Ms. Howard loved her Grade 4 students at Bloomington Elementary School.
She taught them math, English, science, and music, but of all the subjects she taught, she felt the Death Lesson was the most important.
She sat at her desk grading spelling quizzes. Her face was pleasant with big, smart eyes, thin cheeks, and a subtle chin. She wore a knee-length navy blue skirt and a white blouse. Her brown hair, finely streaked grey, was in a neat ponytail.
She looked at her watch. 2:55 p.m. In five minutes, Mr. Jameson would be waiting outside the door.
She capped her red pen, placed it neatly on her desk, and took a sip of honey-sweetened tea before taking to the front of the class. From there she could see every student. For the most part they were well-behaved and she was pleased with how they had developed over the year. She often described herself as a farmer planting seeds, hoping something would grow. This year would be a good harvest.
“Okay class,” Ms. Howard said, snapping her fingers. The kids looked up. “Put away your books. It’s time for our last lesson of the day.” Ms. Howard put a piece of chalk to the blackboard. She wrote “DEATH” and underlined it. The chalk edge crumbled and its pieces tinkled against the metal sill. “Can anyone tell me what this is?”
A keen student raised her hand.
“Yes, Molly. Go ahead.”
“Death is what happens when you get old and fall asleep forever.”
“Right! Death is the moment a person’s life ends. We are born, we grow old, then we die. After a person dies it can look quite a lot like they’re sleeping.”
Ms. Howard wrote “OLD AGE” under “DEATH” on the blackboard. “But not just old people die. Death can happen many years or only a few minutes after a person is born. Can anyone tell me about the different ways you can die?”
“You can crash in a car, ” said a grubby child named Dicky from the back of the class.
“Good, Dicky. Your body can get so damaged that it doesn’t work anymore. Lots of people die when the car, train or airplane they’re travelling in has an accident.”
She wrote “ACCIDENTS” on the board.
Many children raised their hands this time.
“You can get eaten by a bear.”
“Yes, animals can be very dangerous,” Ms. Howard replied. “Bears, wolves and sharks kill things to eat. Sometimes they kill people.” She wrote “ANIMALS” on the chalkboard. “Not just big animals are dangerous. Smaller animals like snakes, spiders and insects can kill a person with a single bite. Anything else?”
“My grandma died of cancer,” said a boy named Randy.
“Yes, cancer’s a big one,” Ms. Howard agreed. “It can affect your lungs, skin, bones, even your brain. People can get lots of different diseases and infections.”
She wrote “DISEASE” on the board.
Now, there was a faint knock at the door. Ms. Howard put the chalk nub on the sill and gave an excited little clap. “Now that you know what death is and a couple of ways a person can die, it’s time to introduce you to our special guest.”
She disappeared outside the classroom for a moment and returned pushing a gurney with a large, sheeted shape on it. Its wheels squeaked all the way to the front of the room. Looking at the shape, the children shifted in their seats.
“All right, class, meet Mr. Jameson.” She pulled the sheet down a little, exposing a the head and shoulders of a dead man.
The cadaver’s skin was cloudy-sky grey, and his hair was a greasy nest of feathered silver strands. His eyes were closed, but his mouth hung slightly open showing teeth that were worn but clean and straight, including a gold one further back.
A overwhelming smell of artificial flowers filled the room, masking the smell of formaldehyde and other chemicals.
“Mr. Jameson died two days ago. He died from a stroke, which is a form of disease.”
Dicky stood for a better view. His eyes widened, and he sat back down. Others looked like they could cry; some were keenly fascinated.
Ms. Howard went to her desk and picked up a piece of paper which had notes about the dead man’s life. “Mr. Jameson was 59 years old,” she said. “He went to university and worked as a lawyer right here in Bloomington. He married his wife, Jocelyn, in 1981 and had two children. His three grandchildren are only a few years younger than you guys.”
Ms. Howard put her notes down and sat on the edge of her desk. She looked at the expressions on the students’ faces, which were a mixture of grim and curious.
“Mr. Jameson worked hard to create a nice life for his family. He owned lots of expensive things, a house, and cars. He knew he was going to die, but do you think he knew when he was going to die?”
The children shook their heads.
“That’s right. Mr. Jameson’s death was a surprise to him and his whole family. He was probably expecting to live twenty or thirty more years. That means a long list of things he wanted to do, but will never get to. What sorts of things will Mr. Jameson not be able to do?”
Hands shot up all over the room. Ms. Howard drew a vertical line to the right of the list under the word “DEATH” and added the students’ responses as she selected them one by one. She wrote: “Eat a hotdog at The World Series,” “ride an elephant,” “fly a fighter plane,” and “see chocolate bars being made.”
She agreed these would all be excellent ways for a person to spend their time. Then picked up a stack of worksheets from her desk that every student in the district was expected to fill out.
She passed them out row by row until each student had one.
“Please write your name at the top of the paper and use the rest of the sheet to create a list of some of the things you’d like to do before you die. Tomorrow we’re going to set goals so you can get these things done and add more to the list.”
The kids all got to work, even Dicky.
Ms. Howard stood beside Mr. Jameson and studied his face for a few moments before pulling the sheet back over it. As she wheeled him out, she smiled and said, “Say goodbye to Mr. Jameson, everyone!”
“Bye, Mr. Jameson!” the students said in unison. A few of them even waved as the wheels squeaked out into the hall where orderlies were waiting him away.
When Ms. Howard returned, she sat at her desk and looked at the leftover worksheets. She took a sip of tea and read the top line.
“Someday I will die. It’s important that I get the following things done as quickly as I can before time runs out.”
She picked up her red pen and hovered the tip over top-most blank. Instead of writing, she bounced the papers on their bottom edges, smoothed them into a neat stack, and placed them in her bottom drawer for next year’s students to use. And, with that, she continued marking quizzes.