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?


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.