Last week I stood with a group of teenagers, parents, and teachers on the grounds of The Woodstock Day School — the bucolic little private school in upstate New York where my daughter, Ana, spent the last two years of her life.
The school community had come together to hang a memorial plaque in an outdoor space they’d created in Ana’s memory.
The space is comprised of a square of grass tucked to the side of a walking path that skirts the middle school building. A slender maple tree grows at its center. We’d planted the tree at Ana’s memorial service two years ago.
Five bench swings hang suspended from a circular structure made from rough cut logs. The benches face the tree and each other, providing a space for the students to relax, connect and be outside in nature.
Ana’s classmates, all graduating seniors, had worked with their teachers to design and build the swing set. They’d raised money to pay for its construction.
The plaque, which they also designed, reads, “In Memory of Ana Dooley” in hand-carved letters. A few flowers punctuate each corner of the plaque. The kids also painted a small green frog beneath her name.
It’s the frog that made me cry.
Ana always loved frogs. She had frog pajamas, frog shirts, and squishy frog toys that she’d play with for hours. Her 7th birthday party was frog-themed. She never stopped loving frogs, even as a teenager.
She loved to look for them, catch them, then gently set them free. The fact that every single person standing in that little grove knew that my daughter loved frogs means more to me than I can adequately put into words.
This kind of intimacy is one of the luxuries afforded to kids who go to tiny, progressive private schools. For Ana, who would never experience life after high school, it was more than a luxury — it was a necessity.
But before we’d found the Woodstock Day School, there was another small private school that helped us raise Ana and nurture her when she got sick.
School is the focus of childhood, but it’s supposed to be a temporary stop in the trajectory of a long, full life. Of course, that wasn’t the case for Ana. She attended school for thirteen of her fifteen years (if you count daycare which she started at the age of two) — fully 80% of her short life.
We’d pulled Ana out of public school in the middle of first grade. She’d been struggling for months — bored, unable to sit still, a perennial window gazer who frustrated her teacher to the extent that she was always in trouble, always feeling as though she were bad.
One morning when Ana was six, she said she wished she would get run over by her bus rather than go to school. She’d been growing increasingly depressed. She’d stopped drawing, stopped singing, stopped looking forward to getting up on weekday mornings.
She’d been so filled with anxiety that she’d been writing notes to her teacher, letters of apology that said things like, “I’m sorry I was bad. I’ll try harder.”
It was December, just a few weeks before winter break, when I spoke to the Head of School at High Meadow.
“She’s smart,” I explained. “But they don’t get much time for recess. They’re not allowed to run outside or touch the snow, much less play in it. She hates sitting still for hours, filling out dittos or writing the same exact letters over and over again. She can already read and knows all her letters. She’s musical and artistic. They punish her when she doesn’t pay attention. I think she just needs more breaks, more time to play.”
“Bring her here for a day to see how she likes it,” the Head of School had said. “They get three breaks for recess. We don’t do dittos. There are no tests. She sounds bored out of her mind.”
So that’s what I did — after reading (obsessively) about progressive education and visiting the school myself. We couldn’t afford private school, not by a long shot, but we made it work somehow.
Ana started at High Meadow in January of that same year. When I told her old teacher that she wouldn’t be returning to school after the break, she’d replied, “I think that’s for the best.”
High Meadow gave Ana exactly what she needed (and, in my opinion, what every child needs) — time to gaze out the window and contemplate the trees. In fact, one of her first assignments had been to draw multiple pictures of the same tree which grew outside the classroom window and observe how it changed every season.
Her teacher sent her home the first day with a note. “She needs snow pants, boots and winter gear. We send them outside every single day unless the weather is miserable.”
In spring, the class raised tadpoles (by then, Ana already loved frogs) and set them free in a little pond on the school grounds.
When Ana was in third grade, we got chickens and when I asked her teacher if she could miss a day of school so she could come pick them up, her teacher had replied, “Of course! School should never get in the way of a child’s education.”
High Meadow incorporated music, art, and dance into the curriculum. Each year, Ana had several opportunities to perform or present with her class in front of the entire school community.
They knew her — all the teachers, all the kids, all the parents from her class, and all her classmates. The school became our church, the community our congregation. We volunteered every chance we got. They loved her and, in turn, we loved all of them.
Ana got sick in the summer of 2012, a few months after she turned eleven. She was hospitalized five days before she was due to start sixth grade.
When word got out at the school, the entire community rallied around our family. They had a schoolwide yard sale and raised thousands of dollars to help us pay for Ana’s mounting medical expenses. They brought food to our house constantly. Other parents drove my younger daughter home or to their homes for playdates and sleepovers.
Ana’s class made a quilt for her, each of them sewing a word into a square that reminded them of her — things like brave, strong, and frog. Six years later, a parent from High Meadow School would make me another quilt — this one out of Ana’s clothes.
Cancer pursued Ana relentlessly as she moved through seventh and eighth grades. Even so, by the time she graduated from High Meadow, she was ready to start high school.
We were struggling financially though, so we convinced ourselves that Ana should try public school. I met with all the right people, got a 504 plan put in place for Ana, and scheduled a day for her to shadow a friend to get a sense of what public school would be like.
Ana was optimistic. She didn’t want to keep going to private school, especially because she knew how much we’d struggled to pay for it. She also craved anonymity. She didn’t want to be known as the “cancer kid” anymore.
So, after eight years at High Meadow, Ana started at a public high school with more than two thousand kids. Her entire graduating class at High Meadow was comprised of just 19 kids.
She lasted a week. It was too much for her both physically and emotionally, even with the 504 plan. She was late one morning because she needed to get her labs drawn and she got yelled at. She had very little time between classes to go to her locker, so she lugged all her heavy books around.
After years of homemade lunches, she hated the cafeteria food. On the fifth day of her first week, she came home, put her head on the dining room table, and cried. “I don’t like a single class — not even art, not even lunch,” she’d said. “I stare at the clock all day long waiting for the next class.”
Ana still felt good, but her tumors were continuing to grow and spread. We knew it was unlikely that she would live to graduate high school and it seemed particularly cruel that she would spend the limited time she had left staring at a clock, hating each minute she was at school.
Luckily, our community came through for us once again.
I wrote an essay about Ana’s misery and a friend of mine read it and urged me to call the Woodstock Day School.
“I can’t afford it,” I’d replied flatly.
“We will all make it work,” she’d said.
So I called the Admissions Director and had a conversation reminiscent of the one I’d had all those years ago when I pulled my depressed first grader out of public school. “Bring her here,” the Admissions Director told me. “We’ll make it work.”
Ana started ninth grade at the Day School the very next week. The school is a 30 minute drive from our house, but that turned out to be a blessing — it was time I got to spend with Ana each morning and afternoon that would have otherwise been lost.
Many of the kids in Ana’s class had been going to the Day School since they were very little. I didn’t know this community and because Ana was now 14, she didn’t want me to be involved the way I had been at High Meadow.
So, I backed off, except for our daily rides to and from school and attending school events. Ana got to experience high school just like any other kid. It was her own space, separate from me. She talked about her classmates, but I didn’t meet many of them. I didn’t know their parents.
This is how she made the school her own.
Ana loved the park-like campus. She loved her pottery class and her science teacher. She appreciated everything — from the chipmunks that crossed her path as she walked from building to building, to the mountain that loomed in the background, to the library that she’d called her “special place.”
Most of the kids knew she was sick, but probably not how sick. Ana hid her pain for as long as she could.
By the middle of 10th grade, she was having trouble getting around on campus. We began parking in the teachers’ lot so she wouldn’t have to walk uphill from the main lot to get to her first class.
By February, she was struggling to breathe because a tumor was compressing the air flow to one lung. That’s when she finally stopped going to school completely. She would die a month later on March 22nd 2017.
I didn’t know Ana’s classmates or their parents very well, so I was astounded by the outpouring of love for Ana when she died.
They left her locker untouched, except to decorate it with paper cranes, photos and notes of love. It remains a shrine to this day, a steady presence in the upper school building where, for the last two and a half years, Ana’s class has finished 10th grade, then 11th, then 12th.
We didn’t have a funeral for Ana. We had a celebration of her life, a memorial that took place at Woodstock Day School in a little performance space that was also their school cafeteria.
After the ceremony, we walked to that spot where the circular swings now stand and planted a tiny Maple tree.
Ana had learned about tapping for maple syrup while she was at High Meadow. She’d introduced this ritual to her science class at Woodstock Day School, so it seemed fitting that this is the tree they would plant for her .
I don’t remember much about the ceremony, but what does stand out in my mind are the many ways that the students and staff truly knew Ana.
People kept coming up to me and telling me stories about Ana — how she loved to catch frogs and salamanders on campus, how she’d fold paper cranes and give them to her friends, how she was so luminous when she was outside gazing at the trees or the mountain. She had loved the school and it had loved her back.
Back at High Meadow School, a slender magnolia tree with yellow petals was planted in Ana’s honor. It grows near the entrance to the school and a handmade ceramic plaque is nestled at its base which reads, “Ana’s Tree.”
At Woodstock Day School, a sister tree grows in the middle of a grassy nook adorned by a circle of bench swings. Her teachers tell me that children gather in this spot all the time — it’s rarely empty.
Ana spent the entire arc of her childhood at these two schools — learning, growing, and being known. These communities helped me raise her, a gift I had no idea how much I’d need.
This month, Ana’s class at Woodstock Day School will graduate. They will make room for Ana as they always have, reserving space on stage to honor the place where she would have stood.
To be truly known is a rare gift. I hope that the children who knew Ana will carry her memory with them as they move through life.