Monday, February 9, 2009

Debi: Playing defense

Almost as I typed the last of my blog post last week, a tragedy occurred within the very school community I was praising.

Last Tuesday, just before the end of the school day, a fifth grader at my daughter's elementary school was discovered hanging from a coat hook in the bathroom. He was unresponsive, and he died the next morning. Early autopsy reports label it a suicide. The community is shaken to its core -- this boy was ten years old.

The school, like any school in this litigious society, is unable to comment on whatever speculation the administration may have about what really happened. Our school principal is a man I deeply, deeply trust. He invited the school's horrified parents to meet with him, hear his story of what happened, and ask questions. The story he told of discovering this poor child reduced him -- and many of the rest of us -- to tears. I was moved beyond description watching this strong, competent, intelligent, and able leader break down under the enormity of what had happened, and then pick himself up, straighten his tie, and begin the process of helping his students and staff to grieve and heal. I imagine he will never be the same man again, in his heart, and I ache for him in the same way that I ache for the parents of the boy who died.

Our community is doing what good people should: raising money for the boy's funeral costs, arranging meals for the family, bringing in homemade lunches for the teachers and staff, and standing strong against the unconscionable media attention that has focused on the lack of details provided by the school to the tv and newspapers. I approached a camera man perched on the corner of the school grounds on Friday and asked him if they would please be sensitive to the children when they left school. His response? "We can't talk to the kids without their parents' permission anyway."

After a few moments, the anchorman agreed to interview me. His first question was "Are you considering pulling your child out of Oakton School?"

You can imagine where it went from there. I have no intention of pulling Ronni out of this wonderful school -- and it IS a wonderful school, a wonderful school that was the scene of a terrible, terrible accident. Either the boy did indeed hang himself, or someone put him there as a joke, or he got himself stuck by mistake -- but no matter how it happened, I cannot imagine a way to turn it into a systemic problem. This reporter needed to have answers fast; in the absence of fact, he was desperate to find an enemy, any enemy, the most convenient enemy. He chose the school administration. He promised to air my supportive views of the school, but the report on the ten o'clock news was an angry, accusatory one-sided rant. He told me in passing, as I left, that the good things we were doing were "not news."

This is a world where terrible things happen, sometimes. We should work to reduce the terror when we can determine its source. We should not run from it with closed eyes, frightened to recognize it, but face it with questions, ask it to show itself, and discover its weaknesses. Blame is a popular way to face what we fear; name the perpetrator and you may solve the crime, but discovering why it was wrought may bring us closer to eliminating it. As the families of Oakton School -- and especially the family of the boy whose life was cut short -- wait for these answers, I am sending my most fervent wishes for gentleness and patience to surround us all.

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