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May 20, 1994 - Image 60

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1994-05-20

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

credible child." He would walk down the
school hallway and announce, "I've got can-
Before Sebastian came to the class, par-
ents were told of his illness (not a one com-
plained that he would be there) and
students were informed only that "he's not
So Sebastian was treated like anyone else,
and he was expected to follow all the same
Only on rare occasions would anyone
know Sebastian was different. When he got
too tired and could no longer concentrate,
Sebastian would go to the white rock-
ing chair with the blue cushion be-
side the window at the back of the
class. He liked to read there.
Sometimes he fell during recess.
He would have difficulty eating. Lat-
er, he would have seizures.
In the early morning he might not
feel well. "So I would ask him
whether he wanted to go to school,"
his mother says. "He always did."
In early winter of 1993, Sebast-
ian's condition worsened, and it was
dear he would not be coming back for
the second semester. The timing was
important. Everyone else would be
going home for winter break, too, so
Sebastian didn't feel strange when
he learned he would be leaving
school for awhile.
Ms. Mainster understood now that
her son would not live. Sebastian
knew it, too.
"After the remission, he saw him-
self— how his body was breaking
down," she says. "He knew that no
matter how we tried, we couldn't
make it better."
So Sebastian came home to the
wooden floors, the overflowing
plants, the endless toys. Cards and
letters from friends were taped be-
side his bed, and he looked at them often.
He had two months to live — two months,
his mother says, "to prepare to be with God."
At Hillel, Mrs. Charlip also was prepar-
ing: how to tell the students Sebastian
would not return.
"We talked about what a tumor is, and
how unusual it is to have one," she says.
"The students asked if Sebastian was going
to die, and I said, 'Yes."
Ira Kaufman's David Techner came to
talk with the class where the key, he says,
was "anticipating the children's needs."
Among their questions: Whether Sebast-
ian's disease was infectious, and how likely
was it that one of their family members
would die of the same illness.
"I have been a funeral director for 20
years, and I've never heard of it," Mr. Techn-
er reassured them.

Mr. Techner has for years been speaking
with children about death. A frequent guest
on national television programs and in pub-
lic schools, he believes in being honest, let-
ting children handle whatever they say they
are capable of handling, and utilizing Jewish
tradition to the fullest.
"What was the message here?" he says. "It
was the message ofJudaism: Give care and
comfort to the dying."
Mr. Techner met with both parents and
Hillel students. The parents, he says, "were
not only aware of the situation, they were
lovingly aware of it." Not a one ever ex-
pressed anger that a dying boy in
the class might adversely affect his
own child.
When Mr. Techner was 12, a simi-
lar incident occurred in his life —
though school administrators han-
dled it much differently.
One of his fellow students died of
leukemia. Classmates were told
nothing. "I would have gone to visit
him," Mr. Techner says. "Instead,
this kid just flat-out disappeared.
"I'm still affected by it. What a
lonely death.
"That's why Sebastian's story is so
different. At Hillel the whole system
worked. The students will never
think of Sebastian as lonely, or
someone nobody cared about.
"What they learned was not some-
thing you can just sit down and
study," he adds. "What they got was
a lesson more significant than four
years at Harvard. What they
learned was how to be a supportive,
caring friend. What they had was a
lesson in life."
After Sebastian left Hillel in De-
cember, his teacher, administrators
and classmates were determined to
make him feel as much a part of the
school as possible. Mrs. Charlip and
the students, along with Mrs. Iczkovitz and
Hillel headmaster Dr. Mark Smiley, often
went to see Sebastian at his home.
In her classroom, Mrs. Charlip made a
"Sebastian Box," for letters, which she would
She would help Sebastian respond, too.
She points to one letter, still in the room:
"Love," is lightly scrawled in pink, with "Se-
bastian" in purple. "I literally had to hold his
hand that time," she says.
Ms. Mainster remembers well those visits,
and how Sebastian looked forward to them.
Sometimes, he would become sick when his
teacher or principal was there, "so he would
just go in the other room and come back
when he was done."
Ms. Mainster credits the school — and the
flexibility of everyone from the headmaster
to the bus driver — with making Sebastian's


One of
school projects.
He thought
about becoming
a rabbi, and
"wanted to
know Hebrew so

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