In December one of our first grade students died. When we bring it up with the class, "Do you all remember Henry*?" One boy solemnly reports, "He died." At this, another boy squeaks in panicked disbelief "Died?" Henry was a noticeable presence in the class because as his brain tumor was treated with chemotherapy and steroids, his appearance changed drastically. He grew bloated and wheelchair bound. The tumor imposed a pressure that gave him a crossed eye, which his mother would tape a patch over. He became less able to initiate interaction, and required the presence of an extra adult in a room already crowded with little children.
We decide to talk with the students about Henry's death because, after all, what kind of nurturing of imagination or faith and understanding would we be doing if we do not offer children a way to think and talk about death? So together, we read an illustrated children’s book titled, To Everything. Then we ask what they remember about Henry. We ask who they thought might be missing him and how they might feel. The children quickly identify Henry’s closest friend from among themselves and his parents. Towards the end of the discussion, we hear one small voice, "I'm scared." It is funny how we intend to teach one subject and rehearse the lesson in our minds, only to have it disrupted by a truer more profound subject that emerges. A hush falls as a dozen 6 year olds thoughtfully contemplate a common fear that one of them bravely voiced, then, carefully offer to each other their strategies against fear. At the end of the discussion, we offer the children an opportunity to make a painting together for Henry’s parents.
In small groups of six, the students meet me at a table where I laid out a sheet of white silk. While silk painting is not typically children’s art material, I chose it because the quick saturation allows children to see instantaneously the effects of their gesture and the paint dyes. Furthermore it is an extravagantly beautiful medium to work in, and I hope that the aesthetics impress on the children that they were creating a gift that reflects their love for Henry and his parents.
On the silk I had pre-drawn dandelions, which are significant to Henry’s parents because their son found such delight in them, and because most children have associations with discovering the joy of dispersing the cottony seeds. Each group of six students paint within one set of analogous colors. This enables the children to layer washes of different colors without the colors getting muddy. The nature of group painting results in a splendid painting full of a variety in gestures, washes, colors, and watermarks; each a record of a child’s concentration in making a gift for Henry’s parents.
*The real name of the child has been altered to protect the family’s privacy.