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Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz's widow finds comfort in kindergarteners

OLDSMAR

Lorraine Yaslowitz wanted to go back to work last week. But her principal, the guidance counselor and the other teachers at Forest Lakes Elementary kept telling her: Give yourself some time.

Your kindergarteners will be okay. Take care of yourself.

On Wednesday, the young widow was done waiting. She woke her three children at daybreak, as if everything were normal. She made breakfast. Helped her 5-year-old son get dressed.

That used to be Daddy's job. But now Daddy's gone.

When she left the house, no one kissed her goodbye.

• • •

The last time she went to work, 16 days ago, her husband hugged her on the way out the door. She thought she would see him again before dark.

But that Monday morning, while she was teaching her kindergarteners the "word of the day," the assistant principal had come into her classroom looking grim. A fugitive hiding in an attic had just shot two St. Petersburg police officers. Her husband, K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, was in the hospital.

By the time she got there, he was gone.

• • •

"Okay everybody, push your chairs in and stand up," she called at 8:30 Wednesday morning. Sixteen kindergarteners placed their right hands over their hearts. They all pledged allegiance, like always.

Mrs. Yaslowitz scanned her classroom. It felt good to be back. At least here everything seemed the same.

She still had her desk and small plastic chair, the Peanuts pillow. On the far wall was "Our House," with slots for each student's name. A poster beside it asked, "How do you feel today?" Cartoon faces offered: Happy Sad Excited Sorry Angry Hopeful.

Today, she could circle them all.

"Now I want you all to take out your song books," she said, weaving between the round tables.

"I saw you on TV," said a boy named Benny. "You were on the news so I brought you this." He handed her a stuffed Snoopy clutching a red silk rose.

Nevaeh gave her an apple. Benjamin came in late, carrying a small heart-shaped balloon. "Oh thank you," she said. "I missed you all so much. Now, what song do you want to sing first?"

The students flipped through their printed pages. No one asked where she had been or about what happened. No one mentioned the stamp-sized photo of her husband smiling from a black cord around her throat.

"Heart Power," a girl called out, folding her book to the newest song. "Healthy Bodies," said a boy. So they sang them both.

"Halloween night," called another boy.

"Oh, now we're going way back," the teacher said. A sad smile spread across her face. "I'd like to go back."

• • •

She met Jeffrey Yaslowitz in college, more than 18 years ago. After they got married, he went to the police academy and she landed a job at Forest Lakes.

She was teaching kindergarten there long before she had her first son, Caleb, who is 12. Her daughter Haylie, 8, and son Calen, 5, both go to her school. It's her second home, her second family. Everyone there knew her husband. He had been doing the "Great American Teach-In" for years; all the students loved his K-9 partner, Ace.

Since the officer mostly worked nights, he often stopped by during the day to say hi to his kids, bring his wife jelly beans.

Sometimes, when she left work, she would find him waiting in the parking lot for a quick kiss before his shift.

• • •

"Okay, let's see," Mrs. Yaslowitz said, sinking onto a purple stool. She grabbed a wand topped by a Mickey Mouse glove. Her students sat before her, legs crossed.

"Now, the last time we had a word of the day it was what?" the teacher asked. Seven hands shot up. "Lungs," a few kids whispered.

"Lungs," said a girl named Kennedy.

The teacher slumped against the white board. "That was weeks ago," she said. "How do you all remember?"

"Because," said a blond, Alexandra. "That was that Monday, right when you left."

During art class, instead of drawing, Alexandra made a card. "Thank you," she wrote in brown crayon. "You are the best techer I've had."

"I have a brother who passed away," Alexandra said later. "He would have been 7. But he died. And guess what? He's buried in the same cemetery as Mr. Yaslowitz. So now I can go see him when I see my brother."

Wednesday's word was "Meat." The students were studying the five food groups. "What kind of meat do you like?" the teacher asked. Then she answered.

"I like steaks," she said softly. "We used to marinate them overnight in Asian dressing. He always did all the barbecuing." Her voice trailed off. The kids waited.

"Okay," she said, suddenly. "Who knows how to spell meat?"

• • •

Some of her students had come to the wake. Others had stood outside at the funeral, clutching their parents' hands, surrounded by 10,000 strangers. They all had made her cards, given them to her when she stopped by school last week.

She had spent the last two weeks choosing a casket, planning a burial, holding herself together for TV crews — things a 40-year-old wife and mother shouldn't have to do.

Now, her biggest worries were that Chloe was coughing. Natalia couldn't find her red folder. And Lorenzo was still sounding out sight words.

This, she could do. Here, she could help.

• • •

Normally, on Wednesdays, the teacher chooses five students to eat with her. Lunch bunch, it's called. This time, she wanted them all with her.

"It's a beautiful day," she said. "Let's have a picnic."

The kindergarteners spilled out into the sunny courtyard, flapping their lunch boxes, squealing, "Yaaay! Yaaay! Yaaay!"

All her friends at school wanted to know why she came back Wednesday. Her students needed her, she said.

But she knew she needed them more.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

ON THE WEB

To see video of Mrs. Yaslowitz's first day back, go to video.tampabay.com.

Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz's widow finds comfort in kindergarteners 02/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 7:40am]
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