GULFPORT — By the time young students of SunFlower School gathered Monday in the room where Nidia Tirabassi taught Spanish, most of them already knew.
For what it was worth, knowing cushioned the shock. But absorbing the death of a woman nearly all of them had known since kindergarten would take more than the weekend e-mail their parents received and more than this meeting.
Mrs. Tirabassi, who taught at SunFlower school since the late 1980s and authored its Spanish curriculum, died Saturday at St. Anthony's Hospital. She was 61 and had myelodysplasia, a blood disorder.
A group of Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd) College students founded the private school in the early 1970s around the belief that "learning is more important than testing." Mrs. Tirabassi, a product of Catholic schools in her native Chile (CHEE-lay, her students learned to say), taught kindergarten through fifth grade.
"She was, of all of us, perhaps the most traditional in a certain kind of way," the school's director, Marie Breslin, said in an interview Monday. As she sat in a child-chair in a room overflowing with supplies, an adopted stray cat named Gigi dozed at a nearby table.
Watching Mrs. Tirabassi blend Spanish with other subjects, such as geography and social studies, was "like watching someone make a bouquet," Breslin said. She demonstrated the same care in her appearance, favoring comfortable cottons and just the right scarf.
Nidia Herrera was born in Puerto Montt, Chile, and immigrated to the United States at 19. She met Fred Tirabassi in 1973 at a Miami yoga center. Outside of school hours, Mrs. Tirabassi served as financial manager for the restaurant owned by her husband, the Kopper Kitchen on Central Avenue.
"Whenever I needed her, bam, she was there," said Fred Tirabassi.
Children remembered her Monday morning for "little things," Breslin said, such as the way she made a fuss in Spanish over a student who had gotten new glasses.
They created cards for her, including this one that referenced a hamster at the school that had died recently.
I wish that you hadn't died. That only makes two. First Gabby, then you. Love, from Grant.
Breslin told students it was okay to feel angry or to laugh if they needed to. Some of the students cried or leaned against parents who had accompanied them to the meeting. Two counselors also made themselves available.
Kayda, a 9-year-old, wrote this letter to her teacher:
Hope you have a wounderful time in heaven. I love the way you would smile and your laugh was so cheerful. I think your heart was like a dimond.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.