My friend (and the principal with whom I was a high school AP) has told me more than once that the most difficult part of the principalship is losing a student. Last month I discovered for myself that he is right. Early on the Sunday morning after students returned to school for the Spring semester, I received word that a very well-liked eighth grade student had been killed in a hunting accident. Our school has been through such a difficult range of events since then that it is difficult for me to process the fact that it has only been three weeks. Being an educator is already like tunneling through a mountain with a toothpick, but January was about as difficult a month as I have experienced. We had already started the semester without a 7th grade science teacher. Before the month was over, we also had an early release, a late start, and a short week, all while trying to cope with this staggering loss.
I am well aware that the collective experiences of these last weeks are not unique to our school and might possibly be nearly normal for some schools. However, in case such events would be as traumatic to your school as there were to ours, let me share a handful of factors that have helped us cope and find our new normal.
1. We grieved together. This young man was loved by his classmates and teachers. We wept in sorrow that first week. All of us. In classes and hallways and bathrooms and in front of his locker. What we explicitly chose not to do those first few days was swallow the lump in our collective throat and get on with preparing for the standardized test scheduled for May. We acknowledged through our actions and our words that we are human and relationships trump the acquisition of knowledge every time.
2. We remembered our friend. Although we are in the heart of Alabama territory, most of the school wore orange and blue that first day back because Will was a huge Auburn fan. Students wrote notes and cards those first couple of days and put them on his locker and all over the walls in a front hallway. We did not try to stop them – in fact we encouraged them to do so. We all left school to go to his memorial service – 80% of the students and a higher percentage of the faculty/staff. We planted a tree in the courtyard in his memory. The basketball team warmed up in blue and orange (as did the first team we played against on the road) and the baseball team designed a decal for the back of their batting helmets. I’m no expert, but I believe the symbolic significance of these actions were especially important for middle school students. Doing something was important to them. Equally important was the opportunity for each student (who wanted to) to contribute directly.
3. We had a plan. I alerted the entire faculty and staff about what had happened hours after I knew and we all met early Monday morning to discuss our plan. Part of the plan was to stay calm when things fell apart. We knew it would be difficult to predict how the student body would respond, but we were on the same page and adjusted as a cohesive unit. I don’t think you can successfully script how to handle events like this. On the other hand I believe that blundering into them without thinking could make the problem worse instead of better.
4. We had help. Seven school counselors from around the system were at our school the first two days after this happened as were several social workers and Employee Assistance Program counselors. I believe it is very likely that we would have been overwhelmed if it had not been for their amazing support. The insight and suggestions several of them shared was very valuable and they all demonstrated an amazing talent for working with young people. Even the adults needed personal support and counseling. On the day of the memorial service, the entire Curriculm and Instruction team came over from the Central Office to allow every single employee who wanted to attend to do so. The outpouring of love and simpathy from the community was amazing. It sounds like a no-brainer but crises require larger teams than most schools are able to keep on staff. I am grateful that we had so many folks willing to support us.
5. We are figuring out how to live with grief. The notes are down, the counselors are back at their own schools, we are drafting Punnett squares and journal entries, we have a dance next week. We haven’t forgotten. We aren’t healed yet. Nerves might be stretched a bit thinner than most Februarys. The counselor and assistant principal’s offices have been getting more traffic than usual. Even the principal gets caught weeping in his office once in a while. But we have decided to honor this young man and his life by living our lives. And by carrying on the school culture he helped nurture and sustain.