When teachers gather their students around them, they talk of equations, participles, amoebas and amphibians the stuff of essay tests and quarterly grades.
The lessons that life tests you on stamina, service, persistent hope fit awkwardly into the structure of the school day.Except in Kathy Knigge's class.
The last year of Kathy's life, her fourth-graders were schooled daily in lessons that defied flashcards and quizzes: faith, tenacity and selflessness.
It's been almost a year since Kathy died, and her colleagues and students, who still talk about her lessons, are nominating Kathy for the state PTA's Outstanding Educator of the Year award.
Weakened and in agony with bone cancer, Kathy taught school last year at Fox Hills Elementary in Granite District until six days before her death in early June. She wanted to teach through the end of the school year. If she died and she refused to say she was going to she wanted it to be during the summer holiday, when games and playmates would take the edge from her students' bewilderment and grief.
But Kathy's pluck couldn't hold death at bay as long as she hoped.
Mid-morning on June 2, 1987 four days before the last day of school Kathy left her class in the care of another teacher and slowly made her way to the main office. She called her mother and asked her to come and get her from school.
She couldn't breathe, she told her mother. Her mother wanted to send an ambulance to take her to the hospital, but Kathy refused.
An ambulance might frighten the children, she said. During her four-year war against cancer, she had been careful never to frighten the children. She didn't want to see that victory, too, slip from her.
Kathy's mother picked her up from school and drove her to the hospital.
"Everyone thought she would come back," said teacher Diane Smith. "She always had before." But the 32-year-old teacher died six days later from pneumonia.
Kathy couldn't teach through the end of the year. But she lived until then.
"I felt like she just tried to hang on until school was out," said Sandra Ochsenhirt. Ochsenhirt team-taught with Kathy the year Kathy died.
Kathy's students started their summer vacation believing their teacher was in the hospital for one of those mysterious but routine things she was often in the hospital for.
It was left to parents to tell their youngsters of Kathy's death.
Her students were frightened and grieved by the news. "I was scared," said Teresa Kingston, one of Kathy's students the last year she taught. "Real scared," added classmate Andrea Schmidt.
"You felt kind of guilty," said Kristi Pelton. "You might have helped her, but you were loud."
Her students didn't know she was seriously ill until her death. They expected to see her next fall when they came back from summer vacation.
Kathy would have wanted it that way. She was adamant about protecting her students from her illness. When a colleague visited her a few hours before she died, Kathy plied her with questions about her students between frantic gasps for air. Were any of them worried or frightened, Kathy wanted to know. Did they like their substitute teacher?
Her youngsters were her pillar during her roller coaster ride with remission and spread of cancer.
From the time she found out she had breast cancer in the summer of 1983, Kathy wove her fight for life and her slow defeat around the needs of her students. She scheduled chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the end of the week so the subsequent headaches, vomiting and fatigue would strike on the weekends, said her husband, Brent.
"She wanted to be able to teach through the week," he said. When she was confined to bed with pain, the side effects of treatment or the need for blood, she corrected papers and prepared lessons.
When she went to the hospital for treatments, she took school papers along with her.
During her last year, when she was forced to cut her teaching back to half-days, she chose to teach in the morning when she had the most energy.
But despite Kathy's protective stance, her frequent hospitalizations and the visible ravages of cancer troubled her students.
"They told us she was in the hospital and they were doing things on her. She was absent a long time," said Rachel Barker.
"She coughed a lot. She sounded like she had a sore throat and she wasn't very happy," Kristi Belton said of her teacher's last days.
"She was looking more wrinkly," Chris Cook noted.
Cancer cut Kathy down at a time when she had the most to live for. Doctors discovered the lump in her breast two years after her marriage to Brent.
During the brief year the cancer was in remission, Kathy and Brent adopted the baby Kathy's cancer prevented them from conceiving. Heidi Knigge was 3 years old when her mother died.
Kathy threw a party for her friends shortly after Heidi's adoption. The party celebrated the end of chemotherapy, the adoption of Heidi and Kathy's conviction that her cancer was cured.
"Celebrate Life" said a big sign that Kathy hung on her wall for the party.
Kathy's celebration lasted nearly 18 months. Shortly before Christmas 1985 the cancer returned. One evening, Brent and Kathy drove their tiny daughter into town to see Santa Claus and look at the Christmas lights. On the way home, Kathy felt a sharp pain in her back.
Lab tests showed that the cancer had moved to the bone, attacking the spine. Doctors told Kathy her death was no longer "if," but "when."
"Kathy always maintained a positive attitude. She never complained," Smith said. "She taught school on days she didn't look well and I knew she didn't feel well. However, I would never have gathered that from talking to her."
The students came first, Smith said. Brent agreed. He helped Kathy grade papers the last few months of her life.
"Every day she would mention something that had gone on with her students," he said. "She had her thoughts ahead. She was already talking about the summer session."
Ten days before Kathy died, she called Smith up to see how she was recovering from a Caesarean section, Smith said. Kathy chatted about her plans to walk Heidi up the street to see the new baby and concocted summer outings for the two mothers and their children.
"She had a very uplifting personality," her husband said. "She tried to be optimistic. It was nice to be around someone like that. Despite having cancer, she tried to look for the best in life."
Kathy believed she had found the best in her classroom.
"She loved teaching," Brent said. "That's what she planned to do forever and ever."
In death, as in life, Kathy remained a teacher.
"Through her pain and the grace with which she bore her four-year struggle, she taught us that there is no darkness so complete, no battle so intense, no gloom so overpowering that the light and hope and present of our Lord cannot break through," a fellow church member wrote after her death.
"Kathleen Madison Knigge was a teacher. Praise God that we could be assigned to her class."