A death in the school family

1st April 2005 at 01:00
Sometimes Ripaldi's statement that "childhood is not a preparation for life, childhood is life" rings very true. Like parents, most teachers hope that school, while preparing pupils for the outrageous slings and arrows of misfortune that life will undoubtedly fling at them in future years, can also protect them from some of the more vicious experiences they are likely to encounter. After all, even the most assured of high wire artistes gain their confidence from early training with the support of a safety net.

From time to time, however, this protection is just not possible, and traumatic events visit pupils and have to be dealt with. In the past month, two have lost their mothers: one after a long struggle against cancer and the other through a tragic accident.

Our school counsellor, experienced, effective and empathetic as he is, echoed all our sentiments: "What can you say?" Of course, there is little you can say, apart from offering support and concern. But, remarkably, even such traumatic events can prove to be inspirational in the most positive fashion.

Both of these pupils had been caring for their mothers in different ways for some time before their deaths. There was a maturity brought about by this selflessness that was quite inspiring to all of us in school - and this was emphasised in the aftermath of the loss of their parents.

One of the girls, poignantly, had celebrated her 18th birthday the day after her mother died. She bravely came in to school, because "I knew my friends had a cake for me and I didn't want to disappoint them".

The younger girl was, likewise, more concerned about the effect of the death on her family and friends than about her own grief. She too came into school, took strength from the support of staff and pupils and inspired the rest of us with her calm acceptance and inner strength.

These are gloomy thoughts but perhaps, in accordance with the Easter message, they serve to remind us that dark can come from light and good from the most negative experiences.

They remind us too that schools, at their best and most effective, are far more than education factories. There are many pupils facing horrendous home circumstances for whom the "normality" of school and its support is truly a life-saver. Schools should be living communities, with a learning environment built on care and respect, and with mutual support displayed in their approach to both the academic and hidden curriculum.

In this aspiration, the influence of the whole school community is greater than the sum of its individual parts. It's a tall order, but the least our pupils deserve.

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