A Lesson Before Dying

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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.

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."

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