Teachers and parents often fret about setting bad precedents. Don’t let a child stay up late to watch a much-anticipated football game, despite how a child may plead, because then you’ve established a precedent which will only yield more requests. Don’t permit the child to, “just this once,” bring her cell phone to her bedroom at night because she says she’s texting with classmates on a project. Teachers shouldn’t allow a student to make excuses for a missing homework assignment, or ever budge on grades. You know the drill.
But in some circumstances, it might be a good idea to stop worrying about precedent, to relax the rules and to give a child what he needs.
I spent a year shadowing a middle school jazz band after one of its members, a 12-year-old trumpet player named Eric Green, died unexpectedly in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart ailment. As I observed how the members of the band during their 2012-2013 year of mourning—which I chronicled in my book, Mr. Clark’s Big Band—I realized that the way their big-hearted and risk-taking band director threw out the rulebook in order to attend to his students’ specific needs, was exactly what these young musicians needed in order to heal.
Facing 33 students who were hurting, who were scared, who were plagued with survivors’ guilt, who wanted tangible evidence that Eric’s short life mattered, Jamie Clark, the band director at the Trottier Middle School in Southborough, Mass., decided he needed to be creative with how he handled their grief.
Even before Eric died, Clark was widely known as an unorthodox teacher. Coming from a music background where he was a globe-traveling professional trombonist, Clark regularly flouted teaching conventions. He was known as a prolific hugger who embraced everyone with enthusiasm in an era when many teachers shy away from physical signs of affection. He doled the hugs out like they were candy. And he even doled out candy too. And Pop Tarts and Wheat Thins and ramen noodles. He let middle school students—musicians and non-musicians alike—eat, hang out and listen to music in the band room during lunch periods. He pulled students aside when he suspected they were having trouble with friends, families, studies, adolescence. He offered students open arms and ears as they navigated the choppy waters of middle school.
But after Eric died, students were craving his emotional support even more. Clark allowed students to do something many teachers and even some parents don’t: see him cry, grieve, be angry. And he allowed them to vent about how wrong it was that Eric had passed, how frightened they were.
The school principal, a circumspect Keith Lavoie, knew the students were heartbroken. Months after Eric died, students continued to sport hints of green—green soccer socks, slashes of green duct tape adhered to shirts and jackets, emerald hair ribbons and green rubber bracelets—and told Lavoie they wanted to do something significant to honor their friend. An Eric Green committee was formed, comprised of students, parents and Trottier faculty. Lavoie, who feared setting a precedent about how Trottier responds to the passing of a student, nevertheless agreed to hold an event celebrating Eric in June 2013, a capstone to Eric’s class’s three-year stint at Trottier. Clark was an essential component to that event’s success, in that he would help the four student speakers prepare, as well as spend months working with the concert band and the jazz band to master emotionally-charged pieces the school commissioned in Eric’s honor.
Then-Northborough-Southborough School Superintendent Charles Gobron said the unusual event was a healing moment. “I was absolutely blown away,” Gobron said, reflecting on the ceremony in a packed 500-seat auditorium. “I actually started crying. How do you ever put a price on that morning? It was unifying around what’s important in life, unifying, hopeful, I think helping. I thought for the students, they got a sense of priorities in life.”
It wouldn’t have happened without Clark, who worked all year with his music students to overcome their concerns that if they made a mistake while playing one of “Eric’s songs,” it would be tantamount to dishonoring the boy. One student, the only eighth-grade trumpet player who played alongside Eric, agreed to perform her first-ever solo in a complicated jazz piece because she said she owed it to her friend. But she wouldn’t have attempted it without Clark, the teacher who pushed his musicians as well as embraced them, who told them it was impossible to dishonor Eric because it was so clear how much they cared.
“We did this because that’s what the students wanted to do and what they needed,” Lavoie said. “You can’t go wrong if you take care of the kids in your school. … We got a lot of positive feedback from it. It brought closure.”
The students, who populated social media with loving messages and “goodbyes” to their friend after the event, agreed. “Hope we made you proud today Eric,” one member of the concert band wrote on Twitter. “I miss you so much and I hope you’re [happy] up there.”
To the children at Trottier Middle School, breaking down the emotional barriers between student and teacher–which many faculty doggedly maintain as a badge of professionalism, not worrying about precedent-setting in order to tend to the emotional needs of its students was just what these children needed to emerge on the other side of grief. What I learned by watching this school for a year: sometimes you need to set the rules aside and give the students what they need.
About Meredith O’Brien
A former newspaper reporter, investigative journalist and columnist, Meredith O’Brien (mereditheobrien.com) is the author of Mr. Clark’s Big Band, as well as of Mortified: A Novel About Oversharing, and A Suburban Mom: Notes from the Asylum. She is a co-author of The Buying of the President, a finalist for an Investigative Reporters and Editors book award. She teaches journalism at Northeastern University and lives with her family in the Boston area.