Gastineau students mark passing of 'I can't'

Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2001

The students in Becky Engstrom's fourth-grade class dressed in black for a funeral at Gastineau Elementary School on Tuesday. But they weren't necessarily mourning.

The deceased, contained in a coffin the size of a cigar box, had been a close companion to all of them at one time or another maybe covering for them when they didn't finish an assignment, or providing a reason why they failed at a new endeavor but the dearly departed also had a way of holding them back.

The tiny coffin contained, in myriad forms, the oft-used phrase "I can't."

Dressed in black, with four students serving as pallbearers, the class marched, through rain and snow, down the streets of Douglas from the school to Sandy Beach, where the coffin of "I can't" was burned to ashes.

"Nobody knows for sure when 'I can't' was born, but today, Nov. 13, 2001, we know 'I can't' has died," Engstrom told the students at Sandy Beach. "From this day forward, 'I can't' will no longer be with you. It might be difficult to accept, but 'I can't' has passed away."

There was no need to mourn, Engstrom said, because the day also marked the birth of "I can" - a new friend to take over when difficult situations develop.

Tuesday's wake was the culmination of a month-long "I can't" collection process.

Engstrom's class participates in the Tribes program, which focuses on building a positive classroom environment to promote learning. A key part of that is not allowing put-downs such as "I can't."

"I was seeing that the class was doing good with each other, but they were giving themselves put-downs," Engstrom said.

To combat that trend, Engstrom and student-teacher Zach Stenson adapted an idea Engstrom had read about, and had students write down "I can't" statements whenever they came up. Those small slips of paper were added to the "coffin" up until the morning of the funeral.

Engstrom timed the funeral to coincide with the start of a new trimester, so students can get off to a fresh start for the new school period.

Students in the class said they enjoyed the activity as something fun and meaningful.

Meghan Stangeland said she thought the timing was good, at the start of the new trimester, and the project was one in a long line of creative class activities.

"Ms. Engstrom is really artistic and has lots of good ideas," she said. "I think this is one of the best."

Ben Rupe said students now have something to think about if they find themselves starting to say "I can't."

"You only have to remember this day and you remember, 'I can do this,' " he said.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at

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