Friday, March 30, 2012

TOP STORY >> School remembers fire victims

Leader staff writer

“Happy birthday was the last thing I said to Sydni,” recalled fifth-grade teacher Angela Sprow, holding back tears a week after the tragic death of the young girl, her siblings and her mother in a fire inside a Jacksonville duplex.

“It wasn’t even her birthday. It was just a game between us,” Sprow said. “We shared the same birthday.”

Sydni Singleton, a third-grader, was not in Sprow’s class at Warren Dupree Elementary School, but her older brother Dequan was. Still, Sprow and Sydni said happy birthday to each other every day from August on.

When it was actually their birthday, Feb. 2, Sprow recalled that Sydni came up to her and said, “‘It really is our birthday today.’ We shared a cupcake and a hug. The next day it was back to our birthday game.”

Sydni, just like Dequan and her little sister Haylee, had all made loving and lasting impressions on their teachers. The three died of smoke inhalation in their home on March 22 during spring break, along with their mother Marilyn Beavers, 31, and their little sister, Emily Beavers, 4.

Lena Washington, a 22-year teaching veteran, had never suffered a loss of a student before. Like most teachers at Dupree Elementary, she is just stunned over the tragic fire deaths of the kids.

“It has devastated me,” she said a day before the school’s memorial for the students Friday. “I tell all the kids the first day of school that they are my kids, and they are, and this really hurts.”

She left Sydni’s chair and desk in place Monday as she talked to the rest of the students about the incident and the kids voted to leave Sydni’s desk in place for the rest of the year.

“On Tuesday, I came in and there were some stuffed animals in the chair and desk and more have been added everyday. Each of the stuffed animals is called Sydni,” Washington said.

She said that at the end of the year, when the students ask, she will let them take the “Sydnis” home with them. “She was a happy person, a heart of gold and would help anyone who needed it. She was my support,” Washington said tearfully.

“The last day before spring break, she said she was going to come back and win the school quiz bowl,” Washington explained, then looking upward, added, “You are a winner.”

JoAnne Buchanan was little Haylee’s first-grade teacher. Haylee was a vital part of her class. “She was the friend maker, very vibrant, very friendly, always wanting to help. Every morning she just had to come up and give me a hug or telling me something that was happening in her life,” Buchanan said.

She said the first day back after the fire was very tough for the kids. The principal had sent out an alert call Sunday to all the parents, so Buchanan said many of the children knew about it before they got to school.

“Still there was some crying and some children wanted to pray and we did. We shared pastel Hershey hugs and called Haylee our classroom angel,” Buchanan explained.

She said the students had spent the week working on a book to give to Haylee’s dad, who was working out of town when the tragedy occurred. In the book, the kids referred to Haylee as a star, sweet and helpful. One boy called her pretty and another friend wrote about how they played “boat” at recess, with the girls in the boat and the boys were the “sharks.”

One young girl, Brianna, wrote how she and Haylee were good friends because they liked the same colors and both lived in Apartment A’s. Buchanan said Briana lived across from Haylee, and when she found out about the fire, the little girl just sat at the screen door and cried.

Teacher Angela Sprow called Dequan just a wonderful kid who kept things rolling. His classmates affectionately called him DQ or Dairy Queen.

“Oh, he could sing and dance and could multiply faster than anyone else in the class and he was going to be in the NFL,” Sprow said. “This just hurts so bad. They see us as their moms and they become our children.”

It was especially hard for Sprow as Dequan was the second student her class had lost this year through death. “We had a young girl with us earlier in the year, Cheyenne, who died. It hurt, but, unfortunately, was not unexpected. She had a heart condition and was in and out of the hospital. But Dequan — that was a shock.”

Sprow said the fifth-grader had a passion for people. “He was very respectful, even when he was a mess,” she fondly recalled, as she was holding on to his last stack of graded papers. “He was to get these today,” she said Thursday.

One of the papers was an essay on good sportsmanship. In it Dequan wrote about losing with grace and playing as a team. He wrote, “Be happy if you win or lose. If you lose a game, be happy that you tried to win.”

But being a competitor, he added, “If the other team beats you, learn from your mistakes and learn their moves so the next time you can win. Remember in the end, win or lose, be happy and be friends.”

Dequan was the fastest runner in Sprow’s class and at recess always started the game of tag as “it.”

But he wasn’t there last week, and one day coming in from recess his class stopped at the front door, looked toward heaven and cheered, “Dequan, you’re it!”