Students at Finley Road Elementary School on Thursday learned more than the Three Rs.
They also learned lessons in endurance and love when they held a ceremony in remembrance of 10-year-old classmate Katlyn Rae "Katie Bug" Netherland.
The Rock Hill preteen, who loved to draw horses and dragons and had a passion for science, died eight days ago from a brain tumor.
"Katlyn lived a full life of love," school nurse Margaret Martin said. "She showed us so much, taught us so much. She came to us with such a gift of love and laughter."
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On Thursday, 88 fifth-graders formed a circle and held hands on the school's soccer field. Some clutched balloons of pink and purple -- Katlyn's favorite colors. Another circle of students exceeding 500 locked hands around the fifth-graders.
No one moved. No one talked. For an extended moment, they remembered the girl who gave so much and wanted nothing in return.
Then, some fifth-graders and her teacher released 16 pink and purple balloons stapled with messages to the waiting blue sky. Young faces watched the balloons until the huge dots grew small, as teachers and students wiped tears and tried to hide their sniffles.
Moments later, the fifth-graders led the group from the field. As they quietly filed out, a parent draped her arm around her son, and several girls in their cheerleader skirts looked like their cheer was gone.
"She was the kind of girl who always told jokes," Principal Deborah Maynard said about Katlyn. "She was able to take the hard times and find humor."
Katlyn's parents laid her to rest this week in West Virginia atop a hill near the grave site of her great-grandmother.
"She was my first born," Loretta Netherland said. "She was my miracle baby because the doctors told me I couldn't have any kids."
She was daddy's 'shero'
The girl who had a black and white horse named Chloe was her dad's hero.
"She was my shero," Carey Netherland said. "The whole time she was sick, she didn't complain. She didn't ask why. She just took it."
In January 2006, Katlyn was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
"She got sick at school and started having headaches in the back of her head," Loretta Netherland said.
Katlyn underwent four high doses of chemotherapy, 36 radiation treatments and two surgeries to remove the tumor -- all in 2006.
After the first surgery, a doctor said Katlyn would not walk without therapy, Carey Netherland said.
"She told him he was wrong," Netherland recalled. "Before she left the hospital, she showed him."
The tumor came back in April, he said. Doctors tried to fight it with chemotherapy. Two months later, doctors performed Katlyn's third surgery.
"They got what they thought was most of it, but when we went back in August, they found it had spread to the left side of her brain," a tearful Carey Netherland said.
Later that month, a determined Katlyn returned to school.
"She didn't want to be the center of attention," Loretta Netherland said. "She didn't want anyone to make a fuss over her. She wanted to be treated just like everyone else."
At the school, Katlyn and nurse Margaret Martin became fast friends. Martin gave Katlyn medicine. Katlyn gave Martin the gift of laughter, despite her illness.
"Her laughter was infectious," Martin said. "She would throw back her head and laugh."
In September, the nagging headaches forced her out of school again, Loretta Netherland said.
"She would get up in the middle of the night and scream because of the pain in her head," she said.
Katlyn slipped into a coma Oct. 24. She died the next day. Katlyn's endurance, Carey Netherland said, taught him to never give up. "The inspiration and caring she gave to others was selfless," he said. "We miss her."