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A tree to remember a little boy electrocuted in his pool

Liset Leyva Santalo, a lead teacher at The Foundation School at Temple Beth Sholom, shows pre-kindergartners the Calder bead on the Shema Listening Tree. The bead honors Calder Sloan, a former student, who was electrocuted while swimming in his pool two years ago.
Liset Leyva Santalo, a lead teacher at The Foundation School at Temple Beth Sholom, shows pre-kindergartners the Calder bead on the Shema Listening Tree. The bead honors Calder Sloan, a former student, who was electrocuted while swimming in his pool two years ago.

Each bead on the Shema Listening Tree at the Temple Beth Sholom Foundation School is painted with a name and a dream — except for one.

An orange-and-white bead, hanging slightly apart on a dried palm frond, only has a name.

The Calder bead was painted two years ago in memory of Calder Sloan, a former student who was tragically electrocuted while swimming in his family pool just a week after his 7th birthday. On Wednesday morning, 54 new beads, each painted by a pre-kindergartner, were hung on the tree to honor his memory.

“This reflects the fact that we celebrate good times, bad times,” said Margie Zeskind, the school director. “We’re a community and we take care of each other.”

There are pieces of Calder throughout the school — the ceramic self-portrait cemented into a hallway wall with his classmates, the paper leaf he scrawled his name on, a memorial stone installed at the front of the school. But for most of the staff who knew and taught the boy they called “Mr. Awesome,” the tree and its beads are the most important legacies of Calder’s spirit and joy.

“This sacred space is really a space of life honoring Calder’s memory,” Zeskind said. “He lives here daily. His spirit is alive. His memory is alive.”

For the past two years, each pre-kindergartner has painted a bead with their name and their dream job — a teacher, a firefighter, Spider-Man. The beads are strung on palm fronds where parents have written their dreams for their children — to be happy, to have friends, to learn. And at the end of the year, lead teacher Liset Leyva Santalo hangs both from a green spiral in the hallway.

Chris and Carla Sloan initially had approached Zeskind and the school about planting a tree in their son’s memory. Trees are significant both in Judaism and to the school, which was described by a founding rabbi as the “tree that grows on 41st Street.”

But Zeskind couldn’t bear the thought of the tree possibly dying, and spoke to Santalo, who teaches art in the after-school program, about a more permanent memorial.

Santalo said she didn’t know if she could create such a heavy piece. But she was determined to help his family remember their son, and decided to integrate Calder’s memory with a tree project she had already been working on.

“It became so simple, so obvious,” Santalo said. “I almost felt like the tree had been waiting for this bead to come along.”

She initially doesn’t explain to her students why they’re painting the beads or why each bead has splashes of orange, Calder’s favorite color. Instead Santalo waits until the day the beads are displayed to read to them from The Calder Bead, a picture book she wrote last year.

“I have to present [his death] in a way that’s familiar to them and storybooks are familiar,” she said.

One copy of the book stays with Santalo and the other stays with the Sloan family. On Wednesday, Carla Sloan watched with tears in her eyes as the children listened to the story inspired by her son.

As they looked at the beads after the reading, part of the story stayed with the children — Calder’s invisibility, the reason why their beads are orange. But 4-year-old Mila Simon said she was most excited about being able to see her bead again next year.

“They’re wishes,” she said. “And next year, we’re gonna know how to read, so we can read our names.”

And that, Santalo said, is the hope the Calder bead has brought to the tree.

“Before, it was the Shema Listening Tree,” Santalo said. “Now it’s a tree of hope and dreams.”

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