I Can’t

By Terry Galan
Ontario, Canada

Donna had volunteered her fourth-grade class to participate in a program to empower students to take charge of their lives. My job was to help implement the program. On my first visit to her classroom I took a seat in the back. All students were filling a sheet of notebook paper with ideas. The 10-year-old next to me was writing “I Can’ts” — “I can’t kick the soccer ball past second base. I can’t do long division with more than three numerals. I can’t get Debbie to like me.” Her page half full, she showed no signs of letting up. I walked, glancing at student papers. Everyone described “I Can’t” versus “I Can”.

Curious why they dwelt on the negative, I decided to ask Donna — but she, too, was busy writing. “I can’t get John’s mother to come for a teacher conference. I can’t get my daughter to put gas in the car. I can’t get Alan to use words instead of fists.” Still curious, I returned to my seat.

Students wrote another 10 minutes, then were instructed to fold their papers in half and put them into an empty shoe box. Donna added hers, put the lid on the box, tucked it under her arm, and headed down the hall.

Students followed teacher. I followed students. Halfway down the hall, Donna got a shovel from the custodian’s room. Then she marched the students to the farthest corner of the playground.

Digging took ten minutes because most of the fourth-graders wanted a turn. The box of “I Can’ts” was placed in the hole and covered with dirt. Thirty-one 10- and 11-year-olds stood around the grave. Donna announced, “Please join hands and bow your heads.” They formed a circle, lowered heads and waited.

Donna delivered the eulogy. “Friends, we gather today to honour the memory of ‘I Can’t.’ While with us here on earth, he touched everyone’s lives, some more than others. We have provided ‘I Can’t’ with a final resting place. He is survived by ‘I Can’, ‘I Will’, and ‘I’m Going to Right Away’. They are not as well known as their relative — but with your help, perhaps they will make a greater mark on the world. May everyone here pick up their lives and move forward in his absence.”

Back in the classroom Donna held a wake. They celebrated the passing of “I Can’t” with cookies, popcorn and fruit juice. Donna cut a large tombstone from butcher paper. She wrote “I Can’t” at the top, RIP in the middle, the date at the bottom, and posted it on the wall. On rare occasions when a student forgot and said, “I Can’t”, Donna simply pointed to the RIP sign. The student remembered “I Can’t” was dead — and rephrased the statement.

I wasn’t one of Donna’s students. She was one of mine. Yet that day I learned an enduring lesson from her. Years later, I still envision that fourth grade class laying “I Can’t” to rest.

Originally published as HeroicStories #266 on Dec 31, 2001

3 thoughts on “I Can’t”

  1. Seems the ladies in following piece must have been exposed to the death of “I can’t…” teachings. I got both articles within an hour of each other. 🙂
    Something extraordinary at LAX today… (writing… – Beth Bornstein Dunnington

    …the women in the terminal, there must have been six or seven of us, not women who knew each other, approached and surrounded her and the little boy and we knelt down and formed a circle around them.

    Source: Something extraordinary at LAX today… (writing… – Beth Bornstein Dunnington (Facebook, no account required) ==>>

    It’s a moving, and thoughtful story.

    (A note about Facebook: I link to the original post, which is public. You do not need a Facebook account, but may get a pop-up to create one. Just click “Not Now” to dismiss the pop-up.)

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    • Just want to say thanks for sharing this story about the women helping the young mother (and mother to be again). Reading the facebook post made me cry. It may have been encouraged by that fantastic story about the death of “I can’t” – which is a story and a phrase I need to remember myself too.


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