"There is no grief like the grief that does not speak."—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Friends of late Havre de Grace High School junior Mike Sawyer have been finding ways to pay tribute to him over the past two weeks, despite obstacles that have stood in their way.
If you've been following here on Patch, you've likely already seen the way in which the community banned together in order to send Sawyer's girlfriend, Hope Ford, to his memorial service in Little Rock, AK. His friends gathered, all donning tie-dye, at the swimming hole close to where he drowned. Most recently, his friends who were unable to travel to his memorial service, released balloons with messages to Sawyer, during the time of his memorial service, as their final goodbye.
Prior to graduation and following Sawyer's death, his girlfriend Ford had planned to wear a written message for Sawyer on her cap. She wanted it to say, "This is for you"—a special tribute to her high school sweetheart, who had encouraged her to participate in her graduation ceremony.
But Ford's tribute was quickly squashed by school officials who told Patch students were prohibited from making personal displays at the school's graduation ceremony. It seems the only support the school's administration offered Sawyer's friends and classmates was a message read to students by homeroom teachers, informing them that grief counseling was available to them.
There were no memorial services during school hours or even on school property. The balloons were released at the old Harris Stadium Saturday—only after the group was rebuffed when requesting the use of the new Harris Stadium. Other than that, it seemed as though Havre de Grace's administration was more concerned about an uninterrupted graduation ceremony and end-of-school-year.
In recent years, students have been permitted to wear tributes on their caps to their late classmates. Patch editor Sean Welsh was among Jovan Brooks' 2001 graduating class, and was one of many who wore a tribute message to his friend, who died in a car accident in the days prior to graduation.
Did it interrupt the ceremony? Welsh says no.
If he could do it all over again, would he? When I called him to ask, he said, "absolutely."
Unfortunately it's not uncommon for a high school class to lose a student, as I've witnessed it in Harford County several times.
But it's disconcerting that school policies may encourage students to supress their feelings or hinder the grieving process in any way.
Young people often need to express themselves in order to get through tragic times, such as the loss of someone close to them.
While I understand it's important that tradition be followed in school graduation ceremonies, I think it's equally important that students be allowed to express themselves and how they feel about hardships they may be facing, as long as those expressions are not harmful to others.
Perhaps the school system could implement a policy allowing students to wear a message on the tops of their mortarboard caps as long as the message isn't profane? Administrators could then check the messages before students were allowed into the ceremony.
Or maybe the school system could create a "memorial program" for friends and classmates of a student who dies, allowing them the opportunity to speak and bring flowers, like any other tribute service. It could be held after school hours so it wouldn't disrupt the school day.
What about allowing seniors to wear tribute t-shirts beneath their gowns? That way they could all take off their gowns following the ceremony and honor their lost friend.
It's unfortunate, but likely, that in my lifetime another local high school student will be lost before graduation.
And before that happens, I truly hope our school system has a more sensitive process in place for allowing students to mourn and pay tribute to lost classmates.
I hope I'm correct when I say we are teaching young people more than just math and science.
If we are successful, we're also teaching them life skills and encouraging healthy feelings such as empathy.