My Daughter’s School
A grieving father finds solace in the classroom.
Last night, I visited my daughter’s school.
I stood alone in her classroom, looking at the small desks lined up in a row. Each desk had two pencils, placed neatly in the upper right corner, and a tiny chair underneath. Hanging from the backs were packs filled with report cards and student notes.
I peeked at one of the report cards. The teacher had informed the parents of one student that their daughter “really isn’t what I expected.” According to the report card, this student was “somewhat good at singing” and “enjoys drawing divas.”
I wanted to read the students’ notes too. But each one had a drawing of a bee, saying, “I’ll sting you if you peek.” So I didn’t.
Spread across the front of the room was a cursive writing chart. There also was a behavior chart, marked to show whether each student’s conduct was in the green, yellow or red zone. All of the markers were in the green, because all of the students were well behaved. Indeed, even though it was 11 o’clock at night, they were sitting quietly in their chairs with perfect posture. Without the slightest complaint, they were looking attentively toward the teacher’s desk, awaiting the next lesson.
Lest anyone feel the need to report my visit to the authorities, I should clarify something. The students were dolls belonging to my daughter, Catherine. The classroom is in our attic.
Catherine loved school and she was fascinated by the daily routine. She thrived on rules. When she was diagnosed with Stage IV neuroblastoma and had to miss school or arrive late, she always wanted to make sure that her absences were properly accounted for and excused. One day, when Catherine had been absent for several weeks because of cancer treatments, her second-grade teacher at Glebe Elementary was busy lining up the class for an assembly when she noticed a red tardy slip waving in her face. She looked down to find Catherine grinning up at her and thrusting the slip into her hands. Only after the paperwork was complete did Catherine happily join her classmates in line.
Catherine loved school so much that she decided one wasn’t enough. She meticulously constructed a classroom in our attic and hired herself as the teacher. Even when her disease made it difficult to climb the steep stairs, she continued to go up there and spend hours by herself. She sat on the floor making desks, chairs, lockers, textbooks, worksheets, chore charts, miniature artworks, tiny certificates for the “Cleanest Desk Award,” and doll-sized Christmas cards for the students. She painstakingly wrote formal report cards and surreptitious student notes. Catherine enjoyed being the teacher and must have been good at it—sitting on top of the teacher’s desk was a blue ribbon saying “#1 Teacher.”
I stood last night in this amazing classroom. It was very quiet, with the dolls still sitting at their desks, still watching for their teacher to return.
I wished that I could tell them that Catherine had simply grown up; that she’d reached the age when she no longer felt like playing with dolls. But the truth was harder. The truth was that their teacher wasn’t coming back.
Catherine died from her cancer on April 1, 2011, shortly after her eighth birthday. She didn’t get to finish the second grade.
My wife and I can’t bring ourselves to dismantle the classroom. The Magic Marker colors may fade and the Scotch tape may lose its grip, but the place still embodies the beauty and courage of our daughter. Her creativity. Her sense of humor. Her love of her teachers and friends. Her intense desire to live. Her stubborn determination. Even when her legs had been fractured by tumors, she kept climbing the attic stairs to create a world in which she was a normal child—and an extraordinary teacher. It was her great escape from cancer. It was her triumph.
How do you pack that away into a storage box?
The classroom occupies one small corner of our house. Catherine, however, fills every corner of my heart. When I close my eyes, I see drawings of divas and hear somewhat good singing. I try every day to live up to the words that I found on a tiny report card in my daughter’s school.
It was the last message on the page.
“Don’t worry,” the teacher wrote, “you’ll do fine even without me.”
Tom Blair is an attorney and has lived in Arlington for more than 20 years. In honor of their daughter, Tom and his wife, Ellen, created the Catherine Elizabeth Blair Memorial Foundation to support research to fight neuroblastoma. Visit blairfoundation.org to learn more.