Five children: some thoughts on a sad 10 days

Five children from the Polk County School District family have died in the last 10 days. All were between nine and 13-years-old.

Three were killed in traffic-related accidents. One died in an accident at home. And another committed suicide. Some of these cases have made news. Others haven't. I'm not going to name the children because I don't want to invade the privacy of grieving families. Please keep them in your thoughts.

Four of the five attended Polk District schools at the time of their deaths. The fifth was homeschooled, but had recently attended one of our schools.

The five school communities affected by these enormous human tragedies are:

  • Lake Marion Creek Middle

  • Crystal Lake Elementary

  • Crystal Lake Middle

  • Rochelle School of the Arts

  • Winston Academy

Between them, those five schools serve roughly 4,000 children. That's 4,000 children and several hundred staff who may have lost a dear friend or a child with whom they'd built a deep emotional bond. Yet, they are expected to take attendance and give high stakes FSA tests this week as if nothing has happened. The collection of meaningless data in Florida is pitiless. So please keep these school communities in your thoughts as well.

Here are a few random musings, from the point-of-view of an elected School Board member, concerning the enormity of losing these lives before they've really started.

-- In a School District of roughly 105,000 kids, the death of children occurs distressingly often. I should have understood that when I ran for office, given the simple math of operating what amounts to a medium-sized city every day. But I didn't understand it. Not really. Not as viscerally as I do now. In coming to understand it, I've had the opportunity to watch Superintendent Jackie Byrd conduct herself in these situations far more often than I would like. And I can tell you that she does so excellently. Comforting parents and school communities in these moments of grief is a particular skill for Mrs. Byrd. She represents the School District with empathy and grace in moments of grief.

-- The death on display in Polk in the last 10 days offers a realistic cross-section of the truest dangers that children face in this world: three traffic accident deaths, one unknown accident at home, and a lethal act of self-harm carried out before puberty. Mass shootings traumatize the imagination; but the most relentless killers are inattentive drivers, bad sidewalk design, sadness, and simple bad luck. None of the millions and millions of dollars the state has ordered spent on armed guards for all schools did anything to protect these children. As I've written before, more American children will kill themselves this year than have died in all mass school shootings ever, combined.

-- No teacher, principal, or staff member will be rewarded in any tangible way for comforting any child suffering for the loss of their friend or classmate. If a child comes into a class in despair and leaves a little less despairingly, that doesn't count in any VAM score, SAO, or evaluation.

-- I try to attend as many of these funerals or services as I can. (I get to most of them; and I've never seen one that didn't have a teacher or staff member in attendance, grieving off the clock.) I attend these services because I want friends and family of the children to know that this institution's elected oversight grieves for their loss.

Attending them also offers me the chance to perceive the awesome scale of even a young child's humanity. Life is big. Enormous. And always expanding. At a memorial service, the infinite individuality of every dead child cuts like a blade through whatever church or community center or home or park marks the passing. No one talks about their data or achievement level. They talk about their smile; or paintings they created; or the siblings they loved; or a billion other fragments of individual lives. The experiences of these children -- those they created for others and those they lived themselves -- are what matter and what people want to share.

-- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once eulogized murdered children like this: “Death comes to every individual. There is an amazing democracy about death. It is not aristocracy for some of the people, but a democracy for all of the people. Kings die and beggars die; rich men and poor men die; old people die and young people die. Death comes to the innocent and it comes to the guilty. Death is the irreducible common denominator of all men.”

History has shown there is no "irreducible common denominator" in life that matches death. But public education is the closest thing we have, I'd say. It's where the loss of these children, outside of their immediate circles, is felt most acutely. And it's where their memories have the widest opportunity to linger. That's one of the many, many reasons we should fight for it.