My parents seemed different that morning. They brought me into school and stayed. I had no idea why all the parents stood in the hallway talking in hushed voices and giving each other hugs. Another teacher stood there helping out Ms. Rhiner. In first and second grade, Ms. Rhiner never had another teacher help her. She sat us down on this dark, ugly, green rug the color of processed seaweed. A dark blue poster with tropical fish swimming around on it was opposite the room from me. We sat in a circle and we sang and did beanbag games. She took out a book with a blue and green cover and a picture a a small boy on a boat on it. The sun started peeking into the room as she started reading to us.
“The small boy left his home to travel all over the world. He said goodbye to his family and set out to have an adventure. The boy set out on an a journey and traveled far, far away…” She read aloud and showed us pictures of the boy in the story. He was traveling across a desert on a camel with humps like huge watermelons in its back, crossing an ocean with stormy white waves. When she finished, she told us that she was going on a long journey as well. We second graders stared into her face with absolute confusion. She looked like she was telling us something important but we could not figure out what it was.
“When are you coming back?” Finlay asked.
“I’m not.” That made us even more confused. Everybody was asking her what she meant. She was completely stoic. She did not cry. She seemed sad, either because we could not figure out what she meant or that she would not be able to see us again, or both. She gave everyone hugs and told us that everything would be all right. We had no idea that anything was not alright. If any passerby had looked in, he or she would see thirty some adults, some crying, some petulantly hugging each other, and some just staring at the twenty-four students that are looking at the adults for some reasonable explanation for their behavior. They gave us the option to leave school and go home. Some took the opportunity to miss school. Most stayed to see if we could get some general idea about Ms. Rhiner’s story. After her story and goodbye, the rest of the day was taught by Ms. Kyle, the other teacher.
It took me about two weeks before I realized that Ms. Rhiner had been trying to convey to us she had breast cancer and that she was going to die. Unlike some patients, she died within three weeks of saying goodbye to her class. When I finally understood, I was incredibly interested in what happens to people after they die. “Where do they go? When I die, will I see them again?” Depending on what you believe your answers may vary.
“One thing can be said,” my parents told me, “is that life is special. We should be thankful for everyone in it and not take anybody for granted even if we spend long amounts of time with him or her.” Still, I think about Ms. Rhiner and remember the impact that the teachers at Winterberry have had on my life.