'We know how you feel'

Linked by loss, two classrooms exchange letters of support -- and discover notes of friendship

March 01, 2003|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

The children in Janet Smith's fifth-grade class at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School have never met the children in Rachel Prevette's third-grade class at Northwood Elementary School. Until recently, neither class knew the other existed.

Then, last year, each classroom lost a student to violence. In October, 10-year-old Carnell Dawson Jr., perished with his family in a fire on Preston Street. In December, 8-year-old Marciana Ringo was abducted and killed.

The Dawson tragedy made headlines. The little girl's story did, too. When her picture appeared on television, the students in Carnell's class saw it. When her body was found in the woods, they talked in class about the heartbreaking news. They knew all too well what Marciana's classmates at Northwood were going through. Maybe, suggested Mrs. Smith, there was something the fifth-graders could do.

During this sad time, emotional support is needed. That's why my classmates and I are writing to you.

They weren't grief counselors. They weren't school psychologists. They were 10- and 11-year-old children. They wrote in pencil on wide-ruled paper, in loopy letters, with circles dotting their "i's."

I know you're feeling grief and disbelief. Your school lost a family member and a friend. We did too.

To try and get past this tragedy, ask your principal to bring in grief counselors. Marciana isn't on Earth, but she is still in your hearts.

If you had an argument with her, don't feel guilty. You didn't make her die. If you really, really miss her, you can pray to her. She is in safe hands now.

If you need someone to talk with, you can write us back.

The third-graders in Marciana's class hadn't learned how to write letters yet; that was supposed to happen later this year. But they were so touched and amazed by the fifth-graders' letters that their teacher changed the lesson plan. She read her students the words of condolence - signed "sorrowfully" and "with prayer" and "with care" and "be strong" - and assigned each of them a fifth-grade student to write back to. Janel was paired with Cedric, Raheem with Andre, Jasmin with Tiesha, and so on.

Thank you for reminding us about Marci. We know how you feel. We remembered Marci by making mosaics. Maybe you will want to make a mosaic for Carnell.

After we read your letters we felt a bit better. The killers of both Marciana and Carnell are crazy. We feel bad, because she was here one day and gone the next. Pray for us, we'll pray for you.

She was my best friend. She was strong and helpful, and she was a nice and brave little girl. She liked hamsters, and she liked math. I will read your other letters if your class sends us another letter.

Two tragedies make headlines. Two teachers deal with their grief, console their students and go on teaching. Two empty desks, still bearing their hand-written nametags, pay tribute to the memory of innocent victims. Both desks remain in the classrooms: Carnell's in the pod where he once sat; Marciana's by the door, holding the class question box and lunch money container.

"Our special desk," says Mrs. Prevette.

When the third-graders' letters arrived in the fifth-grade classroom, Carnell's classmates were wide-eyed, particularly when they saw that the responses were individually addressed. The students eagerly read their own, then passed them around. They even looked up "mosaic" in the dictionary and talked to their art teacher about making one.

"We have to write back," one of the fifth-graders said.

OK, said Mrs. Smith. But this time around, she wanted the letters to be different. In fact, she didn't want them to be letters at all. Tragedy wasn't the only thing the students had in common.

Because of the recent snow days, the Valentine's Day cards were a little late to arrive in Mrs. Prevette's class at Northwood Elementary. But that didn't seem to dampen the excitement. There were Barbie-themed Valentines. Nascar Valentines, Valentines with poems and messages inside, each addressed to a classmate of Marciana's and signed by one of Carnell's. One Valentine contained a sheet of folded-up paper, a note from a fifth-grader named Tishawna to a third-grader named Joi.

Happy Valentine's Day ... I was so surprised girl when you wrote back to me.. . You can tell me if you have a Valentine but all I know is if I had one I'd be in trouble by my dad. I heard you were taking a test. I hope you do well.

It wasn't signed "sorrowfully" or "be strong" or "with prayer."

It was signed with four of the most thrilling words a third-grader can hear:

"From your pen pal."

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