Death confronts youth

Folsom High School grieves over five students killed this year

photo by Jill Wagner

Tania Lopez, 17, is the news editor of The Bulldog Times, Folsom High School’s student newspaper

We know much about our world. Scientists have answered some of the most fundamental questions about life and death, and now claim they will be able to predict the adult illnesses of a newborn baby, giving humans more control than ever over our own mortality.

Yet the really important questions still linger unanswered, and maybe unanswerable: What is beyond life? What happens to our souls when life leaves our bodies? Why does death so cruelly claim the young and innocent?

These are the questions that have occupied the thoughts of many Folsom High School students this year. After losing five students to such devastating circumstances as sudden illness and reckless driving, the student body has been forced to contemplate the bigger questions of life and death.

That’s not what high school is supposed to be about. Our focus should be on friends, dating, spirit weeks, afternoon jobs, football games and learning to deal with social pressures. It seems that a high school student has enough to worry about when trying to find a prom date, but such concerns seem trivial at Folsom High these days.

I remember vividly how I felt after hearing that my fellow student, senior Robert Karle, died on January 7 of a disease he did not even know he had: bacterial meningitis. Those who knew him were devastated, and our hearts went out to his family. We planted a tree in his memory and took significant class time to discuss the serious dangers of meningitis.

On February 7, exactly one month later, emotional wounds that had just begun to heal were ripped open. It was a Wednesday, late morning, when Vice Principal Jim More entered my classroom, approached my teacher and, with puffy red eyes, handed over an urgent bulletin. Junior Tanya Edsall had died of the same strand of meningitis that killed Robert.

Random tragedies happen, but now, within one month’s time, two of our very own students died from a rare disease that takes very few lives in Sacramento County every year. The Department of Health immediately stepped in and took over. Because so many were concerned with the overall safety of the student body and protection against what could become an epidemic, it barely gave enough time for students to grieve the loss. It seemed that, instead of grieving, many became overtly concerned with their personal safety and health.

A pill was administered to every student the Friday after Tanya’s death; a pill they said cleans out one’s system of the meningitis virus. The day consisted of standing in several lines, listening as teachers continually reminded every student not to share any foods or drinks, and sitting in one classroom for the entire school day in order to allow for every student to take the pill. These precautionary measures made many feel more comfortable in believing that no more deaths would occur. How could anyone else die? We had suffered enough, and things would get better now.

Once again, a month passed, and once again, a student died. Sophomore Brittany Richmond died on March 6 due to complications with pneumonia and her condition of cystic fibrosis. Many did not even hear of her death because she had transferred out of our school last October, so she was grieved only in isolated groups. To those who did hear of the death, the information was numbing. It did not seem real. Death just did not occur this much, right?

When students arrived at school on the morning of Monday, March 12, the marquee read “slow down … stop and smell the roses.” Some knew what was about to hit, while others had no idea of the tragic weekend. Junior Ben Anca had died in a car collision on Friday. Totally unrelated, sophomore Jan-Lesley Cimacio was currently in the hospital on life support, only to die that very afternoon from encephalitis. As I arrived at school that morning, already aware of the weekend’s occurrences, I had no idea what to expect, except that it would be a tough week.

Each first period teacher announced the latest deaths. As I sat, listening to my economics teacher read the special bulletin, I felt the emptiness of the desk behind me, the desk of my very close friend PJ Cimacio, Jan’s older brother.

Several classmates dropped their heads in despair as the news was announced; some students had known, while others had not. The realization slowly began to sink into the minds of every student as we listened: Five students have died within a two-and-a-half-month period. How could this happen? Why them? What does this mean for me?

Students and staff members alike struggled to cope with the pall of death that hung over Folsom High. Students wandered aimlessly to their next class, some sobbing, others quiet, finding it hard to find a light-hearted conversation topic. Those students who found it unbearable to sit and concentrate in class were invited to go to the Career Center where counselors were ready to handle their needs.

Monday was a very emotional and difficult day, but the week was far from over. It would be far too difficult, depressing and time-consuming to take each day and explain it in detail, but each day brought a new layer of grief, confusion, fear and struggle with the question: Why?

Some students created an area on campus where we would be able to mourn and grieve. A small corner of campus was decorated with various pictures, posters, letters, poems, song lyrics, flowers, colored streamers and even a large chalk drawing, all to commemorate those who had died. Students began to wear purple and blue ribbons pinned to their shirts or backpacks.

A large piece of butcher paper labeled “Memories and Thoughts” followed by the names of the five was put up where all students were able to write thoughts and feelings to Robert, Tanya, Brittany, Ben and Jan. Students were allowed to spend class time reading the posters, poems and letters, to talk or cry with friends, or talk with our counselors.

The conversations that I have had with fellow students over the last week are the most intellectual, philosophical and personal conversations I have ever had with my classmates. Together, we contemplated the meaning of life, and of death, and why such tragic events occur. Many students are beginning to question their spiritual lives, and look for what they find most comfortable to believe. Some say those who die move on to “a better place,” but the question of what exactly this easy answer means has cased itself into the minds of many who may never have thought about it before.

Regardless of why this has happened, many students are searching for answers that work for them. Many are searching for hope. In response to the students’ needs, a “Celebration of Hope” is currently being planned for April 25 for the school to publicly show concern for those who are hurting and to hopefully move from grief to recovery.

Fear has swept over the student body, as the reality of death has begun to sink in. You know that ultimate fear has swept the student population when you begin to question why your best friend is absent from school one day. Is my friend sick? Is my friend going to live through the next week? After watching so many die of rare causes, students begin to ask themselves: What if that happened to my brother, to my best friend? What if it happened to me? It can be very difficult to imagine what it must be like to lose someone; what it must be like to come home and find the jacket they accidentally left on the kitchen counter last week.

Death is very scary and has become real for the students at Folsom High. A whole school full of invincible youth has been forced to confront its mortality. Death has become real, rather than something displayed on the evening news, a reality likely to shape how we approach our lives.