An interview with Lisa C. Ockun: Sammy the Tin Man

Aug 9, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Lisa, you have written a well illustrated book about Sammy, who is dealing with death and loss. What brought this about?

The recent loss of my own mother, and the need to hold her hand and tell her I loved her just one last time, was what led me into writing this book. I began to have dreams of her, alive and well, which led me to think about Sammy and his desire to have his father come back, even if it was just for a day. Sammy revealed this, in a story he wrote about his father coming back to life and spending the day with him.

I began to feel a strong connection to Sammy, not just a connection, but a deep understanding of his desire not only to have his father come back to life, but to the emptiness and helplessness he must have felt. Just like Sammy, I was not prepared for my mother’s death, just like Sammy’s father, my mother died suddenly, no warning, no preparation, one minute I am having a mother daughter conversation with her, and the next minute I am viewing her lifeless body lying in her coffin.

2) As a former teacher, you have had to teach students who have obviously lost a mother, father, or perhaps even a brother or sister. How did you cope?

Coping with a situation where a student of mine had to deal with the death of someone they loved very much was challenging to say the least. Often, the child would not discuss their loss openly, but through informal discussion, they would just tell me that their mother or father died when they were younger. I taught 5th grade and would feel so awful and helpless at the same time. I wanted to throw my arms around them and tell them they could talk to me at any time, if they had the need to.

I really wanted to do more for the child, however, as a teacher, my hands were tied. Either I was pressed for time to cover the required curriculum, or afraid to cross that sensitive line between educator and psychologist. I really did not want to get flack from the administration for crossing that line. We were always told if there was a child who had some emotional issues, we had to write a referral so they could be observed by the school psychologists and social workers. My book would have given these children the opportunity to open up and discuss their feelings. I could have helped these children through a literacy lesson. Sad isn’t it

3) It seems that death is part of life- but no one seems to be prepared for it. Am I off on this?

No Michael, you are not off at all. My father died a slow death from cancer. I knew he was going to die, but when he actually did die, I was so distraught, numb, empty, and full of guilt for all the things I could have done for him and with him. Of course, many of us think about what we could or should have done and often forget about all the precious moments we did share with our loved ones. Yes the feelings of loss never go away, it just gets a little easier to face. My mother’s death was sudden.

I knew in my mind she was not going to live forever, however, in my heart I expected her to, I needed her to. At the age of 83 my mother recovered from stage 4 lung cancer, but soon after, she died in a horrible accident which my husband and I were both involved in as well. I was an emotional mess, and though I had already suffered the loss of my father, I thought I would be prepared to handle my mother’s death a little better.

When my mother died, I didn’t handle her death well at all. I knew what it was to lose a parent, but you are right, no one is ever prepared, especially not a child.

4) Some deaths we expect- our 98 year old grandmother, or grandfather who was ill for quite some time- but it is still difficult. What can and should the schools be doing?

I strongly believe the schools should have a support group in place for children who have suffered a loss of a loved one, even a pet. The counselor should either be a teacher or psychologist who has also suffered a loss of a loved one at an early age. Only when you have a strong connection with the situation can you truly run a successful group. Example Weight Watchers or AA. Books like mine should be read and discussed, and parents should be invited in on discussions occasionally. School Social workers, guidance counselors, and psychologists should be given more time to talk privately with these children and spend less time at their desks bombarded with paperwork.

Workshops for teachers should be made available so they too could be part of the child’s healing process. Schools should provide workshops for the surviving parents, as well as for the parents and their children. Workshops help all of us stay in tune with the child’s emotional well being. It takes a village right? There should be a special time at these group sessions for creative writing, art, music, and theatre to allow these children to direct their anger, loneliness and emptiness in a positive direction. The arts fulfill something in all of us, whether it is self –esteem, a sense of accomplishment, or just relaxation. The education system must begin to think about each child as a living and breathing factor in a school system instead of just a number!

5) Have you ever worked with parents regarding a child who is obviously depressed?

Again, as a teacher I could not really work with the depressed child and mother in depth, but have mentioned to a parent that their child appeared sad, unhappy, and suggested that their child speak to the school’s guidance counselor. If I noticed any sign of depression exhibited in a child, I would often call the parent and express my concerns regarding their child’s emotional distress. Parent teacher conferences were also another valid time to express my concerns to a parent about their child.

During my discussions with the parents, I would often ask if their was anything going on in the child’s life that might me be a cause for their apparent depression, or if the subject of the child’s loss came up in discussion, I listened, was very sympathetic, offered to keep an eye out for their child for any sudden changes in behavior, as well as suggesting their child speak with the school’s guidance counselor.

6) As painful as it is- we have to talk about Aurora, and Columbine—no one expects guns in a movie theatre or even a school- does this impact kids when a friend, relative, or pal is killed in one of these senseless tragedies?

Yes, of course. Most children do not have to deal with death until they are much older, nor do they really think about death, or imagine anyone they know dying, except their favorite actor in a movie. It is a shock to lose someone you love whether a friend, or relative who is young like yourself. The fear of dying begins to pop into their heads. If a friend or relative could suddenly die, then it could happen to them too. The thought begins to come close to home. Children begin to feel a sense of insecurity begin to feel unsafe in places that are supposed to be safe havens.

Again, the subject is painful, but has to be discussed in group sessions openly and honestly with people who have dealt with similar situations, and social workers and psychologists who have some special skills in this field. I hope the schools are providing sessions to discuss the Aurora and Columbine catastrophe, whether a child lost someone they loved or not. Teachers, parents, and all faculty members should be provided with workshops to deal with this situation, and time should be set aside during the school year to have open discussions in the classroom. Everyone knows stress is a big killer, and yes children suffer from stress, especially when they bottle up their fears and emotions. Give these children a chance to express their emotions and concerns.

7) It seems with all this “Race to the Top “ and AYP, and NCLB that we have really, sorely neglected the emotional feeling side of children and their emotions. Your thoughts?

My thoughts are this: We are trying to compete with other nation, nations who have high incidents of suicide. Is that what we want for our children? A little first grader in September revealed to my friend, “This is hard!” What happened to house keeping and playtime in kindergarten? What happened to musical marches around the room, and assemblies where we gathered as one to sing songs. What happened to art, music, and class plays in many schools? Time is now taken up all day with a structured math and literacy curriculum. My class could not even do an art project unless it was related to social studies, math, or literacy. There was no time to take a break to just clear your mind. From kindergarten up every class is bombarded with curriculum activities and providing children with less socialization time.

The teachers are overwhelmed with paperwork, as well as daily observations, logging, and conferencing for each child in literacy and math. Conferencing is very structured and not about how they are feeling that day. When they are asked to converse with their partner, it has to be about a book they are reading, a comment that was made, or a piece of writing. One day I was so disgusted with how crazy the day was, I stopped the lesson. I looked at the 10 year old tired faces who have been working at test prep activities for hours and said, “Pencils down.” They looked at me like I had two heads. “So how is everyone feeling today? What are you thinking? Anything happen last night or yesterday you care to share?” If you have anything to share privately see me at the end of the day while we are packing up.”

One or two children shared something, unfortunately, I do not remember what it was. There is so much pressure on the children, teachers, administrators, and whole education system to race to the top. So are we any smarter? More productive? I will tell you that children are feeling more overwhelmed and anxious than they have in the past. The work load is so great that children are spending hours on homework and have very little down time. Some children have shut down, turned off, and buried themselves in their computers. What happened to doing your homework, then going out to play with your friends? Is the education system becoming strictly a business, void of care for the emotional well being of their workers? Absolutely! We have to stop, look, and listen to our children!

8) Where can parents and teachers and others get a copy of the book?

My book can be purchased on line at Author House, Amazon, Borders, and Barnes and Noble,

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