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Story of the Death of a Kindergarten Student

by Elaine Leet (21 September 2002)

Early in 2002, one of my kindergarten students, Allen, died of cancer. I knew of his condition since his father enrolled him in late May 2001. In Dealing with the Death of a Kindergarten Classmate, I explain how we prepared his classmates for his illness, how they reacted, and how other teachers can deal with such a situation.

This article is a person view of the experience.

I remember Allen

Most vividly I remember the brown eye always lit with life. At first I had to concentrate on gazing into that eye because the patch over the other eye was distracting. But in the single good eye Allen’s inquisitive, cooperative spirit always shone through.

Allen was 5 years old when I met him. Early in our relationship, as I was tying his shoe, Allen told me he was going to heaven soon. He would be with his mother who was there waiting for him. He asked if it rained in heaven and I said that I had never heard of it raining in heaven.

The challenge

I was teacher to Allen and 17 other 5-year-olds during my fourth year in this profession. I had begun to feel confident in my knowledge of what was expected of me and in my ability to get the job done.

It was curious that when Allen became my student, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. That was probably because Allen’s dad was so knowledgeable about Allen’s cancer and was incredibly willing to share the information. He kept me posted as each step of the illness took it’s course. It was also due to the perfect support of my principal in giving me access to all of the materials I requested. Mostly it was due to Allen’s attitude.

After our initial meeting, I knew that supporting Allen would not be my challenge. My challenge would be in supporting his classmates as they witnessed the growth of the visible eye tumor and the deterioration of Allen’s health, and the aftermath of his inevitable death.

Everyone was touched

Of course, I wasn’t the only person in our school touched by this. Virtually every member of the staff and the entire student body eventually had a role. I became the teacher who treated Allen like any other student. I gave him the respect of normal expectations. My teaching assistant gave fun. Our special needs teachers and assistant gave tender hearted playful practice in academic skills. And our custodians willingly gave up their lunch break to give Allen a jolly bus ride home at noon.

Our fifth grade reading buddies never asked an inopportune question or made a comment that got back to me. Their teacher chose Allen’s buddy with great care and notified her family of the situation so that they could support her. Allen’s daily bus driver would brook no comments from other passengers about the eye patch.

Allen’s brothers defended him with gusto when they perceived a possible impropriety. In fact, all of the student body was coached by their teachers and put the lessons into action in refraining from making comments or staring when they saw Allen in the hall. Allen became a treasure to the cafeteria staff as well.

The best gift

Perhaps it was my other students who gave Allen the best gift. They chose to play with him. They were sensitive to his weakness as the cancer depleted his body. But from the first day when Allen willingly removed his eye patch to show his curious classmates the closed eyelid beneath, they never teased or avoided Allen.

There were several books about children and debilitating disease as well as a great coloring book offering a child’s definition of cancer that helped my students understand, accept and cope. We held a memorial ceremony where all of the kindergarten, the fifth grade buddies who had become so special to us, and many other staff members sang and launched balloons and dedicated a tree to Allen’s memory.

During the spring kindergarten graduation I placed a graduation hat on an empty chair where Allen’s place would have been in alphabetical order. His father accepted a diploma on Allen’s behalf. Some adults got teary eyed, but the children who were my greatest concern, found it to be appropriate and comforting to know that Allen was still a part of our class although he was a part from us.


So that’s about it. Allen was a great gift to me and to my students. We are grateful that his family chose to share Allen with us.

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Elaine Leet is a kindergarten teacher at Mariam Boyd School in Warrenton, North Carolina.

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