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Penn Elementary students honor 'spunky' classmate during funeral procession

Griffin Tauke, 9, died Sept. 6 after battle with cancer

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NORTH LIBERTY — Two boys stood with their right arms raised in stiff salutes outside Penn Elementary School in North Liberty on Monday as the funeral procession of a fellow classmate passed by.

Others held signs with words of support and many wore green, the favorite color of Griffin Tauke, 9, a third-grader who died Sept. 6 after a battle with cancer.

Some 240 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders watched almost silently as dozens of vehicles drove by following a 10 a.m. Mass at St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Coralville, en route to Ridgewood Cemetery in North Liberty.

“They get it, they feel it,” Principal Kristy Heffner said. “And the feeling makes them quiet.”

Heffner sent a note to parents last week letting them know about Monday’s show of support for the Tauke family, including Griffin’s older brother Bennett, a fifth-grader at the school.

“At Penn, we are always hoping that our children are caring ...” she wrote. “Unfortunately, on Monday we have the sad opportunity to show caring for a couple of Penn friends.”

Heffner, who met Griffin as a kindergartner in the Iowa City school district school, said she’ll remember him for his “spunky smile.”

“He was such a spunky kid. He loved school, he loved science and nature and learning about all of those sorts of things. Everybody liked him. He was just a fun, happy, spunky kid.”

According to his obituary, Griffin loved sea turtles, the computer game Minecraft, Steak ‘n Shake restaurants and watching YouTube videos with a cup of coffee.

Instead of flowers, his family asked that memorials be directed to the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, The Griffin Tauke Memorial Fund or The Bennett Tauke Education Fund.

Griffin’s parents, Scott and Kelsey Tauke, declined an interview Monday through Lensing Funeral Director Mike O’Brien.

Griffin wasn’t able to attend class most of this school year, Heffner said, aside from a few hours on the first day.

After he was diagnosed with cancer in first grade, the school began participating in a program called Monkey in My Chair — which provides sick children with large, stuffed monkeys to sit at their desks when they’re absent. The national program also provides guidance for teachers as they explain a student’s illness.

“Having the monkey in the classroom allowed some opportunities for conversation for why he wasn’t there and just some awareness,” Heffner said. “Last week, our guidance counselor met with the fourth- and fifth- grade classes, and there were some kids who needed some extra support.”

Guidance Counselor Dawn Zacek said she is teaching students about empathy and compassion as they cope with feelings of grief.

“We talk about the feelings that come with it — any feeling is OK,” Zacek said. “You can feel sad, you can feel mad, and if you’re feeling happy in class, that’s OK too.”

She’s also helping students put their feelings of compassion toward the Taukes “into action” as Bennett mourns his little brother.

“They know that empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s place,” Zacek said. “And then you can say or do something to show them that you care. Unfortunately, they have to put it into action today in this kind of way.”

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