“There’s only one ‘e’ in his name,” the boy said slowly. He was standing in front of the desk in the classroom, where a sign with the murdered student’s name and “RIP” is taped onto the chair. His classmate was murdered while he walked home from school the day before, stabbed in broad daylight. He was 15 years old.
I learned about the killing Friday morning as I was getting ready to go to school, where I had been assigned to substitute a couple of days before. Fifteen-Year-Old Student Stabbed, the headline reads, and there is a picture of a slightly chubby, smiling boy.
Somehow I hadn’t allowed it to enter my mind that the dead child — a 15-year-old is still a child — might have been a student in one of the classes in which I was replacing the teacher for the day. When I walked into the room and saw the empty chair and the sign, my chest tightened in sorrow and anxiety.
“OK,” I said to the boy who had noted the misspelling. “Do you want to rewrite the sign? His name should be spelled correctly.”
“I have messy handwriting,” the boy told me.
Another student took on the task of rewriting the student’s name, with one, not two, e’s, and “RIP.”
“Do you have tape?” another boy asked me.
I rummaged in the teacher’s desk and found the tape, and they affixed the corrected sign.
“Thank you,” I said to them.
The students continued to stream into the room.
“It feels kind of weird,” one said.
Another stood in front of the desk, sank to his knees, and crossed himself.
The dead boy’s quiz from the day before is still on the teacher’s desk. Taking the quiz was one of the final things he did, because he had the class sixth period, the last period of the day. Then he grabbed his backpack, walked out, and was killed on the sidewalk a half a block away from school.
Right before sixth period, the regular teacher came back to the classroom. He had been in a workshop on campus, but returned at the beginning of that period because he wanted to address the students who were classmates of the murdered boy.
A grief counselor wearing a walkie-talkie walked in and said something to the teacher. “Does anyone feel the need to talk to a grief counselor?” he asked the class. A heavy silence filled the room. The grief counselor asked the teacher if he had tissues. “Yes,” the teacher said wearily, and the grief counselor went out, no takers for his generic consolation.
The teacher asked the class if anyone wanted to say anything. Again, total silence. A few of the girls began to cry quietly, wiping their tears from their cheeks with their hands.
The teacher told his class that what happened was horrible, that they will get though it and be all right, and that it is OK to cry. He said that the murdered boy was really smart. When he asked the students what they remembered about him, one girl said that he got her in trouble, because he made her sing a song in class and the teacher heard, and all the students laughed. Then another remembered that he would always call himself “chocolate.” The kids laughed again, but there was still the sound of the quiet crying. The teachers made them laugh again when he reminded them that the dead boy would always ask him how old he was, and he would refuse to disclose his age.
The teacher had to go back to his workshop, so he left me to take the rest of the class.
“I’m glad I got to hear a little about who __________ was,” I told the students carefully. “I heard this morning that he was killed, but I didn’t know he was a student in this class.”
I told them that when I heard the news, I was worried about the grief that I would find on campus that day.
I told them that they might think about keeping in touch with __________’s parents, just to let them know that they still think about him and remember him. I said that the boy’s birthday, and Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, and the first day of school next year when he isn’t here, will be terrible days for his parents, and that hearing from his friends will supply a small measure of solace. Then I knew that I had said enough, and I also didn’t want to begin to cry myself, so I started the video the teacher has told me to show to the class.
The bell rang to signal the end of the day. Usually when I am substitute teaching on a Friday, the students roar out after the last bell, pushing, laughing, shouting, scattering Cheeto wrappers and tossing wads of paper at each other. This time they filed out with almost no sound. One girl handed me a note, which I opened after they are all gone. “Dear Ms. Colbert,” it reads. “Thank you for caring about our grief.”
There can be no balm for the unimaginable pain the boy’s parents will have to endure, no fixing the awfulness of his end. But even strangers can care about their grief and, like the classmate who fell to his knees in front of the now-empty chair, we can offer a prayer.