News Press

6-year-old known for perpetual ‘big smile’

Classmates struggle to understand death

By PAMELA SMITH HAYFORD, phayford@news-press.com
Originally published 9/5/02
News Press

NORTH FORT MYERS —Six-year-old James Wallace was a happy-go-lucky brown-haired boy who always wore a big smile at Tropic Isles Elementary School.

That’s how Principal Don Bryant remembers the first-grader whose mother killed him with a shotgun blast Sunday.

He was “bright, a very bright young man. Always had a big smile on his face,” Bryant said.

Leslie Wallace, 39, told 911 operators she shot and killed her 6-year-old son and went after her two teen-age sons because of her mother-in-law’s constant complaints about the boys.

The tragedy shocked teachers, students and parents at Tropic Isles.

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand how anyone can take it out on her child,” said Kathy McCann as she picked up her second-grader. “My daughter doesn’t understand. The only thing she asks is why.”

That was before Jessica McCann went to school Tuesday and stopped by her friend’s first-grade class to see him. It was then that 7-year-old Jessica realized the little boy whose mother shot him was the same friend she’d been hanging out with in school since last year.

When asked about James, Jessica’s smile vanished and she almost started to cry.

“He was one of my friends,” she said. “I was wondering where he was.”

A team of crisis counselors were on campus Tuesday to talk with students and teachers.

“It’s real difficult determining which ones comprehend it and which ones don’t,” said Chuck Bell, director of student services for Lee County schools. “It’s hard for us to comprehend what they’re understanding, but also the issue is we’re also dealing with students of different age levels within that school.

“Some may have some relationship through the playground or after school.”

Children ages 5 to 7 generally feel loss but have difficulty grasping the permanence of death.

Bell said denying the students their feelings could cause adjustment problems later on.

The children in James’ class vented their feelings in a creative way.

“James’ classmates are writing their memories of James to give to the family,” Bryant said.

Bell said the best thing adults can do for the children is be honest, give them the facts to their questions and let them ask what they want.

“The best we can do is provide a lot of support and the willingness to listen,” Bell said. “If some of them don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK, too. If they’re nervous and giggle or laugh, that’s OK, too.”

Lisa Cowels, a teaching assistant, said her pre-kindergarten students weren’t really aware of what happened and didn’t know James.

But Cowels said she saw and heard the effects on other students.

“I’ve heard a couple of kids say ‘My friend, did you see, he was shot,’ ” Cowels said. “It’s pretty scary saying your friend’s been shot in the first grade.

“Because of all this, I’m going to keep an eye on this one,” she said, her 9-year-old son waiting patiently by their minivan.

Bryant held a staff meeting first thing in the morning to let teachers and other employees at the school know about what happened.

“It’s been a stressful day here,” Bryant said. “We will be doing something as a school to assist the family.”

Bryant said he won’t know what that is until he talks with the family.

As the school grieved Tuesday, James’ father, Bill Wallace, and Steve Rogers, pastor of New Wine Ministries, made funeral arrangements.

North Fort Myers Memorial Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements, will not charge the financially struggling family for funeral expenses, which can run between $1,500 and $3,000 for a child, said Jeff Andrews, manager.

“Cost doesn’t matter,” Andrews said. “We’re trying to help the family best we can. They’ve been through enough.”