A death in the school family

14th October 2005 at 01:00
Ripaldi famously wrote that school is not preparing children for life, school is their life. For all that, most teachers would agree that, especially towards the top of the school, staff and pupils can't help but keep half an eye on the future for which, hopefully, education is preparing young people.

So when a pupil dies in tragic circumstances, as happened in our school community twice in a matter of days, there is added to the shock and grief the despondency that comes with the realisation that, in these cases, Ripaldi's view was all too literally true. For Liam and Ryan, school encompassed their lifetimes.

We all live knowing that tragedy can strike at any time, but we keep on hoping that somehow it will pass our door. Foolish, but understandable.

As is the way of these things, there was a gap of around 45 minutes between the school receiving the news of our second death and my being able to tell the sixth year that Ryan, one of their own, had died. A visiting speaker enthralled them with tales of his part in the recent rescue of Russian submariners. He told his tale well and, in other circumstances, there would have been an uplifting feeling, inspired by the fact that sometimes tragedy can be cheated.

Instead I had to sit and watch them, in what felt like the last minutes of their childhood, while I prepared the manner of telling them what had happened.

There are no performance indicators to tick off in this situation, and no amount of experience can make the telling easier. Sixth-years later told me that they could see on my face that my announcement would be terrible, but nothing could prepare them for the news.

We live in times where adult relationships with young people are rightly under scrutiny, and where advice is strong on appropriacy and suggesting a reserved and distanced approach. It was hugely comforting then, to see the trust our seniors showed in their teachers in the first awful moments of their grief, and inspiring to see the manner in which staff, from all areas of the school, supported our young people, despite their own emotional turmoil.

We will recover from the loss of Ryan and Liam, because we have to. We won't forget them, but already Ucas forms are being completed, NABs are being sat and open days arranged. But, of course, things will never be the same again.

The class of 2006 will always remember the day they lost Ryan, and discovered unimaginable depths of dignity and humanity, in both themselves and their teachers.

Sean McPartlin is depute year head for senior pupils at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston.

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