MINNEAPOLIS – The hugs lingered a little longer than a typical last day of school at Carondelet Catholic School. The tears came more easily, too.
“I think it’s a once-in-a-lifetime class,” said teacher Kristen Rafferty, tears welling in her own eyes. “I feel lucky that I got them.”
Rafferty’s fourth-graders learned the usual subjects this year – reading, writing and math. But they also taught the whole school a lesson in compassion when one of their classmates was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition.
In November doctors discovered in the brain of Owen Guertin an AVM - short for arteriovenous malformation - a tangle of abnormal blood vessels that, left untreated, could burst.
For Chris and Maria Guertin, Owen’s parents, the bursting of an AVM was no hypothetical. Their 14-year-old niece Sawyer, Owen’s first cousin, died of the same condition two months earlier. The Guertin family was still coming to grips with the loss of Sawyer, when out of precaution, Chris and Maria had Owen tested.
“Had his burst, it would have been catastrophic, it would have been fatal, and it would have been instant,” said Chris Guertin.
As Owen’s parents dealt with their son’s medical crisis and made plans for surgery in Boston, Rafferty broke the news to her Carondelet students. “What Owen was experiencing was hard for me to understand, so I knew it was hard for 9- and 10-year-olds to understand,” Rafferty said.
A bit of clarity came days later as Rafferty read to her class an excerpt from the book “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” the story of Japanese girl with leukemia who sets out to fold a thousand origami cranes.
“As soon as we finished reading the story one of my girls raised her hand, she was like, ‘Miss Rafferty can we make a thousand paper cranes for Owen?’ I was like absolutely – while at the same time thinking, I have zero idea how to make a paper crane, but I will find out,” Rafferty said.
The students dove passionately into the project, making cranes while studying, at recess and at home after school.
They also folded cranes while clutching Owen’s teddy bear, which came to class each day in a school uniform to hold Owen’s place. “You don’t know what condition your son’s going to come back in,” said Owen’s father, brushing away a tear. “And in hindsight I just think it was important not to have, not to have an empty chair.”
The first crane the children folded from orange paper – Owen’s favorite color – sat next to the hospital bed at Boston Children’s Hospital as Owen recovered from 17 hours of surgery.
With their goal set on a thousand cranes, Owen’s classmates kept track of their progress on charts on the classroom wall. “Even though it was a bad thing, it brought us together by praying and by making the cranes and constantly checking off the boxes on the charts,” said Sydney Gunderson, a member of the fourth-grade class. “It brought us all together and made us one big community.”
Rafferty had a unique perspective on Owen’s separation from the class. As a girl, she spent years away from school after contracting a disease that weakened both her bones and immune system. She eventually outgrew the condition and returned to school fulltime her sophomore year.
“It was that age too of entering middle school where if you’re not around people, you tend to stop thinking about them,” Rafferty said of her own experience. “So I wanted to make sure that Owen continued to feel connected, even when he wasn’t here.”
Rafferty decided, for a brief time, academics in room 101 could take a backseat to prayers and paper cranes for Owen. “And maybe they weren’t learning science and maybe they weren’t learning math, but they were learning compassion.”
On Valentine’s Day, Rafferty’s excited class welcomed back Owen for a visit. “Everyone was just like, ‘Oh my gosh Owen, you’re back,’ and we gave him hugs and everyone was happy,” recalls fourth-grader Adie Scheel.
A photo taken that day shows Owen surrounded by his smiling classmates. Well over a thousand paper cranes hung from the ceiling of room 101.
“I just knew the more we made the more Owen would heal, I didn’t want to stop because I wanted him to get better,” said Adie Scheel.
“We all think of opportunities where God picks your spouse for you,” says Chris Guertin. “We couldn’t have known back in August that God was kind of hand picking Owen’s teacher and his classmates.”
Eventually Owen was cleared to return to class fulltime. Twelve weeks after his surgery, he was even allowed to participate in sports. The class organized a ballgame in his honor.
As the clock ticked down this week to the final minutes of the school year, Rafferty gathered her students in a circle on the classroom floor.
“I love you all and I am so proud of you,” she told her students, “and as much as I wish you could stay, it’s time for you all to go.”
Tears streamed down the cheeks of several students, as others extended arms to comfort them.
Rafferty offered hugs to each of her fourth-graders on their way out the door – followed by an extended embrace with Owen’s mother.
“We never would have made it through this year without this community and especially this class in room 101,” Maria Guertin said.
Rafferty says she’ll never forget this once-in-a-lifetime school year – not the boy, the bear, the thousand paper cranes, or the class both ready to fly and reluctant to let go.