Death casts shadow on boy's classmates

The day after a Dade City second- grader dies, his classmates cry, try to cope and save him a seat.

Published March 16, 2007

DADE CITY - They saved a seat for him at lunch Thursday, and when they went outside, they could swear they saw a cloud that looked just like his face. The children all looked up and shouted, "There's Robert! He's watching out for us. We love you, Robert!"

Robert Britton III died Wednesday night. A second-grader at San Antonio Elementary School, he was riding his dirt bike in the woods around his house in Dade City before his baseball game. Earlier that day, his teacher had given a writing assignment in honor of St. Patrick's Day: Write down what you think is more precious than gold.

"Dirt bikes," Robert wrote.

But something happened on that ride. The throttle got stuck maybe, and the bike wouldn't stop, and he ran into a tree.

He was wearing safety gear. His dad, Robert Britton II, was supervising.

He was 7. Investigators determined his death was an accident. It's legal for minors to ride dirt bikes on private property if an adult supervises them and they wear the proper safety gear.

"It's okay to be sad," counselors said to Robert's classmates the morning after his death. "It's okay to cry." One counselor read a book about life cycles - about mice and butterflies and humans - how we're born and get old and die, but how sometimes accidents happen, or people get sick and they die young.

The children looked at one another, unsure of how to react. Then one little boy in the back of the classroom - near Robert's desk, still full of his things - started crying. Then they all started crying.

Their teacher, Carissa Mangione, kept excusing herself to sob. "This can't be real," the 31-year-old kept thinking. She has been teaching for seven years, and Robert was her first student to die. He was smart, a great reader, a good kid who followed instructions, she said. He was the class Student of the Month in December. And so cute. She clutched his photo and ran her finger over his cheeks.

"He's still got that baby face," she said. "You can tell he was somebody's baby."

Robert was the youngest and the only boy of five children. The school is going to plant a tree in his memory. The PTA is making a scrapbook for his parents. The yearbook was sent to press this week but was halted so that an extra page just for Robert could be added.

Mangione wants to put his desk in a special place in the classroom, maybe topped with a basket of the students' favorite books. She doesn't know yet. She feels numb. "It's not fair," she said.

Near the end of the day, the students quietly made cards for Robert's family. They drew headstones, flowers, dirt bikes, hearts and sunshine. They said:

"Dear Mr. and Mrs. Britton. Is Robert ok?"

"It's hard not to cry but I am anyway."

"I was going to teach him to do the monkey bars but now it's too late. So I had to teach myself."

"Robert was a good friend to me all the time and everybody."

"PLEASE, please rest his sole in peace."

Matthew Adams, one of Robert's best friends, drew himself and Robert, standing apart, holding two-way radios held together with a rainbow-shaped wire.

"This is me and Robert," he said. "We're still connected."

Times staff writer Gina Pace contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or 813 909-4609.