A somber last day of school in Juneau

Posted: Sunday, June 07, 2009

It was no ordinary, lighthearted last day of school at Juneau-Douglas High School. The death of a senior Friday morning was a harsh end to a hard school year.

Many staff at Juneau-Douglas High School already knew when they came in Friday that Taylor White, 18 and freshly graduated, had died in a car accident that morning, and that two other seniors had been injured. Others found out at an emotional early-morning staff meeting. Many people knew White or the injured kids, or knew a parent or sibling.

Ordinarily, many students consider the last day of school to be optional. That was true Friday, and the seniors were already gone. But some seniors came back to school because of the accident, either for counseling or just to run into a familiar face, according to one counselor.

"We had a lot of people die this year," noted sophomore Cameron Cunningham.

The context made it harder, several people said. December marked the death of Aidan Neary, a freshman. He was killed accidentally by a friend playing with a gun.

"I can't tell you how much that affected the freshmen. Its ripple effects were felt all year. To end on a tragedy is rough," said science teacher John Smith, who teaches mostly freshmen.

"And then," he said, "you have kids who have no connection to it whatsoever, and they're just looking for a normal last day of school."

That included Sierra Tagaban, a freshman who heard about White's death in the school announcement in second period. The class went silent, she said, and they flipped through their yearbooks to see who he was.

"Just to think, a death after graduation," she said. "You're supposed to be making plans for college. It's the apex of your youth."

For staff, this is happening amid end-of-year transitions at JDHS. Some teachers recently learned they need to move their classrooms. The principal just announced her retirement, and a new district superintendent is taking over soon. They have training to do, boxes to move, books to organize - banal details that cannot be ignored, even after a tragedy.

Friday afternoon, Smith was moving crates of test tubes. Ordinarily, he considers the last day of school an important one scholastically. He does lots of explosions and a best-of-science-class show, hoping to leave them excited about learning.

This time was different. A girl came in crying, and he simply took the book she turned in.

"It wasn't the same kind of teaching. At the drop of a hat, people would begin crying and run out of the room, and you just had to roll with it," Smith said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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