• 61°

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.

Comments

Local

‘Meet the need’: Rowan County Health Department looks to add to vaccination options

Local

Seaford is first woman in county hired for town manager position since the ’90s

Local

Colonial Spring Frolic makes a comeback to kick off museum’s year

Local

Concord City Council wants to name bridge for fallen officer, Rowan native

Education

RSS administration will recommend selling Faith Elementary property to charter school

Business

Inspired by advice from father-in-law, Angela Mills launches her own business in memory of him

Local

Rowan County Democrats re-elect leaders, pass resolutions

Local

Baseball: Memories come alive in Ferebee book

Local

During Child Abuse Prevention Month, local groups reflect on detecting abuse in a virtual world

Business

Biz Roundup: Small Business Center announces spring slate of workshop for business owners

Clubs

Kiwanis Pancake Festival starts Friday

Local

Rowan fire marshal seeks to clear up confusion, worry caused by solicitation letter

Education

Fun every day: Fifth anniversary for Yadkin Path Montessori School

Nation/World

Charles: Royal family ‘deeply grateful’ for support for Philip

News

North Carolina sites to resume J&J vaccines after CDC review

News

Cooper OKs bill offering K-12 students summer school option

High School

High school football: Playoff time means get ready for ‘big-boy football’

High School

High school football: Hornets overpower South to secure playoff spot

Crime

Jeffrey MacDonald won’t be released despite deteriorating health

Business

Amazon warehouse workers reject union in Alabama

Nation/World

Ex-NFL player’s brain to be probed for trauma-related harm after Rock Hill shootings

Education

Duke University to require COVID vaccinations for fall term

Education

Cooper OKs bill offering K-12 students summer school option

High School

High school football: Record night for Pinckney as East cruises; Carson wins thriller in OT