Rebecca Rider column: Remember lost students
By Rebecca Rider
There’s something inspiring about that last moment of graduation ceremonies — the one when the graduates all cheer and throw their caps into the air. Watching it feels a bit like being in a plane during takeoff, where gravity — just for the briefest of seconds — eases. It feels like a promise.
Last Saturday, thousands of family members and friends gathered to cheer for their students, to witness the culmination of years of work on display in one shining moment when a name is called from the stage.
But it’s bittersweet, too, isn’t it?
Not in the classic way of leaving behind fond memories and a school that students have called home, but in a way that’s almost woeful. On Saturday, I, too, stood on that field, watching the celebration and reflecting on the year. Except I kept thinking of all the empty seats.
It’s been a hard year. Harder, I’ve heard people say, than just about any on record for the school system. We’ve lost so many this year. Students who will never wear a graduation cap. They will never sit in that seat on a steamy June morning, waiting for their names to be called.
On graduation morning, the West Rowan Class of 2017 remembered one of those students: Ella Ferguson. Ella’s car hit a tree head on early one November evening in 2016. She was 17, a senior. She should have been there on Saturday, among her classmates, a smile on her face. But she wasn’t.
A’Yanna Allen is never going to earn honors cords. Shavice Tandy is never going to walk across the stage, reaching for his diploma. Erica Parsons will never switch her tassel, signifying her move from the past to the future. Jack and Grace Gilley will never run off the field into the arms of their family.
Though she got her diploma, Taylor Kirk will never pursue the future she dreamed of: helping children like herself.
Once, in an interview, Superintendent Lynn Moody said that having a student die is the worst thing a teacher and a school can undergo. There’s a wrongness to it that’s too big for words — because when a student dies, all you’re left with is grief and a vision of a future that suddenly doesn’t exist. And how does one explain that to a class or a school full of children who usually vibrate with hope?
You can’t. Not fully. All you can do is teach them how to grieve.
The Post has covered memorials or spoken to the families of nearly all these students. A child’s death affects everyone. It leaves a crater in the minds and hearts of the community as people try to move on.
But we do — we move on. We find meaning in it. We plant trees and flowers, make chalk memorials, sticker helmets with initials and honor them in graduation speeches. We dig our heels in and hold tight to the good memories — Taylor’s determination, A’Yanna’s hugs, Shavice’s humor.
We learn to find ways to pass on the memory.
This year at Salisbury High School’s awards ceremony, I sat beside Wendy Gilmore Baskins, who was there to present — for the second year in a row — the Robert Stephen Gilmore Superman Scholarship. She presented it for the first time in May 2016, just a few months after her son’s passing.
Ella Ferguson, who brightened the room and made everyone laugh, has been committed to the memory and hearts of her peers. Student speakers told their classmates to carry forward the inner light Ella had — to let it shine out into the world.
“She will always be a part of our hearts,” said Ashley Wood, tears in her eyes, “and she will always be missed.”
And Taylor Kirk’s name, I’m told, is emblazoned near East Rowan’s track field. Her parents this year set up a memorial scholarship in her honor. Though she has left this world behind, she is still helping people.
There’s something comforting in that; to know that some of these children will continue to be honored and remembered, year after year. That they’ll be remembered for their kindness and determination and for their dreams. That even though they’re gone, they’re still inspiring people — still pushing them to move forward.
And maybe, just maybe, each year when a graduate moves to throw her cap skyward, she’ll remember their names.