Alicia Romero is the principal of Oakland High School. She wrote this letter to Phillip Wright the day after he was killed, explaining how his life — and death — has affected the school. We are printing the letter with Romero's permission.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
— William Butler Yeats, excerpt of "The Second Coming"
It's Friday morning, Nov. 20, the last day before Thanksgiving break. I get up early to get to school in time to open the computer lab for Mr.
I walk back to my office and find Mr. Sutton in the hallway telling me that a reporter has contacted him about the death of one our students the previous night. My heart sinks and I feel a churning in my gut. A district person, Liz, is at my office door, telling me that you were shot the day before and that we need to work out a plan for how our school will respond to the tragedy of losing you.
Ms. Towers, you remember her, she's the redhead assistant principal. The two of us hug and promise to keep it together all day, our voices breaking. She and I go to all your teachers' classrooms to quietly tell them that you are not coming back — ever. She goes in and leads the class while I whisper the tragic news. First, we find Mr. Nagelvort, your geometry teacher. This is his first year teaching and he has little experience losing students like you to the senseless violence in our neighborhoods. His eyes fill with tears and when I ask him, "Are you OK?"
He simply and honestly says, "No, I'm not OK." We stand in the hallway staring at each other in silence.
I ask him, "Will you be able to teach?"
Mr. Nagelvort replies, "Yes, I can do that." I assure him that someone will come by and talk to him to help him get through the day.
We walk to your science teacher Ms. Lehman's class. When I tell her, she leans on the wall, gasps, and holds her tears still in her eyes. I ask her how she is. She nods, closes her eyes and returns to her waiting students.
Ms. Barnes is your art teacher. She walks out of her classroom when I open the door, and I ask her to come out to the hallway. When I break the news, her eyes widen with disbelief. She needs a minute to gather herself and let the news sink in. I touch her arm to make sure she takes the time she needs.
We try to find Ms. Burger, your swimming coach. You love swimming and you are popular in the class. It's windy and raining today; we wonder if she's holding class inside.
Your U.S. history teacher, Mr. Visnick, comes to the door. I explain why you will not return to his class. His face stricken with shock and disbelief, he quietly thanks me for letting him know.
We walk over to the Learning Center. Everyone knows you well. Ms. McCalmot walks with us to her office, closes the door and covers her face as she sobs. She takes her camera out and says, "I don't have enough pictures of Phillip." She shows us you wearing a striped shirt in the Learning Center with a big smile on your face. Ms. Tran is crying at her desk. Just the other day, you helped her get her car to the gas station to get it fixed. You stayed with her until they finished so that she would be safe.
I can't find Ms. Burger. I'm worried about her.
All day your classmates are making their way to the Wellness Center, where they can find a place to grieve. They write you letters and send you messages to heaven on big white paper. At lunch I see a girl you knew slouched against the wall with her face turned away, crying uncontrollably. We help her up and take her to the Wellness Center. Her mom will pick her up and take her home. We are all vigilant — watching — checking in with teachers to see how everyone is doing. Counselors are available for anyone who needs them. They're checking in with me to let me know who they've seen throughout the day.
Information comes in: At 5:10 p.m., someone knocked on your door. Shots were fired before you opened it wide. It was the wrong house. It was the wrong boy. It was the wrong target.
Ms. Rasheed puts a yellow note in teachers' boxes asking them to come to an emergency meeting after school at 3:20 p.m.
I stand in the library at 3:15 p.m. and teachers start to pour into the room. I wait. I begin with the first line in the letter to the community: "As you may have heard, today we suffered a terrible loss to the ongoing violence in our city. Phillip Wright, one of our students, was shot yesterday afternoon."
All faces are solemn, shocked.
I see Ms. Burger. She's your swim teacher. She is devastated and has been crying all day. I explain that I did not announce the tragic news in an effort to keep our students calm and safe. I say that this meeting is for us to gather as a family, to remember you and to be together in this difficult time. Teachers share memories and feelings.
Mr. Visnick shares that in his class, the students have written a card and they will send flowers to your grandparents.
Ms. McCalmot shares stories about how she remembers when your mom died and how we wrapped our arms around you then. She recalls the day you broke Mr. Brown's printer; we laugh a little at your sweetness and humor.
We remember you, Phillip. We went home this afternoon to a week when school will be closed for the Thanksgiving holiday. I get home and finally start crying. I've been holding back tears all day. I worry that students won't be at school next week — and wonder if they will be safe at home, in their neighborhoods.