When bad things happen to good people

by Brian Clarey

The autumn sun shines brilliantly on Bluford Elementary School this morning but inside the doors the mood hangs dark and heavy like a velvet shroud.

During the morning announcements Principal LaToy Kennedy reads from a page of Project Wisdom’s handbook for elementary schools. It says:

‘“Good morning (name of school). This is (name of narrator) with a few words of wisdom.

‘“Life is hard sometimes. Bad things happen. Maybe someone we care about gets sick, or someone we love goes to live somewhere else, or someone close to us passes away.’”

She didn’t know what else to say.

Just 24 hours earlier Mrs. Kennedy and the rest of the faculty learned of the sudden death of one of their own ‘— Rebecca Forrester, the 31-year-old curriculum facilitator for the school.

The tragedy comes on the heels of celebration. Just three weeks ago Mrs. Forrester gave birth to twins, boys named Thomas Andrew and James William.

A picture of the little guys hangs on the wall of the faculty lounge, mounted on a piece of orange construction paper. The boys lie side by side in a porta-crib, swaddled in blue-and-yellow striped blankets and still sleeping off the effects of labor and delivery. The shot is a couple of weeks old, brought in by Rebecca shortly after their birth’… the proud mommy showing off her angels.

And today all who knew her, and many who didn’t, try to hold back the tears.

‘“She was a good person,’” Mrs. Kennedy says, ‘“her and her family.’” She sighs. ‘“Certain kids at school wouldn’t have a Christmas and she would get their lists and get them everything they wanted.

‘“I learned a lot from her,’” she adds.

Rebecca’s blue nameplate still hangs outside her office door but her desk is devoid of her personality.

‘“She had pictures of her husband and family here but they asked me to take them away,’” Mrs. Kennedy says.

Taped to one side of an aluminum file cabinet are four snapshots of Bluford kids from last Christmas, a Patience Award from June of last year, a certificate of appreciation from the school and a Bluford’s Best award for the week Oct. 8, 2004 complete with a blue ribbon. On the wall by the window hangs a hand-stitched sampler: ‘“Old teachers never die, they just lose their class.’”

Cynthia Latham, the school counselor, knew her well and misses her deeply.

‘“Her mother grew up poor,’” she says. ‘“Someone gave her a doll when she was a child and she never forgot. It changed her life.’” That, Mrs. Latham says, was Rebecca’s motivation for bringing Christmas to those kids each year.

‘“We’re finding that the magnitude of her giving goes beyond this building, beyond these walls,’” she says. ‘“Many times in death, people are magnified. In this case, no. Sometimes there are gentle giants who walk among us and I think death’… it shows us more.’”

She’s sitting in her office down the hall from Rebecca’s, a place where she’s consoled a good number of students since the news broke and also the place where she’s expressed her own grief.

‘“We’ve not had this before,’” she says, her eyes watering as she speaks. ‘“We’ve not lost a staff member, particularly one so young and vital. Some of the children have been sharing through writing.’”

A passel of lined notepaper and construction-paper cards sit before her on a low table, with sentiments carefully lettered in number two pencil and artistic tributes rendered in crayon ‘— a drawing of a queen with a yellow crown and a child crying blue tears’… a short letter addressed to Mr. Forrester by a developmentally-challenged student, Rebecca’s specialty, with a simple message: ‘“I am sorry for what happened. She was an angel to me.’”

And her husband’… her poor husband Mark’… he’s a first-time father and a recent widower with two new sons to raise in the cradle of his grief. Our hearts go out to him and we hope he finds the strength inside to carry on. Mark, call us if you need anything.

Mrs. Kennedy says that the school will hold a book drive in honor of Rebecca Forrester and each student will get a book with a memorial inscription inside. Donations for the cause can be made directly to Bluford Elementary. Early next year a tree will be planted on the school grounds in remembrance of Rebecca so that memories of her will remain and grow.

In other heart-wrenching news, WC Jones, editor of In the Spotlight magazine lost his daughter last weekend in a car accident. She was 20 years old. All of us at YES! Weekly offer our condolences to our brother in journalism and his family, who are no doubt paralyzed with grief by the loss. And may the sadness of these last few weeks remind us all of the fragility of life, the illusion of control and to be thankful for the time we do have with our loved ones in this very temporary plane of existence. Life is short. Love is eternal. Let it show and let it flow.

To comment on this column, e-mail Brian Clarey at