St. Christopher’s is a residential school in Westchester County, NY for PINS children (persons in need of supervision) funded by New York City. It is coed with children from the age of seven in residence until they ‘age’ out at 18, meaning they must leave St. Chris.
I was hired to work with the children through music, through singing during religious ed classes and to create musical and dramatic events involving as many kids as possible.
A few days before the day in question I had occasion to visit one of the girls’ residence halls. As usual there was a cluster of teen boys hanging around the entrance. One 13-year-old named Omar, whom I had had no contact with to that point – grabbed my purse which was hanging on my shoulder. My immediate reaction quite surprised me – I grabbed his shirt and shoved him up against the wall, while declaring in my most authoritative voice – “Don’t ever do that again.”
A few days later Omar got in a tussle with a boy named Jose and Omar decided to end the disagreement by slamming Jose’s head against a radiator. He kept on slamming his head against the radiator until Jose was dead.
The next day, normally a day in which I would be in the chapel with the ‘rev’ and seven religious ed classes, the Rev came to me early that day to say that I would be in charge of all the religious ed classes that day because he would be preparing for Jose’s memorial the next day.
Though I was well-acquainted with all the children at St. Chris the thought of being solely in charge of all seven classes was momentarily unnerving until I realized the day should not be just like any other day but one that deals with the tragedy of the day before.
For the day I set up a table that seated seven. I sat at the head as the children came in – “Come on in, kids. Take a seat. We won’t be singing to day. After they were all settled down, I said – “Today we are going to talk about death.” There was immediate attention.
Death is a topic everyone seems to be uncomfortable with but these children had had close and continuing encounters with death and now what was presumed to be a safer location than their homes in the city it had occurred at St. Chris. To get our discussion going I shared my experience with death – the death of my father while we were on a family vacation, the death of my sister, a nurse in the hospital in which she had a very high position – but they couldn’t save her. That was enough to start the sharing:
“My grandma died – while we were eating breakfast!”
“My dad shot my mom – right in front of me. He’s in jail.”
“There was a gun fight right in front of my building – three people were killed, one was my friend from school. He was twelve years old!”
“My brother died in my room. He ate too many drugs.”
At some point I tried to turn the discussion to their reaction to what had happened at St. Chris.
Reflecting back on this remarkable day, which happened more than thirty years ago, it was one of the most memorable – we were all on the same page, children and teacher – sharing our experience as equals.
There were no behavior problems. It was a beautiful day.