Monday, March 4, 2013

Innocence Lost: Zenan & Elliot taught us much in their short lives.

JV Football Early in the 2012 Season
This picture was taken sometime in August or September of 2012.  Our junior varsity football team is warming up before a game.  The weather was beautiful and the season and school year was full of promise.  It started like all other school years with football, homework, tests and the county fair.  The kids' biggest issues involved who to take to the homecoming dance.  It was a wonderfully normal autumn.

After Homecoming, Facebook was flooded with pictures of the kids all dressed up, happy and still innocent.  I have worked as a substitute teacher in the schools for seven years and knew most of the kids since they were in the 3rd or 4th grade.  Watching the students grow and mature is one of the greatest joys of subbing.  I didn't see them every day like a regular teacher but I spent time with them sporadically  every year.  The future looked so bright.  The school year was off to a wonderful start.

The Wednesday after Homecoming changed everything.  Elliot died.  Tuesday, he was feeling fine most of the day.  After school, he started feeling sick.  By noon the next day, he was gone.  No car accident or risky behavior is to blame.  The infection overwhelmed his already weakened system.

We are a small community.  Everyone in town knew Elliot, knew of him or knew his family.  He had an easy and infectious smile.  I knew he had extreme difficulties hearing.  His aunt was his sign language interpreter.  What I didn't know, nor did most people, was the fact that Elliot's life was a miracle.  He was born with some birth defects and has organ transplant surgery as a baby.  Doctors didn't think he would live more than a few years at best.  He proved them wrong.

Elliot was one of the special people in our school.  People who have no enemies and no rumors surround them.  People who always bring a smile to faces even when just talking about them.  It was not Elliot's disability that made him special.  It was his spirit and joy for life.  We lost another extraordinary person not long after the new year began.

That morning I saw posts on Facebook that I prayed were vicious rumors.  I prayed people were wrong.  Very early that morning a fire broke out in an old general store in a tiny town at the southern edge of the county.  By 6 a.m. word had spread of the fire.  One student posted pictures taken from his house of the blaze.  He commented that he hoped the family that lived in the upstairs' apartment got out safely.  They had. But, three people living in the other apartment didn't.

All three were recent graduates of the local high school.  All three had been good students, athletes and role models.  As a substitute teacher, I knew each of them.  Two of them I didn't know very well.  The other one was like Elliot.  Everyone knew him or knew of him.  Zenan.  He was easy to remember.  Even as a middle school student he towered over me.  I am not sure how tall he got but it was probably at least 6'6" or 6'7".  In his football gear, he was a menacing sight.  In reality, there wasn't a menacing bone in his body.

Zenan was one of the kids that I was very interested to watch grow and see where life took them.  After the fire I heard stories from kids about his kindness and how he didn't freshman get harassed on the football team.  In recent years I didn't sub much at the high school.  So, most of my memories are from middle school and seeing him play football.  He was bigger than life and I still can't grasp the fact that he, Lauren and James are gone.

All four of the deaths struck hard in this county.  A high school teacher comforted his students by explaining why Elliot's death hit so hard.  It was so sudden but it was not because of a mistake.  Car accidents happen. Stupid behavior causes kids' deaths.  There is no one and nothing to blame for Elliot's death.  His body just wasn't strong enough to keep fighting off the infections.  He did for ten years longer than predicted but couldn't anymore.

The fire is still under investigation.  The initial findings didn't indicate anything suspicious. The family got out because the son heard a smoke alarm go off.  Two people in the other apartment made it out.  Both groups called 911 within minutes of the other.  From the rumors, Zenan sent his brother out through the window first but didn't make it out himself.  Even with a broken leg from the fall, his brother tried to go back for Zee when he realized Zee hadn't followed.  I can easily believe that this happened.  I pray James and Lauren never awoke and never knew a moments fear.

How can we go on from this?  Some days I still can't believe Zenan is gone.  I expect to see him picking up his younger sister after school.  How do we help the kids cope with the loss?  I never had to deal with anything like this growing up.  The deaths that occurred around the time I was in high school were due to car accidents, suicide or gun accidents.  It was easier to process those types of deaths.  If the kids hadn't been drinking to celebrate graduation, the accident wouldn't have happened.  If someone had noticed his depression, maybe his suicide could have been prevented.  If they had checked the gun more carefully, he would not have shot his best friend.

What did Elliot, Zenan, James and Lauren do wrong?  Nothing.  Did their parents fail them?  Absolutely not. No one didn't anything wrong.  Death still happens. Elliot always knew his time with us was a gift.  He shared the joy of having been given that gift.  The other three...nothing prepared anyone for their deaths.  I felt like I had been punched in the stomach for days.  I can't even imagine what their families feel.

I have been trying to write this blog since the beginning of February.  I have not done justice to their spirits yet.  In the beginning of October, 2012, this community, especially our students, were innocent of the tragedies of life.  The football players took the field only thinking about the game or there dates to Homecoming.  Next year when football starts, people will remember Big Zee and his absence among the fans as he cheers his alma mater.  As Homecoming approaches, we will all remember Elliot. He had a great time at Homecoming 2012 but died four days later.

Life will go on...but we will never be the same. Even if we "do everything right", death happens.  We need to remember the best of each person we have lost and celebrate the time we were given with them.  It is a gift we take for granted.