Oak Hill Academy students and New Hope High School principal Matt Smith display a banner signed by over 700 New Hope students, teachers and staff. Photo by: Courtesy photo
August 12, 2017 10:07:47 PM
Cathy Davis is in her 30th year in education and her third year as headmaster at Oak Hill Academy in West Point, but she has never had a first day of school like Monday's.
Missing was the energy and excitement that the first day typically brings. In its place, a cloud of grief hung over the school as counselors, pastors and parents tried to help students come to terms with Saturday's drowning death of Thomas Lee Bales, who would have been among 25 students who started their junior year Monday.
"There have been times during my career when a student has died during the course of the year," Davis said. "But this is the first time I've ever started the year this way. You think about the seniors and what they are feeling, the anticipation of starting their senior year and the excitement that goes with it. It wasn't like that Monday. It wasn't like any first day I've ever experienced."
On that same Monday, about 30 miles away, New Hope High School Principal Matt Smith welcomed his roughly 800 students back to campus and while the mood was more what you expect for a first day of school, Smith's thoughts were with the Bales family and the students at Oak Hill.
The Bales family lives in Aberdeen, where Smith had taught school earlier in his career. Both Smith and his wife know the family.
"When I came to school Monday, I just felt like I had to do something," Smith said. "I asked our librarian to put together something the students could sign."
The banner hung in the school lunch room through Thursday morning. That afternoon, Smith arrived on the Oak Hill Academy campus unannounced with the banner, signed by more than 700 students, teachers and staff, rolled up under his arm.
"I just happened to be walking into the main office when he came in," Davis said. "He asked if I was Dr. Davis and I said, 'Yes.' He showed me the banner and told me his school had had an incident like this last year and he wanted us to know that everyone at New Hope was thinking of us.
"I thought it was very special. We went down the hall to one of the classes where some of the students in his grade were and pulled them out and showed them the banner."
"You could tell they were touched by it," Smith said. "It was pretty emotional for me, too."
For Smith the tragedy brought back memories from October, when three New Hope students and a former New Hope student were badly injured in a car crash. Although all four survived, the crash took a toll on the students.
"Among the things I remember is that all of the area schools really rallied around us," Smith said. "Something like this is not an easy thing for high school kids to deal with. That show of support really helped our school, I think. It makes you feel like you're not alone."
Just as it was with New Hope, other schools have rallied around Oak Hill Academy.
Starkville Academy sent flowers and a cross. Jackson Prep and Carroll Academy sent flowers, as did First Baptist Church in West Point. Teachers and staff at West Point High School wore red (the school's primary color) in a show of support. Hundreds of text messages, Facebook messages and phone calls have poured in to the school, Davis said.
Davis said the students are still dealing with the loss of Bales, a affable, easy-going 16-year-old athlete.
"Monday was a tough day," she said. "It was a little better Tuesday and Wednesday it was a little better. You felt like the students were getting into the normal routine of school. But Thursday was tough. The visitation was Thursday. And, of course, (Friday) was hard on them because it was the day of the funeral."
The banner has been placed on a wall in the main hallway at the school and will hang there indefinitely.
"While we are mourning the loss of this wonderful young man, we are touched that so many schools and individuals recognized the pain that his family, our students and faculty are experiencing," Davis said in a statement released by the school Friday morning. "As headmaster, I am extremely humbled and encouraged by such an outpouring of love, and on behalf of the entire Oak Hill family, I sincerely thank you."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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