You’ve heard the saying – the only certainties in life are death and taxes. Of the two, taxes are arguably less painful. Death, on the other hand, is a reality so serious that most of us don’t expose our children to the concept, unless it’s absolutely necessary.
That makes a funeral happening at a school, where most of those in attendance were children in the second grade, all the more unusual.
“Welcome students and parents. Yes, today we are here for the funeral of ‘I Can’t’” says Ron Toran. Today he’s acting as funeral director. His main role is second grade teacher.
He stands on a hill, by a tree, dressed in a black pinstriped suit with a beige dress shirt and a gray paisley necktie.
He says we’ve gathered together to bury the words “I Can’t.”
“And I’ve heard those words all over the school from you guys and everyone else too: ‘I can’t read that book, it’s too hard.’ ‘I can’t do that Math problem.’ ‘I can’t tie my shoes.’ And what you’re really saying is: ‘I give up.’ And I never want you to give up.”
The children listen attentively. The parents? Quizzically. Everyone stands around a hole in the ground, big enough for the coffin.
Yes, there is a small but very real-looking coffin on the ground, likely the first any of these kids has ever seen. Inside the coffin are papers with the children’s deepest fears written on them – everything they fear they can’t do.
“After tomorrow, these words are not allowed in our classroom anymore,” Toran says.
This is the 25th “I Can’t” funeral Toran has officiated. He’s done one every school year he’s been teaching.
“I’m going to place the coffin with all of our ‘I Can’ts’ in the grave,” he says.
The kids are now allowed to shovel the dirt back into the hole. But, there’s a rule
“You’ll take three scoops and you’ll say: ‘I can do anything!’, ‘I can do anything!’ ‘I can do anything!’ and you’ll say it nice and loud,” Toran says.
The kids are iffy at first.
“I can do anything. I can do anything,” says a little girl.
Then they get bolder.
“I can do anything. I can do anything! I can do anything,” a boy says.
It’s hard to explain why, but most of the grown-ups have tears in their eyes. Perhaps the days when we thought we could do anything are gone. But this exercise seems to be sparking hope in the parents’ hearts, perhaps even awakening old dreams.
So, when it’s their turn to throw on some dirt, the exercise turns cathartic
A kid says “Say it loud and clear!” to his dad.
“I can do anything! I can do anything! I can do anything,” dad says.
Toran tells the kids there are many things they’ll forget in life.
“This is one I hope you remember,” Toran says. “I want to teach you guys how to set goals and reach goals. But before you even set a goal you have to know that you can do it. You have to believe in yourself and know you can do it.”
After the funeral, the parents are dismissed and children go back to their classroom. It’s time to work on goal posters. Toran shows the kids his goal poster – it’s tattered and yellowed. But, the goals he set for himself as a young man are still visible. There’s a picture of a baby girl. He is indeed the father of a girl. There’s a picture of a classroom. He always knew he had a calling to be a teacher. But he tells the kids, there are some goals he still has to achieve – like riding in a hot air balloon
“This one I haven’t achieved yet – I really want to go to outer space,” he says.
Now, it’s the kids’ turn to dream up their life goals. As they write these up, I am reminded of a story Toran told me about a kid who attended the funeral many years ago. The student had learning disabilities, but wanted to attend West Point. His parents told him to set a more realistic goal for himself. His response? “I buried the words ‘I can’t’ back in second grade with Mr. Toran and I am not about to unearth them.” The kid graduated from West Point and asked Toran to attend his graduation ceremony.
The kids currently working on their posters are about to learn what I already know – that they are the last class that will be inspired by this exercise. Even though Toran loves to teach, he is giving it up at the end of May.
“One of the teachers saw me digging after school and said: ‘This is gonna be your last funeral’ And I said ‘Actually my own will be my last but this is the last one I dig for somebody else,” Toran says.
Before his funeral, Toran wants to achieve another one of his goals, pursuing a career as a flight instructor. Over the years, he’s earned his license to fly and has built up his hours. His final lesson to these kids? There will be times when you have to give up something you love to channel all of your energy on the dreams you have yet to achieve.