AKRON — The memories of a departed teacher and student will return each year when the marigolds and violets, arranged in the shape of a heart, bloom in yellows and deep-blues.
The flowerscape, planted Monday by students and educators at Mason Community Learning Center, commemorates the lives of Lisa Lupo, a teacher loved by current and former students, and Qua’shai Varner, a vibrant fifth-grader with an unforgettable smile.
In January, Qua’shai, 11, died after suffering seizures.
Then in February, the school’s only sixth-grade teacher, Lupo, followed. Educators said she succumbed to a disorder that enlarged her heart.
The deaths have been difficult to bear for some students, who have found what comfort they can in friends, family and teachers.
Many of the students said they have been unable to open up to grief counselors provided by Akron schools. And some are simply struggling to fill a void left by the loss of a compassionate, affable teacher.
“They don’t understand my problems,” Kiara Palm, a student in Lupo’s class, said of counselors and well-intentioned educators who try to support confused and grieving students. “Mrs. Lupo understood all of my problems. She was my family.”
Kiara knelt in a rectangle of dirt between the playground and Exchange Street on Monday, plunging a spade into the ground. Her classmates followed behind her with flowers in hand as she prepared the soil.
In the center of the marigold-fringed rectangle, students filled a heart-shaped outline with violets.
The event was coordinated by the school’s substitute counselor, Asya Gough, who has acted more like a permanent employee during what she called a trying year.
“They’ve been pretty apathetic,” Gough said of reaching students, who often conceal emotions. “I’ll hear that they have dreams about [Lupo]. They’re very concerned about her family and where she is in the afterlife.
“That’s a really tight rope to walk,” she said, recalling some tough conversations, “because we’re not supposed to talk about religion. I let them bring up what they want to talk about.”
Lupo, a 20-year teacher in Akron and a lifelong member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, was 45 years old. She is survived by a husband and four children, and nearly 30 sixth-graders with fond memories.
“She was cool,” said Aquia Solomon, 13. “She drank Coca-Cola everyday.”
“She always used to crack jokes,” Sierra Barber, 12, said.
Kiara, who confided in Lupo, was somber. She wished to speak to her favorite teacher one last time.
“I would say I will never forget her,” Kiara said. “She will always be my No. 1 teacher.”
Most students, some older who returned Monday to pay their respects, smiled as they worked.
If there was one child who embodied the enthusiasm displayed by the young gardeners, it would have been Qua’shai Varner.
“She lit up the room,” said Kathy Kaylor, a teaching assistant reassigned last school year from Barrett Elementary to Mason when the special education program was moved there. Kaylor said Lupo gave her and her students a warm welcome by encouraging sixth-graders to “buddy up” with special education students.
Kaylor also had the pleasure of knowing Qua’shai since she attended preschool.
“She had a great spirit and a beautiful smile,” Kaylor said, remembering the tight hugs the 11-year-old girl would give.
Photos of Qua’shai and Lupo are in a display case inside Mason. Kaylor said students, some with varying disabilities, would occasionally point in bewilderment at the portrait of Qua’shai, their classmate.
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