A Time to Mourn — Not to Score Points

A boy died in a Philly school. Can we take a moment to mourn before starting the political argument?

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Can we take a timeout?

Let me first admit: I’m part of the problem.

Many times in my journalism career, something big, important, and tragic has happened, and my job has been to call somebody as soon as possible — a mother, perhaps, or an “expert” — and ask them, in essence: “What do you think?”




It’s always felt ghoulish. But I’ve done the job anyway, in part because you’d be surprised how often people actually want to talk. Often, though, it’s been too soon to talk. If you’ve just lost a close relative, for example, you might still be processing a billion different emotions at once. If you’re an expert, you probably don’t have enough facts to weigh in with a considered judgment.

Processes take time. Conclusions usually need to wait. But we live in a world full of insta-opinions and flash polls. Like I said: I’m part of the problem.

Which brings us to Wednesday night, and the horrible, awful death of a 7-year-old boy at Jackson Elementary School in South Philadelphia.

The first coverage of the story pointed out an important detail — there was no full-time school nurse on duty at the time the boy collapsed — and noted that many such positions have fallen prey to budget cuts in recent years. What it did not conclude — what nobody has been able to definitively conclude, even more than 24 hours later — is whether that nurse would’ve saved the boy. Jackson’s usual nurse believes she might’ve been able to; the fact that doctors at CHOP were apparently were stumped as to the cause of death seems like it should belie such certainty, at least in the short-term.

Instead of humility in the face of unexpected tragedy, though, what we got was adults screaming at each other.

Not literally, thank God. But Wednesday night’s Twitter fight between public schools activist Helen Gym and School Reform Chairman Bill Green was the digital equivalent of a screaming match over a cooling body at the morgue — ugly, unnecessary, and, at the very best, premature.

The less said about the fight, the better — you can get the gist of it at the Twitter links I just provided — but to sum up: Gym blamed the district’s leadership (including Green) for not providing sufficient funding to schools; Green accused Gym of “throwing stones” and of being counterproductive during school funding fights.

It would’ve been better had everybody taken a deep breath.

Don’t misunderstand: There will come a time, very soon, for answers. Maybe even blame, and anger, and rage.

But the right thing to do in the face of the most horrible thing that can happen — and there is nothing at all on earth worse or more heartbreaking than the death of a child — is to wait at least one second before screaming, to walk away before throwing pottery, because the magnitude of that tragedy is roughly infinity-times bigger than whatever point-scoring or political victory might be gained from pressing the advantage rightthisverysecond.

The right thing to do is mourn, if only for a minute. Maybe hug the child nearest you. Say a prayer, even.

I like both Helen Gym and Bill Green. Both of them, I believe, are sincere in their (differing) desires to create the best and safest-possible schools for Philly students. Gym is an activist; Green a politician. Neither would’ve made any headway in their respective paths had they been inclined to keep quiet. That can be admirable.

It just would’ve been nice if they’d taken a moment of silence before resuming the fight. Hell, we do it in our baseball games when an old player passes away. Why can’t we do it in our politics?

It won’t be long before we have a better understanding of why a first-grade boy died at Jackson Elementary. We’ll have a better idea if funding cuts are to blame. (Gym, for what it's worth, probably has the better of the argument: State rules say every child should have access to a school nurse.) If they are, we should hang the shame of it around the neck of every responsible public official. Until we’re secure in that understanding, though, maybe we can take that moment of silence. The fight will always be there, ready to be resumed.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • abertle

    You’re misinterpreting that code section – it says access to school nurse services, which, in the paragraph above it, are defined as a vision test, hearing test, height/weight, Tuberculosis screening et al. – NOT emergency care services. Regarding the presence of a school nurse, I believe there’s some regulation somewhere about a requirement of two days a week in Pennsylvania.

    Truth be told, I’m in my late thirties with two kids, and across three separate decades (the 80’s, 90’s, and my kids in the ’00’s), I never remember there being a full-time nurse in school/my kids’ schools; if the nurse wasn’t there, the principal’s secretary would take your temperature and call your parents.

    I’m not a Corbett/Green supporter, but this doesn’t seem like a recent change to me.

    • Christa

      I have no idea what school district your children attended, but my son’s school has a full time nurse 5 days a week. My son attends school in the suburbs (Bristol Township). Why is it that he is lucky enough to have a full time nurse but the students I teach in Philadelphia are not that lucky?

      Nursing services should be non-negotiable with the amount of students we have in Philadelphia with chronic conditions that require more than someone taking their temperature once in a while or needing some ice. It is ILLEGAL for anyone other than a school nurse to give medications to students yet we have counselors, secretaries, teachers and principals putting themselves on the line every day so that children can receive their medicine.

      I appreciate that everyone would like for this situation to not be political BUT it has happened once already this school year. We have a past precedent in Philadelphia and Helen Gym is speaking out against that. Many have been warning for months that another tragic or dangerous accident would take place in Philadelphia schools without nurses and other staff. Sadly they were right. WE have had an adult severely injured and a child has died.

      We have to speak up so that this madness will end.

  • Helen Gym

    Joel, I understand your point – but a reminder that the Jackson community itself issued a statement addressing funding and the lack of priorities around school safety. They and we are all mourning, but not by being silent. I would proffer that silence and the idea that our children should be honored by our silence is the number one problem with our schools.

    When the Schools Supt. last year announced that he was delivering us a “doomsday budget” (May 2013), when 100s testify about the dangers of leaving schools bereft of resources and staff (Jan 2013-today), when a 12yo at Bryant Elementary died in September following an asthma attack that started at a school without a school nurse present, when 4,000 teachers,aides and principals left or lost their jobs in a city with massive unemployment (Sept 2013), when the District presents a budget that implements an 18% cut in the paltry number of nurses left without funding and no new nurses with funding (Mar 2014), when a school staffer had his skull fractured at Bartram High School – which opened this year with one third less staff than in June 2011 (Mar 2014) – and after all that, when a first grader dies at a school without a medical team in place as required by state law – when exactly is the time for “reflectors” and “writers” and “observers” and the “thoughtful” to finally wake up and hold accountable those who spend their public airtime pounding on accountability for others?

    When Bill Green – Governor Corbett’s appointed chairman of the SRC who lobbied for his position with the help of generous outside “philanthropies”/lobbyists – goes on social media the night of the passing of this child with one word: “Help” – would that not generate a response from a parent like myself with three children in the system? (By the way that started the Twitter exchange)

    By all means, take as much time as you want being thoughtful and reflective and in some preconceived idea that human decency requires a self-imposed silent “mourning” phase. Let us know when you wake up out of it. The rest of us are doing something about it.

  • critical mass

    I agree with Helen Gym: don’t mourn, organize. Philadelphia citizens need to rise up and rally against this outrageous bankrupting of our schools. And Joel Mathis, I’m disappointed at this pious blather. It seems far more opportunistic than taking a stand on the national disgrace the governor, the SRC, the City Council, and the District have brought upon our city. Shame on all who stand silent.

    • matthew brandley

      get the welfare scum off welfare back to work and off the lazy asses! fill the tax coffers with tax money so the damn city and psd doesn’t have to beg for money every damn year/ How effing stupid are you asses! Welfare is destroying the city you dumb asses and that’s the root of the problem! to many free loding no tax paying I want it all for nothing people screaming and crying ! Damn your all a bunch of clueless asses!

      • Bobby Duplenty

        Not a super convincing argument there, pal.

  • Eleanor Thomas

    The most important statement here, in my opinion, is that we didn’t know anything about the child’s death. Using it to pour gasoline on the fire that is school funding took away the child in all of this; instead, the child became a soundbite based on unfounded claims and large assumptions on what he died.

    • matthew brandley

      It was a cognitive heart defect.

      • laurenalice

        Congenital. And way to go, Joel Mathis, on completely backpedaling and not advocating on behalf of a sensible and positive change for our city. End the corruption, work with the universities, come up with a plan that shows how it’s done.

        • matthew brandley

          whatever grammar police. Not a perfect clown like you, so screw off loser