Algebra was my first period class in the ninth grade. I arrived one morning and sat down quietly at my usual desk in the back. The teacher wasn’t there yet and the loud noise of chatter filled the room. Some were sitting down and some were standing, walking and talking. The walls were unforgettably white cinderblock while the chalkboard was scrawled with equations. A giant clock hovered ominously over it, its hands slowly and silently moving towards time to start. Kitschy motivational posters and American flags were hung throughout. The teacher arrived. The bell rang. The kids sat down and were quiet (for now). The principal started to read the daily announcements over the intercom.
But this time, something was different; his voice had a sad tone as he asked us to please reflect on the passing of one of our students. Shock came over me; this was the first time someone at one of my schools had died. Her name was Tiffany.
I had never met her. She was in the tenth grade, a year ahead of me. When I saw her picture in the obituary, I didn’t recognize her. She was a very pretty young girl. We entered the same building every morning and left at the same time; but our worlds had never crossed paths.
But strangely, I seemed to be the only one who was upset. When class started that morning, it was business as usual. The other kids were loud and crazy. They sat in their little cliques and laughed and teased one another. I looked around with incredulity. Didn’t anyone care that one of our schoolmates had died? Even the teachers didn’t seem phased. While the class was working on an assignment given, one boy looked up and asked “Did anyone know that Tiffany girl?” No one said a word, and he shrugged and resumed working.
Apparently, she was hanging out with the wrong crowd, a gang of older girls from another school who had gotten drunk. Since she was allegedly still sober, they made her the designated driver, but she was only fifteen and didn’t have a license. She swerved off the road and into a ditch, flipping the car and killing her. I don’t know if the other girls survived.
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t popular or well-liked in school, but I began to feel a certain connection with her from beyond the grave. A posthumous kinship, if you will. Our birthdays were on the same day. It was a mystery to me why no one cared. Was she new at school? Had she made no friends to mourn her?
But she still must have had a family. I imagined her parents grieving over the loss of their daughter. We were almost the same age, but she hasn’t experienced the life I have. She died just before the Columbine massacre. She never experienced September 11. She missed out on graduation, never went to college or fulfilled any of her dreams. Her father didn’t dance with her at her wedding. Her parents must still be out there somewhere; their daughter has been gone for 18 years, longer than she was actually alive. They must still miss her.
Seeing the indifference with which my school reacted to one of its own dying forced me to confront my own status. If it happened to me, would they care? Would they even notice if I didn’t show up for school one morning, and my death was announced over the intercom? I thought of my parents grieving over my coffin while the other kids at school laughed and threw paper airplanes at each other, as if nothing had happened.
Perhaps this explains why I felt so sad over Tiffany, a girl I’d never met and likely wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. It forced me to ask a difficult question I’ve been asking ever since; will I be remembered?
But the second part of the saga makes her death even more poignant.
I came to school one morning a few weeks later. Same class. Same environment. But the atmosphere was different. Even though the teacher wasn’t there yet, the kids were seated quietly. No one was laughing or talking loud or throwing things. An eerie, mournful calm hung in the air.
Over the intercom, the principal announced that another student had been killed tragically. His name was Leland. He was popular and well-liked. The reaction from just a few weeks earlier couldn’t have been more different.
So many were in tears that morning. Normally rowdy boys were being quiet. A moment of silence was given. During class that morning, one girl burst out crying anew, and the teacher stopped lecturing on the value of X and went to wrap her arms around her.
Leland had been riding his bicycle after school. The circumstances are a bit murky to me, but he had been hit by a car and flung onto the pavement. A helicopter had been sent and he was airlifted to the hospital, but he died en route.
The affects were felt over the entire school; every grade and every social clique was devastated. Even less popular groups mourned his loss. It was all anyone could talk about. The teachers were melancholy. The silence in the lunchroom lasted for weeks; the reverberations of his demise rang throughout this school of thousands, across every class and grade.
They even held a candlelight vigil in his honor. A girl wrote a poem about him that was published in the paper, then read by every teacher in front of every class. The walls of the bathrooms were scrawled with graffiti in memory of him: “Leland: gone but not forgotten.” Large masses from school attended his funeral, making it seem like the event of the century.
It would come to define my freshman year, a foreshadowing of the tragedy to come. We were born in the optimism of the Reagan years and grew up in the 90s, a decade where we were fed saccharine lies from shows like Saved by the Bell and Full House about what life was really like. We thought we were looking towards a bright future, but it was all fake. Tiffany and Leland’s deaths were ominous warnings of what was to come, warping our minds to cold hard reality and giving birth to a high school generation that saw the bloody bodies strewn across the hallways of Columbine while our president was caught in a sex scandal. In a few years, we would watch with horror as the Twin Towers collapsed in clouds of debris that filled the whole world. Is it any wonder we became so cynical, and the church has such a hard time reaching us?
Perhaps to show just what lie ahead, the tragic mourning over Leland’s death took a dark turn. I don’t know how much of the story is true, but word got out that one student was actually glad he had died. Allegedly, Leland was a bit of a bully who picked on this one boy, and he had once made a death wish against him. When Leland had died and everyone else was grieving, this boy had stated out loud “I guess I got my wish!”
It may not have been true, but suddenly he became public enemy number one. The mourners turned into a blood-thirsty mob very fast. Their tearful faces became stone grimaces of anger while whisperings of “We’re going to get him” spreading around the lunch room.
That day, a huge cafeteria turned into a mob scene. The big room was full of students sitting at the long tables eating, when suddenly a scream of “There he is!” rang out. The boy who had allegedly made the statement had stepped outside of a classroom into the lunch area, when suddenly everyone--everyone--arose from their seats and charged at him. I’ve never seen anything like it. He turned and ran for his life as a gigantic, vicious mob of students numbering in the hundreds swathed towards him. Any teacher or administrator present would have been powerless to stop them. They were going to kill him.
How he got away, I don’t know. But I imagine, while what he said was clearly wrong, he must have lived with unimaginable fear ever since. And while I never would have said anything like what he did, it occurred to me it could have been me, if I had unwittingly said something out of line. It was the first time I ever felt truly unsafe at my school, realizing that this place was like a prison that could break out in a riot at any time.
And all the while, I could never shake what bothered me the most. Where was all this when Tiffany died? Was she so disliked or unpopular that she truly didn’t deserve even the slightest bit of sadness? Was there no remorse from anyone? The nonchalant reaction to her death was made even more profound when contrasted by the extreme outpouring of grief over Leland’s only a few weeks later.
That year, however, when the yearbook was released, one page towards the back was devoted to our losses. I was somewhat comforted in seeing that the page was divided in half; the top is for him and the bottom for her. The memorials are the same size. Their birth and death dates are over their pictures, and each contains a poem devoted to them. They may never have met, but they are intrinsically linked together forever, smiling at us from beyond the grave, icons of the sunset of a more innocent age. Not only would my graduation class see the deaths of more students, but our own valedictorian, an ambitious young man who was a straight-A student and voted “most likely to succeed,” would commit suicide less than a year after graduation.
I want to be remembered. I want to leave a legacy when I’m gone. I made no impact at school and my death would have gone largely unnoticed, like Tiffany’s. But what about today?
This is a decision each of us has to make. We can choose to make a difference in our churches, families, and communities. We can spend our lives building a network of people that we help. We can form bonds and do great services for others who are in need. We can become giant figures who will be greatly missed when we are gone. Even to the point where it will take many people to take over the tasks we did.
And everything we do for the Lord, no matter how small, will add to our treasures in heaven. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: (Matthew 6:20). It’s hard to see or comprehend now, but those treasures mean so much more than anything on this earth.