Monkey in My Chair

There are 30 students, and one stuffed monkey named E.G., who fill the 31 desks in Kristi Lange’s fourth-grade class at Ron Nunn School.

Each day, the students in room 16 walk into class and hope to not see E.G. That has not happened so far this school year, but we are all excited for the day that it does.

E.G. is in Mrs. Lange’s class because Emma cannot be.

Emma has leukemia and is currently undergoing intensive chemotherapy. Last week, this brave ten-year-old girl underwent a lumbar puncture, a procedure where chemotherapy is injected directly into her spinal fluid. If Emma had her way, she would have been in school the next day, but the choice wasn’t hers.

When she is stronger, she will be in room 16, but right now there is a monkey in her chair.

The Monkey in My Chair program was developed in honor of a girl named Chloe, who was away from school after a cancer diagnosis. Through the program, each child is provided with a Monkey Kit, which includes a big, stuffed monkey that takes their place in school when they are not well enough to be there, and a book to help teachers explain to students what their classmate is facing. This kit is provided at no charge to families. The goal of the program is to help both the child at home, and the students in class stay connected.

E.G. goes just about everywhere with Mrs. Lange’s fourth graders. He regularly participates in library, music and computer classes, and attends assemblies. E.G. was even able to attend the Back to School Carnival and the Heritage Homecoming Parade. E.G. doesn’t go to P.E. class, but she also doesn’t eat lunch, so it probably evens out in the end.

Students regularly write letters to Emma, telling her what E.G. is doing, and Mrs. Lange will sometimes text photos of E.G. to Emma, so she can keep up with what her class is doing. Mrs. Lange has a very simple reason why the connection is so important.

“When Emma comes back, it will be like she was part of the class all along,” said Mrs. Lange.

Emma’s mom agrees.

“Emma is still part of her class, she just can’t be there right now,” said her mother.

Emma’s blood counts are low as a result of the intensive chemotherapy, and it is this risk to her immune system that has kept E.G. in her chair this year. Through the magic of technology, Emma uses Facetime to video chat with her class several times a week, although her mother, Erika, shared that Emma actually asks to Facetime with her class several times each day.

Mrs. Lange uses an Apple TV so Emma can speak with her classmates face-to-face without risking getting sick. The students spend time talking with Emma about what they are learning in class, and Emma also shares what she is learning and how she is feeling.

Emma had really hoped to return to class by Halloween, but unfortunately her body wasn’t ready yet. Mrs. Lange arranged for a video chat so that each of the students could briefly talk with Emma, and show her their costumes. Emma’s mom says that Emma gets sad and misses her class, but that chatting with them in costume on Halloween made her feel like she wasn’t missing out.

When Emma originally received the monkey, her mom was nervous about putting this burden on the teacher.

“I didn’t know if this would be too much,” said Erika. “There are so many things (Mrs. Lange) has to do every single day, but she has just been wonderful.”

No one would dispute the fact that Mrs. Lange has been wonderful. In addition to regularly visiting Emma at home, Mrs. Lange’s personal cell number is on Emma’s speed dial and visa versa. Their conversations aren’t always about school.  Emma has experienced quite a bit more than a typical ten-year-old, and they sometimes just talk about life; they find strength in each other and this connection will make the transition better for both when Emma returns.

The impact on the fourth graders in room 16 has been substantial. Mrs. Lange believes the monkey has been a great tool for her students to build empathy and understanding.

In honor of Emma and E.G., the Ron Nunn Student Council sold 740 ‘Boo Grams’ in October. They are donating $100 to a cancer charity, and using $150 to purchase two Monkey Kits for children who will receive a future cancer diagnosis and need a monkey to keep their chair warm at school.

Emma’s mom was thrilled with the news.

“Emma got a big smile on her face when she found out that another couple of kids would get monkeys,” said Erika.

When Emma returns to Ron Nunn, the students in her class will have seen her progress through her cycle of treatments. Emma will know what has gone on in class because she has been connected to them throughout the year.

I asked Mrs. Lange what would happen to E.G. when Emma returns.

“The monkey will go in a box on top of one of my cabinets,” said Mrs. Lange. “If Emma needs to go to an appointment, we can put him back in the chair for just a day or two until she returns to class.”

I know that my best day this school year will be the first day I see that monkey in a box up on that cabinet.

For more information about, or to donate to, the Monkey in My Chair program benefiting these children, visit www.monkeyinmychair.org/program.

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