By Guest Blogger Kelly Nichols

Seems like I have been teaching forever. Although each group of students somehow gels differently, I love putting together the unique riddle that is a child. I take care in doing it because I seek to uncover the extraordinary. This year, the puzzles have come together in ways I never dreamed I’d see in a classroom. Our little family encountered a tragedy. September 30 was that last day that one of our own was able to join us. Sweet Emma, the quiet soul who lights up the room when she smiles, has been diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer. I know we are not her family by blood but we are her family nonetheless. We love her. Of this I am certain.

Emma’s parents so graciously allowed me to visit her that first day at Brenner’s. They were exhausted, confused, and yet welcoming. My Emma was there with that smile on her face. We talked, we laughed, and she even asked for work. Circumstances did not define this one. She was planning ahead.  When I asked her what she wanted me to tell the class, she replied, “Just tell them that my leg hurts and I am in the hospital.”

Delivering that message to a room full of inquisitive souls was challenging. Questions were left unanswered. I didn’t think it was my place. Parents received an email explanation along with encouragement to share what each thought was necessary. The inhabitants of room 406 became, in those few moments, bonded in our angst for the one who wasn’t there.

A member of our family was away and none of us were sure what to do. We didn’t fully (nor do we still) comprehend just what it means. What we do know is that it feels wrong and we have to do something.

On one visit, Emma’s grandmother mentioned to me that they had a table set up for Emma to paint rocks and we could help by finding smooth ones. That was the weekend hurricane Matthew came through. Nonetheless students braved the weather to find stones for me to deliver. One rough and tumble boy even searched the creek in his back yard for the perfect stone. He presented his find to me as if it were a gem.

The kids were thrilled to know that Emma would be keeping up with classwork. That insinuated a promise that she would return. They collected items I did not even think of to be certain Emma had it all. One child even took a book out of her desk. She had been following my read aloud. She thought Emma should keep up so when she returns, she’ll know exactly where we are.

Two weeks to the day, Emma was able to return. Four days after her first chemo treatment, that brave nine-year-old marched down the hall to room 406. If you’ve read the story of the prodigal son, you know the joy that exploded in our classroom. We couldn’t get enough of her; none of us could. We wanted to sit with her, touch her, play with her at recess, and chat with her. No wonder she tuckered out after a couple of hours. She left and our tears flowed. We tried to talk about how to act when she came back. But seriously, how do you treat someone “normally” when you are just so happy she is there?

I’ve seen real compassion, genuine caring, sincere joy, deep sorrow, utter confusion, and selflessness from a precious group of children. They all happen to be mine for the moment. We are a family, surrounding, protecting our missing member. We talk about her constantly. We miss her every day. We will support her like the family we’ve become. She’s ours and we claim her.

We’ve just finished a book in which the Italian grandmother often uses the phrase “Tutto va bene” (All is well). Talking with a group, one child explained, “It’s like it is with Emma. Life has its ups and downs. It goes through good times and bad.  But in the end, all is well.” And you know, somehow I know it will be.