I interviewed for a substitute teacher position at the high school in Groton on Friday. It’s been over 12 years since I left my last full-time teaching position, so I had to dig through my files to pull together a binder of recommendations and college transcripts to bring with me to the interview.
While looking through the files, I read some recommendations I’d received from mentor teachers and college professors. Behind these official letters, I had tucked a note from Nick (no last name). After wondering why I kept it, I realized with a start that I might have saved this short note because it was from one of my three students who died in a tragic boating accident — in early July 1998, 20 years ago.
I remember those last days of school when my three sections of junior English took their final and headed off to the summer before their senior year. But less than ten days later, three of them — Greg, Eric and Nick — were gone. The boys drowned after the canoe they were fishing in broke apart on the reservoir near the school in Seekonk, Massachusetts. It would be days before their bodies were found while dragging the swollen water. Their heart-broken friends and family posted themselves along the shoreline. Flowers overflowed from the bridge.
At the end of every school year, I asked my students to write letters to someone on the school faculty who they wanted to thank for whatever reason. Nick must have written me (maybe because he still had some outstanding assignments that he needed to turn in). Despite his lukewarm feelings about English, Nick was a funny kid who was everyone’s friend, and I enjoyed him and the others in that class.
Seekonk is a small community, and it was a gut-wrenching time for the town, who watched the three boys grow up. Even though school was out for the summer, counselors were there to support students who streamed in to share their grief. It was like a big family. Nick’s mom was a teacher at the school. Eric’s family was well known, and Greg’s family lived on the same street as the high school.
I’ll never forget the memorial program held on the high school football field later that summer. Friends sang, the teachers sat together on the field, doves were let go, and Nick’s mother spoke for the boys’ families. She shared stories about her funny, opinionated son; Eric, the sensitive artist; and Greg, the quiet one with big blue eyes. I cried as she read from Nick’s autobiography project that she found in his room just that morning. I can’t remember what she read, but they were Nick’s words and she cherished them all the more.
As I prepare to substitute in another high school in another state two decades later, I am thankful for this reminder of the strength and importance of school community, how the students and faculty leaned on each other, how the class held on to their memories of the boys all throughout their senior year, how the yearbook was dedicated to them, how the G.E.N. Memorial 5K Run/Walk continued to bring the town together, how words made a difference.
How we wore thin silver bracelets with three clear beads all the next school year.
And how the bracelet is still in my jewelry box.