When her 5-year-old son, Cael, came home from school singing The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," Tina Horstmann knew she got lucky. His teacher, Ms. Gale, was a talented instructor -- fresh out of college and passionate about education. Cael thrived in Ms. Gale's class and remembers her now, at 7 and a half, as his favorite teacher.
"Once, when it was break time, she put on the radio and that's what she had turned on," Cael remembers over the phone from his new home in London. "It was a very good song and very rockstar-ish."
His little voice, touched with a slight British inflection, pauses for a heavy second.
"I miss her. She was very nice and she teached us a lot."
I realized Horstmann told Cael about Eloise Gale's death a year ago. It was a subject I was hesitant to broach with someone so young. Cael handles it with grace.
Eloise died scuba diving in the Galapagos Islands on February 12, 2010. Upon noticing her absence, members of her diving group searched for her for more than four hours. They were on the verge of abandoning hope when a diver found Eloise's body. She was lying at the bottom of the ocean.
Eloise, 23, had only been teaching for a year and a half.
The accident left Eloise's family -- her father, mother and sister -- in a state of shock.
"Nobody knows what to do," explains Flavia Gale, radiating both the confidence of a spitfire Oxford graduate and the vulnerability of a grieving mother. "You imagine everything in the world except your child dying. People don't know how to react."
Many sent flowers, notes of sympathy and other forms of condolence. Then, just days after her death, Eloise's godmother, Gail Edwin, created a memorial that would change Eloise's legacy forever.
With the help of Eloise's brother-in-law, Zach Aarons, Edwin set up a giving page in the young teacher's honor at DonorsChoose.org, a platform for public school teachers to post classroom projects and for donors to give money targeted specifically toward individual goals.
Gail and Zach directed mourning friends and family to the site -- and ultimately to teachers across the country looking for help their schools can't or won't provide -- as an alternative to checks or flowers.
After one week, 55 donations were made on Eloise's page, raising $7,068 for in-need classrooms, teachers and students. After a month, it was $14,772. And now, a year after the accident, $53,744 from 146 donors has been raised in Eloise's honor. More than 13,000 students have been reached through her page.
"It doesn't give them their daughter back," says Edwin. "But it gives them a sense of her continued existence. And it dignifies Eloise's commitment as a teacher, which, I can tell you, was extraordinary."
When Eloise walked into her first classroom at Sligo Creek Elementary School, a former Title 1 school in the D.C. suburbs, she had nothing. The previous teacher had taken all the teaching materials with her, including books purchased by parents at the school's annual Scholastic Book Fair.
"The parents always thought that these were books given to the classroom, not the teacher," explains Horstmann. "I was surprised to find that the previous teacher had taken everything along. But she's not the only one. It usually happens that way."
At back-to-school night, Horstmann and her husband asked Eloise if they could do anything to help. Instead of taking them up on their offer, she turned to Donors Choose.
In her first year, Eloise set up seven projects on the site, all which were fully funded.
"She would wake up in the morning to see who had contributed," recalls Flavia. "She didn't like hitting up her friends for money, but she did it. She felt good that she could call on people and it wasn't for her -- it was for her students."
Eloise's students didn't have access to the same opportunities she had growing up -- and ameliorating that gap became a personal crusade. As a child in Manhattan, she was exposed to educational experiences most children in this country can't imagine. She sang in the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus, studied at the School of American Ballet, performed on The Met and New York City Ballet stages, spoke perfect French and traveled the world.
Early on, she realized that many of her students had never even seen the national monuments, including the Lincoln Memorial, even though they lived less than 10 miles away from Washington, D.C. With the help of family friends, she got in touch with Senator Chuck Schumer's office; they offered 15 to 20 tickets for Eloise's class. Her response: "I need 150."
"She was going to make damn sure every kid in that grade went to the capitol," her mother recalls with a chuckle.
Eloise's classroom shared a door with the room of 60-year-old Sue Poness, a kindergarten teacher for more than 20 years. After their students went home, the two women would open the door and share their philosophies on teaching, politics and life. It was Eloise who taught her new co-worker how to navigate Donors Choose.
Together they created a project to fund a LeapFrog reading system in their literacy centers. But before the fundraising even began, a woman from the neighborhood -- a LeapFrog employee who saw their request on Donors Choose -- showed up at the elementary school with a box full of books and tag readers.
"I cried when I saw the donation," says Poness. "It was incredible for me."
The two women's conversations would sometimes focus on Eloise's frustration with the curriculum mandated by administrators and county requirements.
"She was the youngest person on our staff but she had no hesitation speaking her mind in staff meetings," says Poness. "She was a free spirit and had a hard time conforming. But the kids absolutely adored her. That's what kindergarten should be."
Cael and his mother agree.
"We used to read a book and she'd talk about it and sometimes we had to write about the book and she helped us how to do that," says Cael. "Yes, she was a very thoughtful teacher."
According to Horstmann, Eloise helped her son adjust to kindergarten with an unconventionally affectionate approach. After Cael hands the phone over to her, she throws in one last recollection of Eloise: "I remember that sometimes he just needed a hug -- and she gave that," she explains. "And I thought that was remarkable because many teachers don't do that. There are just too many fears of liability, lawsuits, etc. But she never cared for that. When she saw a child needed a hug, she gave a hug."
For more on Eloise's profound impact -- and to view classroom projects that currently need funding -- visit her in memoriam page at Donors Choose.