Let's Talk About It

Grief in Urban Schools: from a School Leader’s Perspective

The following is an excerpt from an untitled and unpublished novel. This is a work of realistic fiction. All names, characters, places, and experiences are either of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, places, or occurrences is completely coincidental. Please be advised that this writing includes material that could be considered graphic and may incite strong emotional responses in the reader. The intent of sharing this excerpt is to facilitate an opportunity to process through grief in the world of urban education.

**********

From: Tim Warton
Sent: Saturday, July 23, 2011 4:01 PM
To: Stephanie Eva
Subject: We need to talk

Stephanie,

            I would like to speak to you ASAP about the conversation you had with Mr. Stetson. I thought we had an understanding about Mr. Stetson’s placement. I am upset and alarmed that you spoke to him. Please call me ASAP.

 

Tim

 Tim Warton

CEO

Washington Heights Charter Network

 

 After reading it the first time, I knew there was a problem. Nothing warm or friendly. No salutation. I cannot remember a time when I upset Tim simply because I liked him, respected him, and we were often on the same page. But reading it again, I still believe the right thing to do was to direct Mr. Stetson to talk to our superintendent. I had tried everything in my power. I already had to explain to a disheartened staff and student body that we were losing yet another staff member because we were opening more schools. That was hard enough.

Did central really expect me to look Mr. Stetson in the eye, knowing that it was possible for him to stay here, and not say anything? Just didn’t seem like the right thing to do. I wasn’t trying to cross Tim, but I did need to know within myself that I had tried everything I could to keep our strong team members. And I honestly feel like I have.

It’s just that in the process, I’ve pissed Tim off.

Bzzz. Bzzzz. I’m finally back in a classroom, with my mind off of good ole Tim, and my work cell starts dancing on the desk top. The words that flash across the screen send a chill up my spine.

 Rosalina is in the hospital. Asthma attack.   Critical condition. Meet me at the front door. I’ll ride over with you.

I’ve heard people talk about things going in slow motion. Like when they meet the man of their dreams or when they see their perfect car or when they feel themselves about to slap someone silly. Well, everything slowed down when I saw that text.

Our school had been really fortunate. We had not lost a child. Sure our students got into a neighborhood squabble now and then but would come to school the next day safe and sound. But this wasn’t a neighborhood squirmish. This was a child who had an illness, the same condition I had for years. And now she was in the hospital.

I’m not even sure how I got from my seat in that 9th grade English class to the door to my office to my car. All I know is that I see buildings passing, and I hear Ms. Bennett giving me directions. Turn left. Go right. Pass this building. Go around this curve.

Finally I ask, “So what happened?”

“All I know is that when she got home from school yesterday, she had trouble breathing. She did one of her treatments and laid down. Sounds like she wasn’t feeling better so the family called the hospital, but the ambulance took a long time coming.”

“And here we are,” I said. I started thinking about all of the times people in Black and Latino and poor communities got inadequate treatment just because of their demographic. I was hoping that this was not the case.

Mrs. Bennett inhaled deeply. Let it out slowly. Like she was counting. One one thousand.   Two two thousand. Three three thousand.

Finally said quietly, almost in a whisper, “Yeah. Here we are.”

Seems like it took forever to get to the hospital. Down Germantown Avenue. The cobble streets playing a rhythmic noise on the tires. It felt like in this moment, nothing should be that loud. I wanted to tell the tires to tell the street to hush, but that would be silly. Just seemed like if the streets knew what was happening with Roselina, they’d be quieter somehow. Out of respect.

A green Honda passes with music blaring. Rap music. Old school, which is the best kind. But not right now. Ice Cube shouldn’t be saying that today is a good day, not right now.

Right on Broad Street and then a straight shot to Temple Hospital.   Into the parking lot. Up the elevator. At the nurse’s station.

But my lips had stopped moving awhile ago. I’d been moving on automatic since I got the text. Now I am here at the hospital and not even sure of what to say.

I turn to Ms. Bennett. All of a sudden I feel panicky. Like we don’t belong here.

“I didn’t even ask if the parents were ok with us being here. Did we talk to–”

She touches my arm, the same way I have seen her do with students on her caseload. Like she is trying to soothe me. “It’s ok. I talked to them. You know you are like family to them.”

She pauses. Concern etched all over her face. “You ok?”

“Yes. Just worried about Roselina, you know?”

“Yeah. I know.”

I need to get myself together. I’m not usually shaken. At least not visibly. I’m described as calm. And professional. I’m here to support the family. Not to be supported.

We get our name badges and head up yet another elevator. 1st floor. 2nd floor. 3rd floor. What am I going to see? What does it mean to be in critical condition as a 14 year older? I’d been to the hospital once after an asthma attack when I was 5. They gave me a shot in the butt, and I was fine. Nothing serious after that.

Ding!

This time it’s me inhaling deeply. Letting air our slowly. One one thousand. Two two thousand…

Ok. Here goes.

At the critical care station, a nurse tells us, “She isn’t being responsive. But I can take you to her.”

She is looking from me to Ms. Bennet. Her lips in a tight straight line. The eye liner under her right eye is smudged. She looks tired. Like I feel.

Not being responsive. Non responsive. What does that mean? That she is asleep? That she is medicated and can’t really talk. What does that even mean?

I notice that my teeth are clenched. And I loosen my jaw. Breathe in. breathe out. All I can hear are the clicks of our heels on the floor as we pass room.

  1. 203. 205. 207. 209.

What I see next, I am not prepared for what I see. Rosalina’s body is connected to tubes. From her mouth. In her arms. I hear a sound, a whoosh from the machine that is breathing for her.

Her brown body is moving, jerking, like some awful dance that had no rhythm. Her eyelids flutter but never open. We stand there. I touch her leg. She is warm. I almost snatch my hand away when her leg jumps again.

In church, they taught us to pray for the sick. Said if we did, they would be healed. But I was a school representative. Could I pray? Would that be ok? And what if we prayed and it didn’t work.

“Ms. Bennett, you think it’s ok if we pray?”   My voice sounds small and uncertain to my own ears.

Before I could even finish the sentence, her hand slips in mine. She closes her eyes and said, “It’s the only thing we can do.’

So I pray. I pray that God would forgive us of our sins so that our prayers could be heard. I thank Him for the time He has allowed us to know Rosalina. I pray that God would heal her. I pray that the devil would let her go. I pray that her lungs would be restored. I pray that all of this would happen quickly.

When I open my eyes, I want her to open hers. I want to see her smile again. I want to hear her call my name and say something funny. I want us to be back in my office. Me at the desk. Her sitting in her chair telling me what she was or wasn’t going to do.

But when I open my eyes, that’s not what I see. That’s not what I hear. Instead I see the tubes running from her arms and her mouth. I hear the machine wheezing air into her lungs. And the dance continues as her body convulses to the beat of an unfair tune.

What to do next? Do we just leave? We had prayed. We had seen her for ourselves. I thank the nurse and begin walking away. But when I get to the hallway, I can’t leave just yet. Though I only see her foot from the door, my mind continues to replay her body moving, the tubes traveling from her arms and mouth, the whooshing of the machine.

Ms. Bennet joins me in the hall. Stands right beside me. Isn’t saying a word. I can’t even hear her breathing.

I plan on gathering up my things, driving back with Ms. Bennett and giving an optimistic report to the staff. But in this moment, it’s like I see a veil being lifted from my eyes. I know I just saw her. But it hits me. Like when you shake a snow globe and the little house inside is obscured. You see it, but the details are not clear. Once that snow settles, every window, every sparkle is distinct and apparent.

I see it clearly. Rosalina might not make it. She is 14, and this might be it for her. It just isn’t fair! But I have to believe. Why pray and then not believe? I have a responsibility to have faith that God will heal her.

At first, I just feel one tear. Then another and another. I’m scared to move because if I do, I know the flood will come. But if I don’t then what? Before I could control it, I feel my face collapse. Totally crumple. I hold back a sob because it just seemed so unprofessional. What was I doing?

I feel a pressure in my chest and my breath is short. Pull yourself together, Stephanie! I squeeze my eyes shut, but the tears just keep escaping. I can only imagine what Ms. Bennet is thinking, but she says nothing.

Ok. Ok. Enough! You’ve got to get back to school. You need to refocus. You can NOT go back looking like a mess.

Thinking about the many people I will need to speak to when I return doesn’t sober me, but it does quell my emotional outburst. If only for a moment.

When I finally raise my eyes to look at Ms. Bennet, her eyes are wet, almost if any moment, a tear will fall. I don’t trust my voice so I just give a little nod and raise my brows, as if to say, “Ready?”

She knows me. We have worked together for years. So she nods, and we begin the walk back to the car. The drive back is silent. This time it as if the people we pass know that there is sadness in the air. No blaring music. No bumpy streets. Just shushed sounds and the passing of trees, buildings, and asphalt.

**********

I had no idea of what to wear to a child’s funeral. People said she was a 14-year-old woman, but she was a child to me. Trying to figure things out. Trying to balance her emerging womanness, her sexuality, with the need to be both expressive and responsible. The hard balance of doing what is right versus what feels good.

On the bed is a pile of clothing. Cream, black, and red. Cream because she was a Christian. Light colors spoke to life after death. Black because it was traditional. Grey because it was somewhere in between. Red because it spoke to vibrancy and life. Of sparkle and zest.

I chose the grey because it had a leopard print, was subdued, and I looked cute. She would want me to look cute.

Driving slowly, I am hoping that I hit a detour. That I miss the service at no fault of my own. I get there faster than I thought possible. Trees and gray sky passing me in a blur. Low clouds hug the rooftops the flat rooftops of the skyline.

A young mother bustles her young child through the streets. Looks to be 6 years old. Her voice high pitched and innocent as she points at cookies and cakes in a passing window. Pink, glittery butterflies on a magenta coat.

No one should have to go to the funeral of a 14-year-old. And no 14 year old should have a funeral. .

As I creep into the parking lot, gravel crunches into itself reminding me of how close I am to entering the church. I slide the key from the ignition and I wait.

Five minutes pass. 11:03 glows in green numbers on the dashboard display. Services have already started. I’m holding the key in one hand and the straps to my grey and patent leather pocket book in the other.

But I can’t seem to move.

Hushed voices pass my car. Some on the way to the church. I hear a loud man yelling. His oversized black coat hides the side of his face. Someone needs to tell him that she died. That we are at a funeral.

I. Do. Not. Want. To. Go. In. I don’t. I can’t see how my presence here will change anything. She is gone. Nothing but the hand of God can bring her back. What if I cry? What if I weep? What if I can’t keep it together? Like I was at the hospital. Falling apart when the family needed us, needed me, to be strong. I’m the damn principal for crying out loud.

I know I have an obligation. We have never lost a child before. We have never had to say goodbye in this way. Never had our hearts broken in these kinds of pieces. Not in this way.

Romantic heartbreak I knew. Getting rid of broken pictures and throwing away faded clothes I knew. Disappointment from family, I knew. Not answering the phone visiting less often I knew. Even losing my father, I knew. But this sensation was different. It was pain in a unique way.

Like a twisting and pulling at the same time. Like shame and sadness at the same time. Like laughing and crying at the same time. Like running and stopping at the same time. It was feeling of not knowing what to do but knowing I need to do something, at the same time.

It was knowing that you can’t go to work to escape the pain. Faces in the classroom are the faces at the funeral. So where do we go? Where do we lose ourselves in ourselves so that we can forget even for a moment?

And how much should we try to remember? How much should we try to forget? What are the rules for this one?

Seven minutes pass, and I know I need to get moving. I focus my attention on the click of my heels on the pavement as I step out of the car. I start walking. Slow and methodical. Delaying the inevitable for as long as I can.

A sharp October wind whips my coat around me.

The vestibule is filled with the glossy faces of youth. No wrinkles. Eyes clear and bright. Our boys, they try to hold back tears. They have reputation to maintain.

I move quickly into the church. Sit near a co-worker who has a program. The front is covered with a chronology of years past, from infancy to high school. There is even a picture of Rosalina in her Washington Heights uniform. Pre-braces. Chubby cheeks blushed pink.

Scanning across the program, my heart swells even more with something I can’t describe. My name is listed among 3 who will speak on her behalf. In her eulogy, it describes she and I as close. As almost like girlfriends.

The program flutters from my fingers onto the pew. I didn’t want to have to say anything to anyone. What do I say that is honest and uplifting? How do I speak without mentioning what I believe? I am an educator. Education and spirituality do not mix.

In this instant, I surrender to being who I am. I am a principal, yes. But I am also Stephanie Eva. A human being.

I see Tim and others from our central office down front. For a moment I wish I were them. I wish that I could be detached from what we are experiencing. That I could be an outsider looking into this sorrow. Well wishing instead of wading through it.

We hear a song from the choir. Words from her neighbors. And then me.

As I walk forward, I try not to look at anyone. I try not to look at Roselina. But I see a flash of her green 8th grade dance dress cascading over the satin lining of the casket. I almost lose it.

Clenching my back teeth together to stop the swell of tears that pressing against the backs of my eyes, I speak. I talk of remembering her. Of allowing ourselves to grieve in sadness and to grieve in laughter. To accept that because of her belief in God, she is still alive.

That we have an obligation to be even more committed because of her life. That in some way, we live harder and more unified because she shared her life with us. We send more students to college because she was not able to experience it for herself. We live more deeply and forgive more readily because we have an opportunity she no longer has.

And all the time I am speaking, I believe that Roselina is pleased. That she would have given me her precious little smile and told me, “Good job” for what I said. And of course, she would have loved my outfit.

When I get back to my seat, the crying is finally over. I release breath I didn’t even know I was holding when I finally reach my seat. Next to me, tears hit Ms. Tyler’s hand and form dark circles on the places where they hit her slacks. We both try to sit very still, trying to look strong for the students and families sitting around us.

**********

Writing this excerpt, and even sharing it, is hard. Across the country we see violence and death impacting schools, families, students, and school staff in real ways. It is my belief that this kind of trauma should be addressed as a community, with opportunities for individuals to receive therapy within their school. Based on conversations with school staff, as well as my own experiences, here are some common questions and potential responses if facing the death of a student or another member of the school community:

  1. How do you really cope with the death of a student? There is no one way that communities view and respond to death. In many communities, when someone passes, there is an opportunity to pause and engage in some level of reflection on the person’s life.   It is important for schools to create this kind of space for students and staff.
  2. How should you cope as a school leader? There is a personal and a professional component to grieving as a school leader. It is important to respect the family’s privacy, and if they have certain wishes, to respect them. Having a manager and/or mentor who can lead you through the process and protect you from unnecessary asks during this time is important. Seeking therapy might be key as well.
  3. How can you help your students and staff to cope?
    • For students: Seek additional school counseling and social work staff to provide counseling to students who need it. Create a group for grief counseling as well. At school assemblies, provide time for students to honor the loved one.
    • For staff: Hold a staff meeting providing an update on the loved one. This could be a time that the staff writes appreciation notes about the student, which can be shared with the family. Encourage staff to seek counseling, if needed.

In all, there is no step-by-step process to grieving the loss of a child that works for every person.  Memories of someone can emerge in our minds randomly.  And sometimes we may revisit various stages of grief (e.g., shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing, acceptance).  Even as we grieve, in the way our hearts call for, let’s work to continue serving members of the school community.  And when we can’t seem to find the motivation, let’s do the work in remembrance of the life that was lost.

**********

Thank you for reading this article.  I am a leadership and teacher coach, consultant, and trainer with a particular passion for urban schools. 

For bookings and inquiries, send an email to [email protected]  I’m more than happy to confer about ways we can partner in achieving meaningful outcomes for students, particularly the ones below, outcomes that align with cultural responsiveness and social justice.

Follow me at:

  • My Blog: http://joyofurbaneducation.org/
  • LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kelli-seaton-ph-d-a4616615/
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kelli.seaton.9
  • Instagram: dr.kelliseaton
  • Twitter: @DrSeaton1

 

What do you think?

More Comments