By Joan Richardson
I remember it like it was yesterday. Three girls driving home from a night of studying at the library. A shortcut down a hill behind the hospital. Probably laughing, definitely driving too fast. A train stalled at the crossing at the foot of the hill. And a crash.
Before I got to school the next morning, I already knew what had happened. We didn’t need social media; we had telephones and friends, and the news spread quickly.
Quiet filled the school hallways that day. The boys who had been dating those three girls and other boys who knew them well wore dark sunglasses all day; the girls just cried openly and often. Everybody seemed nicer that day. Some teachers still tried to teach, but most of the teachers and coaches let us interrupt their plans for the day so we could talk about our shock, our grief, our fear. They consoled us, and they let us see their own feelings of loss. Mostly from that day, I remember feeling how much those teachers loved each of us.
The high school closed on the day of the funerals. The churches and the families cooperated so all three funerals occurred on the same day, one right after the other, and we trudged from church to church to church, a long parade of grief. Exhausting but cathartic.
I’ve come to believe that there’s no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to tragedy in a school community or the grief that follows. Everyone gets swept up in it because everyone is ultimately touched by it. Even if you didn’t know the victim, you know someone who did know and probably cared for the deceased.
The ripple of connections surrounding student and teacher deaths goes on well beyond the event. One principal who experienced a horrific suicide of a student on his school property told me that he knows students will remember that day forever. “When they graduate from high school, when they return for their school reunions, that is the day that they will all have in common. I will be tied to those kids for the rest of my life, and they will be tied to each other,” he said.
Every anniversary will dredge up the memory. Every time another shooter on another campus kills another student or teacher or himself, they will remember what happened at their own school.
Although enormous sadness attaches to such events, I see a strand of hope in all of this. Although shooters in particular clearly intend to destroy a community, their actions seem to have the opposite result. Instead of tearing apart schools or communities, such incidents bind us together because they emphasize our connections, our relationships. Such incidents may rub us raw emotionally but, in the process, they allow us the cover to acknowledge the deep bonds that students and teachers share.
In responding to tragic events, educators choose to put aside their worries about evaluations and accountability in favor of caring about the children in their charge. Confronted with such losses, they say by their actions that there are more important issues in life than worrying about the scores on a test. They recognize that humanity does not have to leave the building simply because death has entered.
Principals, teachers, and coaches may have set aside their lesson plans, but the learning has not stopped. For in those moments, educators are teaching some of the most vital lessons that children can learn. Like me, their students will take with them the love, the caring on the part of the teachers who helped them get through some of their toughest days.