Last week, University High School – my alma mater and the school where my younger sister is currently a junior – mourned the death of one of its own. Unfortunately, death seems commonplace in high schools today. Apopka High School, where I am serving my AmeriCorps term, lost a freshman barely a month ago in a hit-and-run accident.
These aren’t high schools with shootings and assaults and rival gangs who kill each other, these aren’t war-torn halls. For some high schoolers today, quite frequently their friends and peers die young and this becomes a way of life – however, for most suburban American kids this is not normal.
Most young adults experience death first when a beloved pet or a grandparent or maybe an older neighbor dies. Someone is old, someone falls ill…the natural chain of events. They never expect that one of the kids sitting next to them – who are growing taller and lanky, learning to shave or holding hands with their first boyfriend or girlfriend just like them – might die. That one day they’ll be in the seat next to them and the next they won’t.
My sister has had two grandparents and our first Labrador die. But I know the questions and the fears that cross her mind when a junior, a peer, a kid her age dies.
Change isn’t always visible. More often, change happens gradually, invisibly. You don’t notice the half an inch you grew last month, or the deepening of a cousin’s voice and suddenly you are a foot taller and your cousin sounds like a man. But sometimes, one moment stops the world in its spin and when it resumes, you know you’ve changed. When you look back on your life, that moment will always be one that sticks out.
This past week puts me in mind of my own moment. Going on three years ago, University High School lost an alumnus. Nineteen years old, a year into college, my friend was killed by a drunk driver. That was one of my moments. As I trace my transition from adolescence to adulthood, his death is a turning point – a wall fell down, a veil lifted, something was taken from me.
When kids lose one of their own, it is like a fissure, the first crack in the tainted window between them and adulthood. It is the beginning of the end to this window that has allowed them to look at the world full of complete hope and optimism. It has protected them from the sometimes harsh reality of life. For some, this understanding comes too soon – earlier than they deserve, they learn life is hard.
Eventually, they will understand this is a part of life – sometimes shocking, unexpected things happen, sometimes no one has the answers. The pain doesn’t go away, but life will harden them.
For these kids, I hope they remember this moment – not the pain and the heartbreak, but remember what they learned. Remember to hold on to their friends, remember to ask questions, remember that it is okay not to understand – the biggest letdown of adulthood is that adults dont have all the answers either.
I hope the quiet conversations with their parents, the hugs from their friends, and the first tentative laughs and smiles that will inevitably reemerge in their darkened classrooms will stay with them.
Better days will come – these students will have happy, proud moments full of hope and promise and they will have more dark days that will hurt and shake them. This is the first fissure, the first crack on the tough path called growing up.