Weekly feature by: Ryan McDonald
Between the years 2007 and 2014, the following students and recent alumni of the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District, located in rural north-central Massachusetts, died: Jordyn Kalagher, 16, Dave Plamondon, 20, Teddy Hietala, 22, Ryan Francis, 18, Tom White, 21, Rachel Lee, 10, and Rachael LaJoie, 18.
December 11th, 2007, the day Jordyn Kalagher died, I was a freshman at Oakmont Regional High School, aware that Jordyn was a popular field hockey player and in honors level courses. The only image I had of her was from once in a hallway, vacant except the two of us, she walked by and smiled at me, rather than us keeping our heads down and ignoring each other’s presence. She had brown hair, bright eyes, and a soft squirrelly face cherry-topped with a round nose.
During morning announcements, Principal Uminski, in his first year in the position, broadcasted over the intercom that she had passed away. Rumor had already confirmed this. He brought in mourning specialists and offered their services. Teachers shared their support and sadness. Most replaced lectures with silent worksheets. On a trip to the bathroom, I saw clusters of juniors and seniors walking slowly with no destination, holding hands, and weeping. On the way back, I noticed a lone freshman in black gothic apparel sitting with her back against the concrete hallway wall sobbing.
When I got on the bus home, my best friend Austin stood up and let me have the window seat, stained by road salt, as were the floor, my shoes, coat, and backpack.
I sighed. The students filling into the bus cast their eyes downwards. “Today…” I said to Austin and searched for an appropriate word, “sucked.”
“I just feel… sad,” Austin said. He didn’t know her too.
The bus took a right out of the school driveway onto South Ashburnham Road towards Westminster where a student named Dan Farrell died in 2001 after hitting a patch of ice. The bus took another right down Oakmont Avenue, lined on both sides by forest. At the end of the road, the bus approached a pass under a small railroad bridge known as “the graffiti bridge.”
I gazed at the right side of the bridge, which was unofficially sanctioned for sports teams to publicize games and the name of their opponent, often garnished with phrases like “Go Oakmont!” With winter sports just starting, the last game announcement had faded and been obscured by rogue spray-painters, who usually used the other side of the bridge for personal expression. When Dan Farrell passed away, I was eight and vaguely remember his name being on the bridge.
December 4th, 2007, Jordyn Kalagher worked a shift afterschool at Market Basket in Ringe, New Hampshire. For the drive to Ringe, wintery mix on the road had melted under the sunlight and been treated. A few hours later driving home, she lost control of her car on black ice, formed from what had melted when the temperature dropped back below freezing, and slid into a tree.
Principal Uminski’s intercom updates of her condition began the following morning. It was the first time I had ever heard her first and last name spoken together. Students discussed her odds of living citing more detailed rumors, like how the driver’s side of the car “wrapped completely around the tree like a hot dog.”
That Friday, following hurried logistical announcements, the principal stated the address of the hospital and Jordyn’s room number. The shoulders of classmates sitting in front of me lowered. All day, students measured (or ignored completely) their acquaintanceship with Jordyn while discussing visiting or sending flowers. Rumor circulated that her closest friends were already there. Many recalculated her odds of living and penciled in her return.
During the final bell announcements, Principal Uminski preempted the latest update with an apology. He informed us that there was a mistake and that Jordyn was not in condition to host visitors. He apologized again.
A week and four days after the crash, the student body assembled in the gym for an event advertised as “A Celebration of Jordyn’s Life.” Her family was in the audience. The principal, select teachers, close friends of Jordyn, her sister, and a girl who didn’t seem to have any association, read poems and prayers, made speeches, and cried for the person they, and the entire school, had lost.
Sometime soon after, a new display appeared on the graffiti bridge. In between a big red heart and a yellow lightning bolt (as Jordyn loved Harry Potter), her friends wrote four lines in capital letters over a white background. In a dense red, “We hope you dance,” pinned the top. Below, “We love you,” pronounced in bolded blue. In the third line, her name spanned the length of the three words above. The bottom, “Stay strong,” in bright yellow broke the symmetry by starting in between the “J” and the “O” and ending at the “N.”
The first to paint over Jordyn was a student whose mother died a few months after. Come next autumn my sophomore year, Jordyn was incorporated into the field hockey team’s graffiti as well as other teams like girl’s varsity soccer who wrote their phrase “Dubs up!” and beside it, “JKal #12,” her field hockey number. As Jordyn’s class approached graduation, her friends painted the concrete wall of a newly constructed bridge over a creek thirty feet from the school’s driveway. It read in green letters, “Smile for JKal,” over a yellow background. At the end of my senior year in 2011, the other side of the bridge read in blue letters over white, “Laugh for Teddy,” an alumnus four years out that no one still in high school knew.
Seven days before Teddy died, Dave Plamondon, a high school friend of my brother, died when a distracted student-bus driver at UConn hit him. I was close with his sister in middle school and early high school. My brother was good friends with him, close enough that Dave’s mother was his sponsor for Confirmation at church. Only knowing him through his sister and my brother, I cried quite a lot at his funeral just across the aisle from a row of his best friends. I was only there at the funeral on behalf of my brother, who was studying abroad in Argentina. Dave’s friends painted on the bridge a teddy bear with angel wings, shading its edges green, asleep on a cloud containing his initials and the dates spanning his life. Beneath the cloud, they wrote, “To be loved in the hearts we leave behind is to live.”
When Ryan Francis, one of my best friends in elementary school, committed suicide the November after our class graduated, his friends sloganned in big blue letters, “Bring da ruckus for Ryan.”
News of his death reached me now at UMass Amherst because I had received texts from close friends who read RIP Ryan Facebook posts and thought it was me who died. I met up for lunch with a good friend and the only classmate from Oakmont at UMass named Ben. He was much closer to Ryan in high school than I was; he was also very close with Dave. Tears glossed his eyes as he said, “This is getting really old.”
When Tom White, an older kid always friendly towards me, died in a car accident, I met up with Ben again. He was a close friend of Tom. This time with heavy eyes, he shook his head and said, “Young people die. That’s just how it is.” The bridge was painted.
When a ten year old from Ashburnham died after a battle with cancer, sympathetic high schoolers painted on the bridge, “Remember Rachel Lee.” Most high schoolers never knew who she was to begin with.
At my little sister’s graduation in 2014, Principal Uminski spoke of Rachael LaJoie, a senior who had died just a month before. She had worked hard to complete her degree even through her pregnancy with her child, Brooke. He asked for a moment of silence. All across the football field, the 149 graduates in green and white robes tilted their heads and caps downwards. I couldn’t see their faces. It seemed that every grade at Oakmont had to lose at least one along the way.
In a recent phone call with Principal Uminski, we talked about the string of deaths he had seen as principal. He said, “In tragedy, it brings out the best in this community, unfortunately, but it does.” He remembers the exact spot of driving down Route 12 from Fitchburg to Ashburnham where he got a phone call and learned Jordyn had passed away. As he tries to learn from the last tragedy as a professional dealing with young people, he only knows a mistake has been made after they happen. Like when Rachael died, her small group of friends began to lash out at mourning kids who hadn’t ever spoken to Rachael. The administration had to explain to her friends the complications of community and individual mourning. When a student dies, he encourages that student’s friends to contact the Westminster Police Department before they paint the graffiti bridge. The police then send an officer to watch traffic and make sure no one gets hurt while the teenagers paint and memorialize the friend they lost.
He thanked everyone. The class of 2014 lifted their heads. I could see my sister in the front row. They graduated. I drove home taking the road that was my old bus route and saw a new layer of paint: “The Angel that Brooke Deserves.”
Here, kids die and kids compensate for their smallness.