Wednesday, May 11, 2016

East Newton High School seniors pay tribute to their fallen classmates

Katie Heilig never had a chance to receive her high school diploma.

Katie was a junior at East Newton High School, a cheerleader, an athlete and was attending Crowder Vo-Tech studying to be a neonatal nurse.

Those dreams ended when Katie died November 13, 2014, at the age of 16.

Katie's class graduated Monday night and made sure she was there to share the moment. The senior class left an empty seat to represent their lost classmate.

Katie's death was still fresh on the minds of the East Newton seniors, but she was not the only one who was remembered by the symbolic gesture.

An empty chair was also placed in the midst of the graduating class to remember Rowan Ford. Rowan never attended East Newton High School or even Triway Junior High School.

A friend of her stepfather's raped and murdered Rowan on November 3, 2007, when she was only nine years old and a fourth grader at Triway Elementary.

Though eight years have passed, Rowan's classmates never forgot and made sure that she, too, would be with with them at one of the most important moments of their young lives.

What the East Newton seniors done is not unusual. This kind of tribute is done as a matter of course at high schools across the United States.

The only time such a request has created any controversy in this area was this year in Joplin when Joplin High School seniors elected not to provide such a tribute to East Middle School seventh grader Zach Williams, who died in the May 22, 2011, Joplin Tornado. When the story broke in the media, much abuse was heaped upon those who wanted Zach to be remembered.

Instead of taking an action that would have done nothing to distract from the graduation ceremony, a few members of the graduating class took to social media to express their anger at anyone who dared to disagree with their decision.

Zach Williams was only a student in the Joplin school district for a while, they said. He never attended high school. A few self-centered commenters had the nerve to say, "This is our graduation and we don't want anything to distract from it."

Others claimed that if Zach had lived, he may not have graduated.

Sadly, some of those making those kind of comments were adults.

Having taught students in the Joplin school system for 10 years and having taught at East while Zach Williams was a student there, I have a difficult time believing that the students who expressed those opinions represent anywhere near a majority of the JHS seniors.

As for distractions, scheduling the commencement for May 22, 2016- the five-year anniversary of the tornado- and devoting a segment of the ceremony to the tornado, seems more of a distraction from the seniors' accomplishments than an empty chair with a graduation robe would have been.

At least, Zach Williams will be mentioned during the segment of the event dedicated to the tornado, but it is not the same as including him in the class.

That would have been the decent thing to do. It is not something that should have taken more than a few seconds of consideration.

I have a hard time believing that students at East Newton, Carthage, Jasper, or other places where classmates who did not make it all the way to graduation, had one second of doubt when it came whether to include their missing friends in their ceremonies.

We don't need to live in the past, but we must certainly never forget it.


Anonymous said...

You are correct. It will stir it up again, just as the kids finish their last day of their senior year. And to what end? Zachary is going to be recognized, and he is getting as much or more than any other student who has been lost from JHS. No one is denying them that. What you are saying is that the only way to recognize those we lost is with an empty chair, against the wishes of the students. How does this make anyone happy or better off, to drag this back out? I'm sorry for the East Newton losses. I'm sorry of the loss of Zachary. But reopening wounds after the situation has been settled helps no one.

Jstrickland said...

Well said! As a graduate of Jasper in 2002, we had two that were watching over us and right there with us during graduation. Guess what? Those two girls had seats as a rememberence that they were there with us in spirit. It is just a seat to some, but it means so much more to others.

Anonymous said...

I respect Joplin' s decision.

Anonymous said...

I am very proud of EN and the fact that not only did they include Rowan and Katie in graduation with a chair, cap gown, and ribbon but in the graduation program itself. Both girls were even mentioned in the valedictorian speech. These things didn't take much time or distract from the graduation ceremony but meant so much to the people that loved both of those girls. Joplin school received so much love and compassion after the tornado yet can't stop and for one minute in order to show compassion for others.

Anonymous said...

Interesting note- Joplin finished school yesterday. The senior graduate on May 22nd. Why is there such a long period between end of school and the graduation?

It is the students' graduation. The students should decide to honor a lost classmate. It would be nice if one of the student speakers bring it up in a speech.

Steve Holmes said...

We'll part ways on this one, Randy. These kids have been through so much in the past five years. They lost friends, family, homes. They also lost their childhoods. They had to grow up fast, become "miniature adults," deal with adult concerns before they should have to. It's bad enough the graduation is in the exact same place at the exact same time it was five years ago. That's enough of a reminder right there. I've met some of these kids and am very impressed by and protective of them. There's going to be an acknowledgement of those who were lost. Other than that, make this day about accomplishment -- and survival.

Turner sticking his snout in again said...

Turner is one of the knee-jerk infantile left who believes not in God but in his own self-righteousness to where the people most concerned don't get to decide matters for themselves but rather Turner gets to decide what they need to do.

Wonder again why Turner is despised and has been fired for cause again and again?

Anonymous said...

Steve Holmes: Rowan Ford was raped and killed and Katie Heilig died of a sudden illness. That must not be tragic enough compared to a tornado? Nine and Ten year old kids had to learn about what rape and murder was. The point is: it is the right thing to do is honor the memory of a lost classmate. Joplin is Joplin and East Newton is East Newton. I guess Joplin chose to do things their own way. The Class of 2016 at East Newton chose to do things their own way (BTW, EN has always had an empty chair for students who have passed). Maybe they went over the top somewhat in some people's eyes...but I can tell you that it was from the heart. They were all touched by the loss of these two young ladies. They chose to express that in their graduation.

Anonymous said...

Class. Some people have it and some don't.

Steve Holmes said...

Yes, honor the memory of a lost "classmate." Joplin has a tradition of doing that with empty chairs. The eighth-grader in question never attended JHS. If I understand right, he was already honored with an empty chair at his class's East graduation. Should an empty chair be set out for him in four years at MSSU's 2020 graduation? I respect what the students decide, at JHS or EN. It's their day. Not mine. Not yours. What some see as a lack of compassion in Joplin, I see as a desire to protect students from yet another damn reminder of 2011 on a day that's gonna have 'em up the wazoo. Let's just hope there are no storms that day.

Anonymous said...

You failed to mention that Zach's mom not only requested a chair, she also wanted a cap and gown draped over the chair, and for his name to be mentioned in the order that it would have been mentioned if he was actually graduating (along with the other students)! To me that's just crazy. This was all about Tammy, IMO.

Anonymous said...

I would agree Steve Holmes, IF the JHS district didn't wait over a week to host graduation, so they could grab the spotlight one more time to drag up the tornado on the anniversary. If these kids have been through enough and didn't need another damn reminder of 2011, why give their special day a dark cloud by having the graduation ceremony on a day that took the lives of so many 5 years ago???
Simple respect is all a chair shows. It won't bring back the lost lives, but it shows compassion to those who remember... I am proud of the students who chose to honor their classmates lost in any of the situations.