“Elaine’s Circle: A Teacher, A Student, A Classroom and One Unforgettable Year”
By Bob Katz. Munn Avenue Press, 2022. (Second edition) 167 pages. $14.99.
Some years ago, veteran writer Bob Katz, who lives in Massachusetts, set out to write a book that would collect 20 or 30 inspiring stories about teachers. In the course of his research, he learned of a teacher who taught fourth grade at Ravenwood Elementary School in Eagle River, Alaska. Katz soon abandoned his original idea and wrote instead of that remarkable teacher — Elaine Moore — and the events in her classroom during the 1992-93 school year, when classmates and their families rallied around a 10-year-old facing terminal brain cancer.
The book, originally published in 2005, is at least as meaningful now as it was when it was new. With the pandemic and the politics surrounding education, teachers and schools have had a hard time of it. It’s refreshing to read of a time and community when people worked together, with good faith and understanding, to support teachers and student learning.
Elaine Moore was a soft-spoken teacher who emphasized listening, questioning, storytelling, and the learning process over work sheets, rote learning, and tests. She liked to gather her students in a circle on the floor, where they — and she — were all on the same level and were encouraged to share their thoughts equally. She taught by example respect, compassion and the importance of community. She liked to take her students on field trips, especially into the outdoors to observe nature. Watching salmon spawn and die, she taught that life was a cycle, one ending connecting to a new beginning, in a continuous flow.
In December of 1992, one of Moore’s students — a cheerful boy named Seamus Farrell — was discovered to have a brain tumor. Moore didn’t want to lose him from school and the lives of his 25 classmates and worked out a plan with his parents to maintain the class’s closeness. She wanted the other students to know the facts, not be shielded from them. She understood that truths, even hard truths, were less frightening than not knowing. She had had cancer herself and found that the openness of children was welcome, compared to the avoidance of the topic by adults.
Once Seamus was confined to home, she instituted a practice in which teams of students visited Seamus at lunchtime to socialize, carry assignments back and forth, and “teach” their classmate what they were learning along with him. Every parent in the class gave permission for this out-of-school activity and helped. One of the last class projects was making Seamus a quilt, with each student creating a square to remind him of what they shared in common.
In the course of their involvement with Seamus and his illness, the fourth-graders learned not just about illness, medical interventions and death but about compassion, courage, the joy of living and life’s randomness. They were encouraged to ask questions — some of which were referred back to their families with respect for varying religious or spiritual beliefs.
When Seamus became very weak and almost unrecognizable in his swollen body, Katz reports, the other children “did not dwell on his infirmity. What they saw was a friend on the edge of death who was the same boy they’d tussled with on the playground and bantered with in class. What they saw was his original self.”
A friend of Moore’s said this: “They saw a classmate going through death, and they wanted to be there for him, and with him. It gave them a sense of what you do with someone who is dying: you help them in any way you can. You make their life good before death takes them. What better way of showing kids how to do that? You can’t read about it. You do it.”
As Moore packed up her room at the end of the school year, Katz tells us she thought about that year’s students and those from her previous teaching years. “She wanted her former students to go on to perform well. She wanted her students to explore the world and explore themselves and be good people to those around them and in the larger communities of which she hoped they now understood themselves to be a part.”
Elaine Moore retired from teaching in 2002. In 2005, she organized Eagle River’s “One Book, One Community” reading program — with “Elaine’s Circle” the book chosen to discuss. She died in 2007.
Seamus’ identical twin Colin died in 2004, from complications of a brain tumor similar to his brother’s.
Moore’s students from that “unforgettable year” would be 40 years old now. Some of them may revisit that time through the republication of “Elaine’s Circle.” It would be interesting to learn what kind of “good people” they might have become from what must have been a formative experience, led by a memorable teacher.