Yesterday, I got a frantic phone call from a teacher that there was a crisis in one of our first grade classroom - no heart leaping here, my heart sank right down to my ankles. The crisis was that a little girl brought her two goldfish for show and tell and one of them, Joe, expired during the day. The teacher said she had a class full of crying children and she didn't know what to do. So I had to do a dead goldfish intervention at the end of the day. Of course, who should I call on but my dear friend Fred Rogers and his book, When a Pet Dies. Fred always has the answer in difficult situations.
I went into the classroom, armed with my best shot at taking the crisis down a notch and was greeted by tears, just like the teacher said. The little girl who was the owner of the now dead goldfish was smack dab in the middle of the group - sobbing - and the children around her were patting her on the back and trying their best to make her feel better. Off to my right, was the floating dead goldfish named Joe with his bowl-mate, Molly swimming around him. I wondered for a second if Molly was traumatized as well and would she gain any comfort from Fred's story? I don't really speak Fish . . .
You have to love the raw emotions of kids. They are just out there for all to see and they don't hold anything back. They don't know yet about hiding what they feel when they lose something that's dear to them. They don't know yet that they are not supposed to wear their hearts on their sleeves. We read Fred's story and in the end, the teacher helped the student scoop Joe out of the bowl with a spoon and we prepared a fish casket for him - an empty pencil box lined with school grade quality Kleenex (this means as rough as a corn cob). The student's dad came in early and took his daughter home as well as Joe, now prepared for a proper burial.
As they walked out the door, I felt good about the way we handled Joe's death. Joe didn't swim back to life and our little student didn't really walk out feeling any better but I know one thing . . . the teacher and I listened to how these kids were feeling and we took it seriously. Someday, they'll look back and remember the day the goldfish died in first grade and they'll remember that their teacher took the time away from academics and taught them about things that happen in real life. Rest in peace Joe.