SUNDAY, OCT. 15, 2006

Rebecca Nappi: Teaching kids about grown-up life

Sandpoint teacher Linda Dallmann looks nothing like Mrs. Hildebrand, the fictional teacher she created. Dallmann wears sweeping skirts and funky tops and has an Earth mother sensibility. Mrs. Hildebrand is a pearls-and-nylons woman.

Mrs. Hildebrand arrived in Dallmann’s imagination six years ago as Dallmann waited for her third chemotherapy treatment at North Idaho Cancer Center in Coeur d’Alene. She began scribbling on a napkin, and the story poured forth. Dallmann made this pact: If I survive breast cancer, I will write this children’s book.

Last spring, she self-published “The Kids in Mrs. Hildebrand’s Class.” It’s about a teacher diagnosed with cancer and the ways her students deal with it.

I spent a day recently in Dallmann’s sixth-grade classroom at Washington Elementary School in Sandpoint. The beginning of the school year nationwide had already been marked by terrible violence. In Bailey, Colo., a man killed a 16-year-old girl and sexually assaulted others. In Wisconsin, a 15-year-old shot his principal. And then 10 Amish girls were shot in their small schoolhouse; five of the girls died.

Caring parents and teachers could not shield the children in those schools from the violence. The students are changed forever now, due to the horror that touched them where they live every day.

Breast cancer is violence in the body. It can change everything. Dallmann was a week away from starting school again in August 2000 when the cancer was discovered. It was her 27th year of teaching, her 10th year at Washington Elementary School.

Dallmann returned to her classroom within a week after her surgery; she craved normalcy. “My No. 1 priority was getting well,” she said. “My No. 2 priority was the kids.”

She and the school nurse talked with the sixth-graders about her cancer. The kids made a pact. They would give Dallmann a hug a day. They would not allow her to carry anything.

On Valentine’s Day 2001, six of the sixth-grade boys shaved their heads, in solidarity with their teacher who lost her hair during chemotherapy. They explained: “We realize that having no hair is only a small part of what you are going through. Maybe this will help you not focus on your hair.”

Dallmann wrote the book to provide a much-needed resource for schools where a teacher is diagnosed with cancer. Mrs. Hildebrand teaches first-graders, because “first-graders don’t know how to cover things up well,” Dallmann said. “I wanted the emotion to show.”

The day I spent in Dallmann’s classroom, the sixth-graders surprised me with their emotions. They were huggers, chatterers, question-askers. When I asked them to write short essays on what they learned from reading Dallmann’s book, they didn’t hesitate.

“I learned that you can’t take life for granted, even when life sucks you down,” wrote Jessica Strickland.

Dallmann’s cancer changed her as a teacher. “I’m a Capricorn. I like to not break the rules. As I let go of myself, I eased up on the kids, too.”

As I watched Dallmann interact with her students, I realized how our teachers taught us about grown-up life, by sometimes showing us the deeper currents adults struggle against. Our teachers suffered heartbreaks, illnesses, disappointments, betrayals and loss of loved ones. We didn’t understand then that they also made choices. They could grow bitter from these hardships, and take the bitterness out on students, or they could use the hardships as teaching moments.

Dallmann has chosen the teaching-moment route. Many of the teachers in the violence-shocked schools will make the same choice. These teachers will never know where their example leads in the lives of their students, but it will be a good place, I believe, and one of the best antidotes to violence.

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