Wednesday, August 19, 2015

From Whom the Bell Tolls

It's time to put our jackets on. Before we return, I'd like to address a topic that has been weighing on our minds. Shortly after the last school year ended, we lost one of our 7th grade students. As a school, we provided support to students and families. We also came together to offer support for ourselves. Throughout the summer, Stonington Police conducted an investigation into this untimely death. The details of her death remain unclear and unresolved. Although everyone strives for understanding and tries to make meaning when tragic events occur, sometimes that is just not possible.

As we return the school, the question is what, if anything, should we do for our students? This question spawns two additional questions: 1) How to we honor Shelbi without reliving and reviving the trauma? (2) How do we address an issue that is undefined? (The issues of accidental death, suicide, peer pressure, and bullying have all been examined in this case without any resolution.)

For many of us, this has weighed heavy on us all summer. After long and serious consideration, I believe the best plan of action is to open school as normal without any formal programs or assistance. Only a few students and parents sought our help in the direct aftermath of the incident. This makes it reasonable to assume that parents and families did their work in assisting their children to deal with the untimely death of a peer. This is as it should be. Every family is different. It is not only the school's responsibility to teach and support the whole child, but also to create the space for parents to parent and honor the individuality of that process. We need to trust and honor the work parents and families have done.

I believe the best course of action is to proceed as normal, and start the business of school right from the opening bell. At the same time, we do need to stay vigilant in assisting individual students whose return to school may trigger another step in the grieving process. To that end, I trust in all of you as teaching professionals to accomplish this a refer those students to our mental health professionals. As we monitor the start of the school year, we will react to any larger needs that arise. Throughout the year, opportunities to honor Shelbi may rise organically from her family and classmates. We will take those as they come. Reverend Roger Bertschausen had this to say about grief, "Grief can awaken us to new values and new and deeper appreciations. Grief can cause us to reprioritize things in our lives, to recognize what's really important and put it first. Grief can heighten our gratitude as we cease taking the gifts life bestows on us for granted. Grief can give us the wisdom of being with death. Grief can make death the companion on our left who guides us and gives us advice. None of this growth makes the loss good and worthwhile, but it is the good that comes out of the bad." I know that the staff at Pawcatuck Middle has a lasting positive effect on our students. We are about to start a new school year with both new and returning students. They all need you, the teaching professional to be present and to guide and teach them.

At the service for Shelbi, the Reverend Dr. Wayne C. Eberly read John Donne's poem, "No Man is an Island." While Pawcatuck Middle School has been diminished by this loss, we are neither defeated, nor deterred. When the bell tolls to open the 2015-16 school year, it tolls for us the professional teachers. Put your jackets on.

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Paw Prints by Timothy B. Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.