August 17, 2010

Thoughts on a passing

It's been a rough year or so at Princeton.  Since last winter, we've lost three students - two seniors to car accidents (last school year) and one this past weekend.  The short story - and I don't know many more details - is that the student had an asthma attack on Wednesday evening and was taken to the hospital where he was in critical condition with limited - if any - brain function until he passed away Saturday evening.  We'd gotten an initial report on Thursday morning from our principal who stated at the time that they had pulled the young man's schedule from our computer system, telling us that things weren't likely to get any better without him actually telling us exactly that.

I've taught fourteen years now - just starting my fifteenth year - and can remember most of those years without a current student passing away during the school year.  I was speaking to one of my students from last year, another junior-to-be last Thursday and told him that when he asked if this was normal.  He didn't say it with any pleading but just with a kind of simple questioning, trying to figure out if what he'd seen was what every high school student sees.

It's not.  It's been a very rough streak for Princeton's students this past year, and it's been something that's been oddly distant from me because I haven't known any of the students at all.  Ryan - who passed last fall - was someone who photo I'd taken a few times at a football game.  Guadalupe - who passed in the spring - wasn't anyone I knew at all, couldn't even place a face or find a photo of her.  Jovante - who passed this weekend - was someone I'd spoken to in the hallway a few times but whose name didn't mean anything to me until Calen reminded me of a story about his involvement in Pasta for Pennies during his freshman year.

I hope that he and his family and teachers won't mind me telling the one story that I knew of Jovante here.  If they do, I apologize in advance.  That year we had an incentive for the top freshman class.  The top freshman class got to join us at a pizza party that would have two other classes there.  We were always thrilled to reward the frosh because we always seemed to see those kids again as leaders of the campaign throughout their time at Princeton.  That year, there were two classes competing strongly for the top spot, but their competition was a friendly one.  The two teachers pushed their respective classes forward but shared every opportunity, splitting store collection opportunities.

On the final day, the two teachers' classes were neck and neck, and Jovante brought in a donation that would have pushed his class ahead at the last moment.  The teachers got together and asked Jovante for permission to split his donation between the classes so that the two classes would end up in a perfect tie - the same amount raised by the same number of students.  He agreed, and the two classes both earned the pizza party.

This would've been Jovante's junior year.  He would've been in my chemistry class.

I'll miss getting to know him.

Easily the oddest part of this passing for me is that it was news, not the kind of news that says "local high school student in critical condition" but the kind of news that says "son of famous athlete is in critical condition".  For those of you who aren't Princeton people, Jovante was Ickey Woods's son, so Jovante's passing was local news and even - as the screen cap at the top of this post shows - small national news.  I was shocked to see the headline on the side of the ESPN homepage on Sunday.

And I don't like that it was news.

I understand that some events like this - another local student passed away this past week when his car flipped as he was driving 130 miles per hour on the interstate - are news.  They shut down the interstate.  They intrigue people.  They serve as warnings. 

This passing was tragic and random.  Jovante had an asthma attack.  He was an athlete.  He was healthy.  He hadn't done anything wrong.  And he's gone.

That isn't news, and I didn't like seeing it covered.  Even though the coverage was tasteful - the Enquirer's series of articles and ESPN's pair - it felt wrong.  This was a kid in my school.  This wasn't someone who gets mentioned on ESPN's website.

But he was.

The first day of school wasn't bad - especially considering the loss that we suffered over the weekend.  I saw a number of shirts with Jovante's name or football number, a few haircuts with Jovante's number carved into them, a few folders with Jovante's name.  The students had a few places around school where they could write memorial messages, and we heard that there will likely be a memorial held at the school in a couple of weeks.

A few years ago, we had a teacher - the boys basketball coach - pass away suddenly overnight.  I wasn't at school the next day, but I heard a number of stories about how tough a day that was.  

We've gotten a new principal since then, and while I don't always agree with the decisions he makes, he's sadly becoming really good at helping our school grieve.  In every case, he's been very proactive, opening the school over the weekend to let the kids start grieving together as soon as possible.  We've worked with the families to hold public memorials or to assist in any way that we could while making sure to respect the families' wishes.

I hate that we're getting good at this.

I haven't attended either grieving session - this weekend for Jovante or last winter for Ryan.  These weren't my students.  These weren't people I knew. 

The closest I've come to helping with the grieving was a few years ago at Joey's funeral (I mentioned it in a post at the time).  I remember feeling absolutely helpless to help my students - and Joey was one of mine, the mourners were mine - in any way other than to be there, to grieve with them. 

This time I'm helping by offering stability, normalcy, a regular school day.  It's probably a cop out because it's the same thing I'd be doing even if nothing had happened this weekend.

I hope it's enough.


TL said...

He was meant to be in my CORE class. I didn't know him at all, but from all accounts it sounds as though he was a sterling young man.
Quite morbidly, and unintentionally, my mind often goes back to the many parents I've heard about, read about, or known, who have lost children and I can't begin to fathom their sense of loss, anger, regret... Whatever they might be feeling. I just can't.

Gladys said...

I've always heard that during your four years of high school you lose a student or two, not three in one year. I didn't know Ryan, but I still felt sad from the atmosphere in the school. When Jovante died, I felt it more personally because I knew how it felt to lose a loved one: Guadalupe was my best friend. Even though all this isn't to personal to you, I appreciate you taking the time to give your opinions and write about this.

Ame said...

It's sad to say that in 10 years I have lost more students and former students then I can count. It seems like at least once a year FC or HHMS loses a student or teacher to either accident or illness and it never gets easier.

Each time, as a teacher, we react differently. I don't think there is ever a right or wrong way to deal with it. Sometimes the kids need to see you press on.

PHSChemGuy said...

TL - He was meant to be in my chem class. I've not thought about it often, but I know it was true.

Gladys - You're very welcome. Often this blog is quick little bits of fluff - time wasters, games, comics, whatever - but every now and then it's a little something more. I'm glad to know that it's appreciated when it is that something more.

Ame - Our school continues to grieve very openly and publicly - making t-shirts, signing emails, closing the announcements, whatever - with the phrase 24/7 because those were Ryan & Jovante's football numbers. I'm not someone who wears my heart on my sleeve, so I'm not particularly enjoying this lack of moving on.

I am more the sort who wants things to just be normal, to just soldier on. It's what I have to offer.