Sunday, September 25, 2016

When Students Lead from the Heart

We were witness to something remarkable this past week at the high school in the wake of tremendous sadness and loss.

Our school community experienced the death of one of our seniors, Matthew Pierce. Our students, staff, and families felt a range of feelings and reactions to Matthew's death. Fear, anger, confusion, sadness, frustration, isolation. All of them normal, all of them expected, all of them heard.

In the hours and days following Matthew's death, I was profoundly impacted by two things: the way the Pierce family walked with grace this difficult road, and the way our students modeled for us how a reaction to tragedy can bring a community together.

On Wednesday evening, as news of Matthew's death was becoming public, I received an email from one of our Ambassadors, a student group that helps to lead our 9th graders' first day at the beginning of the school year. He wrote, "I am reaching out to you regarding an event that is taking place within students of all grades. As leaders of the Ambassador program, we felt it was right for the school to come together in light of the passing of a classmate. Tomorrow, students will be wearing AB uniforms, ambassador shirts, and anything blue and gold. I was wondering if there is a way you could get that message to the faculty as to see the school come together as one would be remarkable and help students understand that together we are stronger."

If you walked the halls of the high school on Thursday, you saw a sea of blue and gold. Staff and students alike, students of all grades and friend groups, staff across all of our departments, those who knew Matthew well, and those who did not.

In addition to wearing blue and gold, Ambassadors joined our administrative team in greeting students at all of our entrances on Thursday morning. It was this gesture that stood out to me. In the wake of sad news, and with the range of emotions that adolescents have in response to death, these students asked, What can I do to make others feel welcome today? It was a seemingly small gesture but with great impact.

The stories of these small kindnesses surfaced throughout the day. Two students invited a classmate who appeared sad in class and who they did not know well to walk with them after class and have lunch together. When the teacher checked back in with the student after lunch, she was feeling better. Without hesitating, these girls had considered what can we do to help? A small gesture of kindness. But to one person, a huge impact.

A group of students in our Senior Seminar class who wondered how they could help decided to create signs to put up around the building. The signs encourage us to support each other, to make others feel valued, and they remind us all that we are not alone. A short time ago, I learned that a group of students would like to bring bouquets of flowers they have picked to school, the idea being to give them to someone you don't know, or to bring them home to someone who might need a small gesture of kindness.

Scott Pierce offered "A Father's Perspective" at Matthew's memorial service on Saturday. With his blessing, I will use some of his words to help me convey some of my own thoughts today. I was moved by his description of Matthew's life, most especially his reflection that Matthew's impact was "more at the micro level than at the macro level." He talked about the small things that Matthew did, the kind gestures, the smiles, and the quiet, understated way he connected with people.

It made me think of the small things I have seen our students do in response to Matthew's death and the impact they could have on our school community.

Beneath the many expressions of emotion I have heard from parents in the last week, one feeling underscores most of them: Fear. It is a universal and undeniable feeling as a parent. What if this happens to our family? Why did this happen? How can we prevent it? Why aren't we doing something about it?

On Wednesday evening while I was preparing dinner, I saw my husband tenderly but fervently hug our son and say, "Promise me you'll always talk to us if you are sad. Promise, okay?" Our son is four, so naturally his reaction was to look with confusion at my husband and say, "Hey Dad...I thought you said we were going to build a Lego police station?"

But I heard the fear in my husband's voice, and I hear yours, too. As parents, finding the words to talk about depression and suicide can be difficult. While sharing his perspective on Saturday, Matthew's father spoke eloquently and directly to our teens about both. He reminded them that depression is not a weakness, encouraged them to talk to adults about their feelings, and urged them to seek medical attention from those who can help.

I began my principalship at A-B four years ago, the fall after the Newton High Schools had experienced three suicides the previous year. My teaching career started at Newton North, I still have many friends there, and I was devastated for the school community. That same fall, we began a three-year professional learning focus on mental health, wellness, and learning at ABRHS. We educated our staff about how depression, anxiety, and trauma impact learning. We reviewed and strengthened the programs and services that we currently have in place to support students and families, and we partnered with community organizations to bring the William James College Interface Referral Service to Acton and Boxborough. Interface provides free, confidential mental health services for children, adults, and families.

And yet, we lost Matthew. And we have lost alums, too. I was greatly comforted by something that Matthew's mother, Cynthia, said shortly after Matthew's death. She thanked us for the "village of support," in her words, that had surrounded Matthew during his time at A-B. We remain committed to strengthening that village, to partnering with families in supporting our students who struggle with mental illness, and to reaching out to those who may feel alone in our community.

I and other members of my administrative team have received many notes of support from the parent community over the last week as we have worked to honor the Pierce family's wishes with time, space, and privacy; to support our staff and students in the wide range of ways they experience death; and to share information to support the wider parent community as well, while following the Boston Medical Center's Good Grief protocol for schools. I have tried to respond to each message individually, but please know the immense gratitude we feel for your ongoing support. We will need your partnership even more in the coming weeks. I hope that many of you will consider attending Ms. Trozzi's presentation Monday evening at 7pm at the high school auditorium. Dr. Brand has sent an invitation to all parents/guardians of students in grades 7-12.

We have heard from students in the past few days, too, who have quietly shared their stories with us about how adults at A-B have made a difference to them, and we are grateful that they took the time to tell us.

What I will always be most grateful for during this time is the grace, trust, and courage that the Pierce family has shown to us. They have modeled the utmost kindness in a time of intense pain, and in every interaction I have had with them over the past week, they have asked, What can we do to help others?

Matthew's father asked if we would please honor Matthew's memory by "following his example of kindness, patience, and love." At the micro level, where the greatest impacts can be made and where our community can heal and become stronger together.

When I think about standing next to our Ambassadors last Thursday morning as together we welcomed all of our students into our school, I believe it is possible.