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Teacher remembers flower-loving student by planting garden

Jessica Stone walked straight up to teacher Jill Wagner on the first day of class and declared she wasn’t supposed to be taking Spanish 2.

“So I’m going to ask you a lot of questions,” the Niagara Falls High School freshman promised.

Bone cancer – Ewing’s Sarcoma – hobbled Jessica, who walked with a cane. She’d been advised to take half-days in school, to take it easy and avoid Spanish. Jessica refused.

“ ‘I told them no way. I’m not missing Spanish,’ ” Wagner recalled Jessica saying.

The next thing Jessica said caught the teacher of 20 years off guard but offered insight into the girl Wagner characterized as boundlessly optimistic, even as the illness weakened her body.

“She went on to say that she had cancer and that she was celebrating her fourth year of having cancer,” Wagner said of Jessica, who died March 17. The still-devastated Wagner has started a garden in memory of the flower-loving 14-year-old she knew as Jess.

The idea formed in January or February at the suggestion of a classmate who knew all about Jessica’s penchant for flora. The effort quickly blossomed, and Wagner has received donations – from tulips to mulch.

One day in class, Jessica complimented Wagner on a flower the teacher wore in her hair. Soon after, Wagner brought Jessica a headband fixed with a pink flower, so she could have one of her own. During a hospice visit in the winter, Wagner talked about her garden and invited Jessica over to clip rosebuds when she was better.

“I would love that so much,” replied Jessica, who was flooded with bouquets.

“In my mind, she was going to be here. I never for once thought that she wouldn’t make it,” Wagner said, her voice breaking as she spoke.

For all Jessica went through, Wagner said, she never let on that she was suffering, that the illness even remotely affected her spirit. Some students teased Jessica, one girl even claimed she was faking, Wagner said.

Jessica’s tight-knit set of friends scoffed at that suggestion, but Jessica’s response was always the same, unfazed and insightful for someone of her years.

“Those people are just unhappy,” Jessica would say, sometimes punctuating the sentence with an eye roll. “I’m too busy living.”

Jessica never got the chance to clip rosebuds with Wagner, but the teacher hopes the garden – which features donated oregano and other edible plants, a rose and butterfly bush, lilies and, of course, tulips, Jessica’s favorite – will serve her memory well once in full bloom. The plants and flowers sit in three 4-by-8-foot cedar beds, just beyond the high school’s cafeteria doors where they’ve just begun to bloom.

“The sun shines right down, and it’s her, she’s there,” Wagner said. “She loves the sunny days. I know she loves the sunny days.”

Donations for the garden have arrived from all corners of Niagara Falls. Community members have dropped off plants, and a local home-improvement store footed the bill for the garden’s mulch. Wagner has been maintaining and adding to the garden on the fly and, for the most part, winging each step.

“I don’t really know what I’m doing with the garden; it’s sort of coming together,” she said. “I’ve never witnessed so much generosity in my life.”

Wagner put her efforts into the garden, convinced it’s a way to help Jessica’s classmates grieve even during the months-long break. Selfishly, Wagner concedes, it’s a way for her to heal, too.

When Wagner has a tough day, she reminds herself of Jessica and the way she handled herself with grace in the face of dire odds. In a sense, the student taught the teacher.“She never once got upset about anything,” Wagner said. “She never got mad at the fact that she had cancer.”

“This is the very least I can do.”

Wagner does have a short wish list for the garden. A bench would provide a space for those grieving about something to pause and reflect, she said, brainstorming aloud. A plaque indicating it’s Jessica’s garden would add a nice touch, as would a large stone – homage to the 14-year-old’s last name.

Wagner said, quieting: “I wish she was here, mostly.”