Saturday was a day of extremes.
A few days before, the principals of both campuses gathered the staff together for briefings and told us that a year 12 student had died. When he said the name, I gasped. I knew him. I taught him and his older brother, both in year 8 English.
English teachers get to know our kids pretty well. We teach them for 5 periods a week and we often talk about things that happen in their lives and well… just life in general. When we’re reading and discussing texts that talk about issues and themes, it’s inevitable.
So yeah… that day was a hard one. I teach 3 classes of year 8s, and that day I looked at them all, so funny and full of life, happy to be sitting and being with their friends, exactly as he used to be when I knew him. When you’re taught for as many years as I have, after a while you forget a lot of the names of kids you’ve taught. Not surprising – every year I’d teach 5 X 28 kids. That’s = 140 kids. I taught for 24 years as a full-time teacher all up, which = 3,360 kids. That isn’t counting the work I’m doing now.
But there are always some that stay with you. These brothers, (let’s call them Jacob and Braden), were like that.
When I saw that the funeral was going to be literally 10 minutes drive from me, I decided that I wanted to go. Well, maybe “wanted” is the wrong word, but you know what I mean.
On the morning of the funeral, I discovered that I wear hardly any black – and I live in Melbourne! I put together an outfit that, while only having a black top, was sombre enough for a funeral. There would have been at least 60 kids from year 12 there, the boys all in suits that they would have light-heartedly bought for their Formal, only a few weeks past. The chapel was packed, with most of the kids having to stand at the sides.
There were teachers too, most of them year 12 teachers, with our past and present principals there as well. They kept an eye on the kids, offering support and tissues where needed.
Then there was the family. His mother, as you can imagine, was brokenhearted. There didn’t appear to be a father in the picture and she had lost half of her family. His older brother, Jacob, now at uni, was composed and strong. He was looking after his Mum, greeting friends and family and looking after the last-minute things that always crop up. Once we were all seated, he stepped to the front and delivered his brother’s eulogy.
It was the best eulogy I’ve ever heard. I’ve never been prouder of anyone. He shared his love for his little brother, some stories about their relationship and his shock and grief that this has happened out of the blue. Then he said something that I’m sure he’d want me to share.
He’d gone through the plans they’d made to travel together after their exams were finished at the end of this year, and how his brother wanted to live in Japan for a year next year.
“These were not the plans of a man who didn’t want to live. My brother wanted to live. He died from doing the “Choke Challenge” from Tiktok. This was a mistake. My brother wanted to live.”
I gasped in horror, as did many around me. I didn’t even know what the Choke Challenge was, though the name is self-explanatory. I saw a few clips yesterday of kids standing up, choking themselves, and then falling down unconscious to the floor, sometimes hitting walls or furniture as they fall. Kids all over the world are doing it, some are taken to hospital with head injuries and a few are actually dying from it.
What a horribly tragic thing to happen.
We were then invited up to the front to light a candle for Braden. His friends went first, with Jacob standing there next to a couple of photos of his brother, greeting everyone who came up. When I walked up to the front, I discovered that I was attending my first open-coffin funeral. I looked at Braden and sighed. He looked beautiful, as if he was sleeping. His long, thin fingers were covered with rings. It was heartbreaking.
When I reached the head of the line, face to face with Jacob, I pulled my mask down and said, “It’s me!” then gave him a hug and said, “You absolutely did him proud.” I hope he remembers that, because it’s true. I’ll never forget how stong and brave Jacob was. He is a truly impressive young man.
Afterwards, according to their custom, the pallbearers shouldered the coffin and walked all the way to the crematorium, with the mourners all walking behind, escorting Braden on his way. As I walked, I could see the coffin up ahead of me, visible over the heads of those who walked in front of me. I think this will be an image that will stay with me.
After the funeral, I kept driving to Mum and Dad’s. I was taking them to the Comedy Festival to see Jenna’s show, Underwire. They haven’t seen the kids on stage before, so this was their chance to see them in an easily-accessible space.
Talk about the Circle of Life.
Anyone who has young people in your life, don’t be complacent about what they’re viewing on social media. Braden made one decision – one that didn’t seem all that important at the time, I’m sure. Just a harmless bit of fun.
That one small decision is already reverberating across the lives of all who knew him. He was a sweet, funny, beautiful boy.
I’ll leave this post with a passage I read the next day from Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘I Am, I Am, I Am.’ It resonated with me.
“We are, all of us, wandering around in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, unaware of when the axe may fall. As Thomas Hardy writes of Tess Durbeyfield, ‘There was another date… that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among all the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?’ “