Friday's child

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
Reva Klein on what it's like .... when a school is bereaved.

A few minutes before, they had been kicking a ball around in the playground after school with their mates. Then, walking home together, chatting about a new computer game, 14-year-old Jonathan and Charlie saw a car zooming fast down the long, straight and usually quiet road. Within seconds, the car veered out of control, crashing on to the pavement at the very spot where Jonathan stood. He was killed instantly.

Passersby rushed to the scene and motorists abandoned their cars to see if they could help. Charlie, his face white, stood looking in disbelief at his best friend ever, lying motionless on the pavement.

The next morning, as the shockwaves tore through the school, staff and children were felled one by one, as if stricken by a plague. Among the Year 9s who knew him best, it was as if the world had been turned upside down and inside out.

Girls held on to each other as they wept, intermittently talking about Jonathan and what it must be like for Charlie. The boys were grief-stricken, too, but more privately. Silently, a few of them found places where they could be alone with their heaving shoulders and tear streaked faces. A couple of younger boys bursting into tears in their seats. A "rude boy" sat curled up in his seat, head on the desk, sobbing inconsolably.

For Jonathan's teachers, it was the most difficult day they had ever known. Nothing prepares you for having to deal not only with widespread shock and grief among your pupils, but also with having to be professional when your own heart is aching. Jonathan's form tutor was told about his death by the headteacher, who was waiting for her at the school entrance. Her initial shocked numbness gave way to tears when she entered the staffroom and saw all her colleagues in distress.

Fifteen minutes later, she had composed herself, notwithstanding her red eyes and nose, and proceeded throughout the next seven hours to give comfort to the many children in her classes, in the corridors, in the loos and in the cafeteria who were overwhelmed with the terrible news. Although she had never dealt with anything like this before, she knew that the day was like no other for the school community.

She, along with other teachers, quickly reorganised lessons to allow for more quiet, independent work. They adopted a state of heightened vigilance, quietly comforting children when they saw them going under.

For his part, the headteacher called a special assembly for the Year 9s and managed to say a few words in a faltering voice about Jonathan and how the whole school would miss him. His talk wasn't particularly inspired but it was a necessary rite of passage.

It was the longest day that anyone could remember. And everyone, from the head to the kitchen staff, from Jonathan's good friends to those who had never spoken to him, felt that things would never be the same again. With all the sadness had come a warmth and closeness between previously unconnected teachers and pupils that they would remember for a long time.

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