Tuesday, January 24, 2012

pondering a loss

Last spring, Aaron - then a 10 year old rising sixth grader - literally bounced his way out of Northwest School of the Arts, where we'd just attended an open house.  The same boy who had been adamant about wanting to be homeschooled for middle school exclaimed,

"Mom! I have GOT to go HERE!" 

I was thrilled for him, so I tried hard to mask my inner conflict.  Always the perceptive one, I could've sworn he'd read my mind when he pressed,

"What about Luke?"  

His older brother - also a rising sixth grader - has an autism disorder known as Asperger's Syndrome.  He is, in many ways, still a little boy; so innocent, a real live Peter Pan.  I looked back at the school building and stifled a shudder.  Could Luke manage here?  It wasn't THIS school in particular, that worried me.  I didn't feel any more confident about the large middle school we were zoned for.  Everything about the fifth-to-sixth grade transition worried me, where Luke was concerned.

"I don't know, buddy, but that doesn't matter because you are going to LOVE it here, I know it!"  

We walked to the car, silently.  As I opened the door, Aaron stopped me and pressed,

"He can do it, Mom - I know he can."  

Trying to hold back the tears was futile.  I gave him a squeeze, lifted a prayer, and promised to think about it.

I went straight to the top, and my email to Principal Dr. Bowe was answered within the day.  He directed me to the school's EC chair, who welcomed my MANY questions (if you haven't gathered this about me, yet, I ask a lot of questions. A. LOT.)  The two of them offered to meet with my husband and I, so of course we took them up on it.  Before I laid eyes on either of them, I was blown away by their generosity and kindness.  Meetings with staff of their caliber often take weeks to schedule, and then only after "forms" and "protocol" and repeated requests.  A glimmer of hope began to light our path... maybe this could work?

Dr. Bowe greeted us as though we'd arrived at his home for Thanksgiving dinner; we were instantly at ease. The two of them were frank with their concerns, while at the same time eager to see both our boys succeed at their school.  One phrase I remember from Dr. Bowe was, "I exited (fill in the blank, I forget the number) students last year alone. I love these kids and my door is always open, but I don't play."  That may seem an odd thing to remember positively, but for a Mom who worried that behavior problem kids would ruin her boys' chances of having a positive middle school experience, this was music to my ears.

Speaking of music, we loved the pride in his eyes as he went ON and ON about all the achievements his students had made.  One funny story had to do with a college that wanted to send their choir over to perform, in order to recruit students.  He laughed and said, "I told them, 'Listen, I'm sorry but your choir cannot sing here - my kids can sing rings around y'all. You need to have MY choir come sing at YOUR school!"

I later learned that he was gifted in art, music, technology, and that he had a special heart for exceptional students after spending several years working with "severe" kids.  Most of time, when people say, "Oh I've worked in special ed" it actually makes me cringe, because what they are really saying is, "I know everything there is to know about exceptional kids."  Those are the worst people to have working with children like my son. The. Worst. But it was apparent that Dr. Bowe didn't mean it that way at all.  He meant it in the rare and priceless way of, "I invest in students with differences because I've seen the value they bring - I will look for that in your child, too, and I WILL find it, because I already know it's there."

We began the school year fully aware that this would be a big stretch for Luke.  Almost every single day, Dr. Bowe interacted with him in some way.  He ate lunch with him or sought him out at spa ("student physical activity" - fancy term for "go walk around outside a while"). If Luke had a difficult time, he'd visit Dr. Bowe's office for a chat or help him out by sharpening pencils - sometimes 100 at a time, until he was settled enough to return to class.  Dr. Bowe once talked him down off a brick wall!  Luke was never in real danger, he's a monkey if there ever was one, but the fact that Dr. Bowe patiently and compassionately talked him down without anyone having to call ME to do it, impresses me to this day.

He also reached out to Aaron, giving him high fives every morning.  Aaron took to the school right away, but started to look a little down during the second quarter.  As it turned out, they'd switched from Health to PE and some of the boys were giving him a hard time.  He's not a clumsy boy, by any means, but he's not the best at organized sports, either, and a handful of students made sure he didn't forget that.  I sent one email to Dr. Bowe asking if he might reach out to Aaron:  ONE.  The VERY NEXT DAY Aaron came out smiling.  He said Dr. Bowe had asked him about his GPA, and when Aaron didn't know what it was, he taught him how to calculate it.  Then he explained to Aaron that everyone is gifted in different ways:  he's gifted academically, others are gifted athletically.  Neither is better or worse.  Aaron never came out with his head down after PE again.  In fact, he went on to win a game soon after that!  What price can you put on your child's smile?  You can't.  Priceless.

Dr. Bowe didn't just win the hearts of my sons, though.  He won mine, too.  I remember feeling as though I'd been gut-punched when I was called to pick Luke up early one day.  He'd bitten a student.  Bitten.  As in BITE.  As in, "This is what toddlers do"! (in his defense, he was provoked) I wanted to die.  I was embarrassed for crying, but Dr. Bowe said, "We laugh, hug, and cry a lot at NWSA. Luke is learning - like all of our students."  Luke was given ISS and you can believe he's never done that again, nor will he - the point was made, with my full support.  But he never felt shamed, and NEITHER DID I

That ... that is just ... it's unheard of.  Mothers always feel guilted and shamed over such things.  But I wasn't. I didn't. I couldn't believe it.

Not long ago, I told Dr. Bowe that Aaron wanted to add a piano major to his band major next year.  He told me stories about earning his way through school by being paid to play piano and organ at churches. He said one church gave him an apartment to use on the weekends, where he'd practice and study.  I smiled, thinking, "Now that could come in handy!"  He shared himself with me, which opened the door for me to do the same, and so we became friends.  I stopped being "Mrs. McConnell", and became "Michelle".  I knew he wanted me to call him "Barry" but I never could bring myself to do it... the respect level I had for him wouldn't allow it.  Still, he knew my "Dr. Bowe" address was filled with affection.

He only heard me angry once, and it wasn't at him.  I called demanding to speak with him and the secretary put me through.  I'll never forget his calming voice, settling me down with phrases like, "You know I'm here for you, now tell me what's going on."  He patiently listened and he took care of business, quickly and forcefully.  I went from anxious and upset to calm and confident within 24 hours.  That's effective leadership.

So it's no surprise that when I learned late last week that he was being forced to resign or be fired, my spirit sank.  How could this happen?  I knew the entire school adored him and that he was respected throughout the community.  The explanation just didn't hold water.  It didn't make sense that one event:  a fight breaking out in the parking lot during an after hours school party, where it's rumored-but-yet-to-be-confirmed-and-denied-by-adult-eye-witnesses that a gun was pulled (not by a NWSA student, and no one was hurt).  Some parents complained that no security was present, but that didn't make sense, either - Dr. Bowe is the most thorough, follow-through professional I've encountered.  He wouldn't NOT request security (he claims he did in fact request security, but none showed).  Regardless of the ins and outs and finger pointing surrounding that unfortunate evening, REGARDLESS of ALL of that, how - HOW - could this one isolated event cancel out an entire glowing career?  How can that make any amount of sense?

(Answer:  it doesn't)

I joined other parents to advocate for Dr. Bowe, demanding that this decision be reversed.  We went on the local news, and we were preparing to address the school board, when the worst happened...

My husband woke me a little after midnight.  I could tell by his face that something was dreadfully wrong, and I was scared.  I thought of my niece who has been in the hospital receiving chemo, I thought of our parents....  all sorts of things ran through my mind, but I never expected him to say,

"Michelle... Dr. Bowe is dead."

I didn't sleep anymore that night (and I haven't slept since).  This good man should not have felt alone and trapped and hopeless. He should still be with us, with "his kids".  What sense is there to be made?  None.  It's a tragedy.  Plain and simple.  A senseless, dark tragedy.

We told our boys this morning.... told them that Daddy had taken the day off so that we could all drive down to the school together.  Told them they should wear black (as requested by student leadership).  Told them we'd stop by the grocery on the way to buy roses.  Told them why.  Our beloved Dr. Bowe was gone.  We wept together.

Luke asked the most innocent, heart wrenching questions.
"But... how can I go to school without a principal?  Who will I have chats with?  Who will I sharpen pencils for?"  

When we got to the school I gave him his roses and asked him where he'd like to put them.  He said matter of factly,
"I need to give them to Dr. Bowe." 

I lost it;  we had to start all over at square one.  Then he said, sadly,
"Oh ... yeah ... Then we should put them here, where he always stands to say good morning."  

And so, white roses lay at the edge of the carpool parking lot, where Dr. Bowe should have been standing this morning ... but wasn't.

Aaron, on the other hand, processes more the way I always have.  He didn't say much.  He nodded.  He said his throat felt dry and scratchy.  Later he said his stomach didn't feel good.  I asked if he had any questions.  He said no.  But I know better.  We've shared a lot of hugs today.  I need to encourage him to write...

How does one ponder such things?  When I close my eyes I picture that good man sitting in his car alone.  How do I get that image out of my mind?

And where do I put God in such a story?  Dr. Bowe knew God, this I am sure of - we talked of such things.  And God never left him, I know that, too.

But everything in between is up for grabs.

Whatever window of despair led to this tragic end, we will never fully comprehend.  But his heart - his smile - his love - his zeal - his sense of humor - his excellence - his Sponge-Bob ringtone - his rainbow colored lariat - his absolute authenticity  .... those are his legacy.  We knew him less than a year, and this is what I have to say for it!  Imagine countless students, who were blessed by years of day in and day out Dr. Bowe Love!

That's what remains.

I'm trying... trying hard... to ponder that.

in these bodies
we will live
in these bodies
we will die
where you invest your love
you invest your life
~Mumford and Sons, Awake My Soul


KSH said...

Unless I hear something conclusively different, I choose to take the view of a tragic accident. Maybe he was exhausted from not being able to sleep. He got in the car and decided to just find some peace before leaving for his appointment. He closed his eyes, maybe to pray for guidance and wisdom, just for a second, but unfortunately something went awry. He loved those kids and life so much. My mind can't process anything else. I feel physically ill if I even consider anything else. There may be proof one way or the other, but for now, I have to cling to the hope that this tragedy was an accident.

Deb Blackwood said...

Michelle - I was sent this by parents of a student at NWSA who just moved out of state.
Barry was a good friend from years ago in Charleston WV and the arts communities there - and he and I re-established contact once he moved here to Charlotte.
Barry DID know God, we both shared being members of different Episcopal Churches and swapped faith stories from both long-ago and more currently.
He's dancing with the angels and singing now. This a tragic, senseless accident as you said. Those who knew and loved him can honor his memory by keeping his passionate dream of young people of differing abilities succeeding beyond their wildest dreams by encouraging those youngsters in our own lives ... and by telling the stories of how he indelibly enriched our lives.
Deb Blackwood

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute.

VVV said...

Thank you so much for this. When you said you couldn't get the image out of your mind of him being alone that really resonated with me because that's exactly what I see: a man who was loved by so many being alone at the time of his death.

Carol said...

Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful tribute. My heart goes out to you and your sons.

My children are also NWSA students and one also has Asperger's. We didn't have a lot of interactions with Dr. Bowe, but in our experience, Dr. Bowe was always kind and compassionate. He took a very strong stance against bullying. We had a couple of bullying incidents, and he took immediate and appropriate action.

Such a loss.