adults to start talking to their kids about death and dying. And that’s what Dennis has done. He’s given us permission to talk about an uncomfortable subject. He’s shown us how to do it.’'

Virtually everyone would have understood if Frederick, in the few weeks remaining to him, simply told the rest of the world to go away. But that’s not his style. As he looks about his living room, he spots a pair of ceramic lighthouses on the bookshelf. They were sent to him by a woman who had heard his story, someone who wanted to give him something in return. His eyes shine with delight as he talks about the gift. After weeks of interviews and unexpected intrusions, he is amazed at the outpouring of love and support and, to a degree, he seems sustained by it.

Still, there’s something missing, something that’s been missing ever since he left his classroom, his children, and his teaching on November 11. It was a moment he knew would come, but nothing on earth could have prepared him for it. “It was probably one of the hardest days I’ve known,’' he says, his raspy voice lowering almost to a whisper. “I had gone in that morning to teach science. Normally, I would teach science from 9 to 10, but due to Veterans Day activities, I wasn’t able to do it that day. So I just putzed around the classroom, did some things that needed to be done. I had planned to teach math after lunch. I was prepared and ready to go. I taught for maybe five or 10 minutes. After that, the energy was just gone. I’m the kind of person who wants to get up and go with the kids. That day, I couldn’t do it. I sat down. I knew then that I was done.’'

After that day, Dennis Frederick visited his classroom, but only sporadically. His health deteriorated, and soon there was little he or anyone else in Sauk Rapids could do but wait.

Christmas came and went. The twinkling lights came down, and the town carried on with life’s routine. For Frederick, there were sweet memories of a last lesson done well. “I’ve been a better teacher this year than I’ve ever been. It was kind of like my last hurrah. I worked really hard. I did my best. I know I did.”