The Last Leaf (Mr. Caldarelli and van Gogh art)

Autumn Landscape, 1885, by Vincent van Gogh

REBLOG of an old post from 2014 


I was looking outside yesterday at the privacy trees we quickly planted along the back fence.  I was amazed at how one of the tall Maples still has most of its crumpled fall leaves.  Here it is….  late winter…. and the leaves are STILL hanging on each branch. Maybe this is because we have such mild winters in central Virginia.  The mountains to the west of us buffer and warm much of the frigid air before it streams our way.  However, that tree also sits right between a series of trees, planted six years ago, and the wind seems to go around it. So maybe science plays a part. The right location of the tree means it is buffered  from the elements – and so we have a lot of leaves still hanging on!

Looking at all those leaves, STILL HANGING ON, made me think of the first time I heard O. Henry’s story,  The Last Leaf:

Mr. Calderelli, my 6th grade teacher, read it to our class and most students had wet eyes.  This teacher, who passed away in 2005, was a complete inspiration.  He loved literature and shared his passion with the class. Of course I see his inspiration more in hind sight, but Mr. Caldarelli’s love for literature (and writing) lives on through many of his students, especially me.


So…. if you are looking for a short, yet inspirational read – you can read The Last Leaf here.


Favorite line: “She has one chance in – let us say ten.” he said. “And that chance is for her to WANT to live.” 

Going along with the theme of hope from O. Henry’s story, please don’t forget that what you do has a rippling effect on the lives around you… and not just the major work you do, but also the many little things you are passing on – just by being you!  

Whether you take creative photographs, review books, share quotes, write about culture, or share meaningful poems, notes and/or videos – this is “shared humanity” –  and it matters. (Just don’t get burned out.) When you offer a variety of things to share, teach, entertain, and encourage – well as you move into 2014 – be reminded that the little things you do – really DO matter.  Be reminded that sometimes we are in the right place at the right time to buffer some of life’s coldness for someone else.

We might be able to easily offer someone a bit of hope or an encouraging word, which could not only make a difference, but it could be a part of the legacy that YOU leave behind someday! 

Quick Version of The Last Leaf  by O. Henry (1907)

backyard of old houses in antwerp in the snow - Van Gogh - art
Van Gogh’s Backyard of Old Houses in Antwerp in the Snow

In the Last Leaf (video below) a bunch of artists live together in Greenwich Village. The story opens with, “In a little district west of Washington Square the streets have run crazy and broken themselves into small strips called “places.”   These “places” make strange angles and curves. One street crosses itself a time or two. An artist once discovered a valuable possibility in this street.”

Sue and Johnsy are two young aspiring artists, also very good friends, who live on the 3rd floor in a cheap “squatty” apartment building in this art district. 

One cold November, Johnsy is sick with pneumonia, almost dying in her bed.  She is completely discouraged and has “made up her mind that she will not get well.”  The doctor says that if she gets hope, she will have a 1 in 5 chance of getting well, as opposed to a 1 in 10 chance!  Johnsy is counting the falling leaves of an ivy vine, which she can see on the brick wall through outside of her window, and she insists that she will die when the last leaf drops. 

“Six,” said Johnsy, quietly. “They’re falling faster now. Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head hurt to count them. But now it’s easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now.”

Portrait-of-an-Old-Man-with-Beard - Van Gogh - art
Vincent Van Gogh’s Portrait of an Old Man with Beard reminds me of Mr Behrman

Old Mr. Behrman, who lives on the ground floor, is also a painter, and Henry notes that he was a failure at art, but he  has a heart of gold and is a man of life and passion.  

Mr. Behrman says to Sue one day,

“You want money, be a banker; you want misery, be a painter like me,” and then chuckles and goes about his way.  

Mr. Behrman is upset when he hears about Johnsy’s hopeless state and he tells her not to give up.   In fact, Behrman is mad about the low hope and is frustrated by way she wants to wither away with the falling leaves, he responds,

“Are there people in the world with the foolishness to die because leaves drop off a vine? Why do you let that silly business come in her brain?… Some day I will paint a masterpiece, and we shall all go away.”

A visiting doctor gives her little chances to survive, that is unless she can attain some HOPE!

 That night, a cold rain falls, with snow and a fierce wind. The next morning, as soon as Sue awakes, Johnsy asks her to pull up the window shade so she can count the leaves – and there is one leaf hanging on the vine outside on the brick wall.  The leaf is still dark green, with yellow edges.

“It is the last one,” says Johnsy. “I thought it would surely fall during the night. I heard the wind. It will fall today and I shall die at the same time.”

“Dear, dear!” says Sue, leaning her worn face down toward the bed. “Think of me, if you won’t think of yourself. What would I do?” But Johnsy does not answer.

The next morning, Johnsy looks through the window only to see that the ivy leaf is STILL there. She lies for a long time, looking at it. Then she calls to Sue, who was preparing chicken soup.

“I’ve been a bad girl,” Johnsy announces. “Something has made that last leaf stay there to show me how bad I was. It is wrong to want to die. You may bring me a little soup now.” Johnsy had hope….

Later – the doctor checks on Johnsy and reports that she will likely recover! However, he has some bad news, and that is that mr.    is now sick!  On the morning of the first day that they found him sick in his room –  his shoes and clothing were “wet through and icy cold” –  They could not imagine why he had been outside in such bad weather.  Then they found a lantern “sty ill lighted” and a ladder with palette that had green and yellow colors mixed on it. 

“And look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it is Behrman’s masterpiece – he painted it there the night that the last leaf fell.”

 Teaching Tips:

  • Teach about The Last Leaf by starting with an intro (brief summary) of the story – don’t give away the ending – but do give a nice overview of what they will expect to find. Who, what, where, and when. And don’t feel like this brief into overview will spoil it for students – it could actually help engagement as they are primed by the intro.
  • Have students read the story. 
  • Do an in-seat leaf activity. The activity will vary according to time, supplies available, and age of students. Maybe do leaf rubbings, collect leaves, press leaves, or give a worksheet on how to differentiate leaves. Or paint leaves on the window- maybe make a fall collage. One day we had instant coffee and q-tips and so we made leaf drawings using instant coffee as the paint. We also used straws to blow some of the wet coffee drops around the paper. This allowed for hands-on freshness and every painting was unique and had the browns and tans of fall. It was a little messy and so be careful to not get coffee on clothes. It can stain. 
  • After students read the story and you have discussed it – show a video clip of the last leaf to allow for a third exposure to the story (the first one was your intro, second was them reading it, third will be the video). The video will also target more learning styles.
  • Tips for discussing the story: Have some questions starters and have at least three quotes from the story to expound on. Do not be afraid to expound from a teacher’s perspective – remember you are planting seeds and teaching – and students will soak up the deep reflection you provide. You are also teaching them how to expound and it takes a lot of modeling and being exposed to such objective criticism. I sometimes see teachers hold back on their expounding with the weak argument that they “do not want to say too much as they want more student discussion” – well you can still have student discussion with your saying a lot. Don’t hold back too much – they want to see the layers and the nuggets and they need to be shown how to identify these and then put it into words. And in my opinion, good teachers also share their favorite parts and they get a little excited about a passage or two. Mr. Calderelli and Mrs. George (my High School English teacher) were excellent with sharing some of their favorite parts – and it is a special part of teaching. Don’t be robotic – let the students feel some of your essence – stay professional and stick to the subject – but give a little bit of you!
  • Option to explore music connected to this story.  For example, this song, “The Last Leaf” by The Cascades (1963), might fit in. . (It reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100). Other songs for The Last Leaf by Peter Ekstrom, Emily Loesser, Don Stephenson, Theresa McCarthy & Bruce Adler
  • If time, talk more about O. Henry –  here at Ready to go e-booksO. Henry is the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862 – 1910).  The stories he wrote are known for their clever twist endings.  Besides being a well known writer, under the O. Henry name,  Porter was a singer and musician.  His life became troubled when his wife suffered from tuberculosis and he lost his job, at the Bank he worked for, when they accused him of embezzlement.”
  • Don’t forget that when you give of yourself (with healthy boundaries of course) it is good for you too – there is something enriching and deeply edifying for humans when we know we make a difference in someone’s life – so look for ways that you can make small differences – it will have a rippling effect!

ABOUT THE ART in this post:

~ All the pieces in this post are by Vincent van Gogh

VanGogh_Wind-Beaten-Tree, 1883
A Wind Beaten Tree, 1883 by Vincent van Gogh
Beaten… but still standing!

~ Vincent van Gogh did not begin painting until his late twenties; most of his best-known paintings were produced during his final two years. As most know, Vicent produced more than 2,000 pieces of art, with around 900 paintings and more than 1100 drawings and sketches.

~When van Gogh gave people the gift of one of his paintings, some snickered.  Some folks put the art piece quietly away in another room.  However, van Gogh’s brother, Theo, believed in Vincent’s gift – and Theo fueled the hope that kept Van Gogh painting. Many thanks to dear brother Theo. Theo was a financial support to Vincent, which was more of a sacrifice in the later years when he became married.  And after both Vincent and Theo died, it was Theo’s widow who really gets the credit for caring for Vincent’s art – so thanks to her too! Even though this widow was also fueled by grief because she knows she brought in some tension into the financial supporting of Vincent. 











9 thoughts on “The Last Leaf (Mr. Caldarelli and van Gogh art)

  1. What a wonderful post, Yvette. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I love Van Gogh’s artwork and O. Henry’s writing. I don’t recall having read The Last Leaf before but what a great story. Thank you for sharing it. It’s a delightful tale. You have drawn so much more from it with your suggestions for discussion.

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