Friday, April 23, 2010
A Tragic Loss
I usually skate over the sad, gloomy or depressing on this blog. In this instance, however, I feel compelled to make an exception. For some reason, I cannot shake out the sad in me without commemorating a person who should not have been taken so early. About a week ago, a former teaching colleague of mine turned principal was found slain in his DC home. We were both teachers when we worked together at a middle school about a decade ago. His name is Brian Betts and I'm sure by this time, you've read some of the articles or have heard about his untimely death on the news.
While we did walk the same halls for two years, work the same outdoor education groups together, and attend the same pep rallies as fellow teachers, we were not very good friends. To be telling, in fact, I was completely intimidated by his larger than life personality and usually ran the other way or lowered my eyes when bumping into him in the office or anywhere else. In fact, when I first started at the middle school, I thought he was actually the assistant principal and not the gym teacher. He had a very authoritative style that commanded respect. I liked him very much but as a first year teacher at a really large middle school I felt like the geek who somehow landed the best job around and hadn't a clue what to do next. Just being in the same room as Brian made me feel like a huge fake because he was so excellent at what he did. I (stupidly) worried he'd sense my weakness and dislike me for it. He was the kind of person who was a teacher with every pore of his body. The kids all believed he slept on the roof of the school because there was never a time when he couldn't be found on school grounds.
The students revered Brian. Our principal adored him. The other teachers all seemed equally enamored and it seemed I was the only person in the building who didn't high five him while passing him by the lockers. He respected my social awkwardness and left me alone which is saying a lot because he was known to pick on those he loved and those he didn't.
I'm telling you this because the gym teacher Brian I once knew went on to become a principal for a DC school. He was hand picked for the position to turn around an inner city school that was failing. If anyone could do it, Brian could. And he did. From all the reports I've read, he not only earned the respect of Shaw's student population but he was also well loved by the parents. This should speak volumes. I don't know many parents who would sing a new principal's praises after the first or second year of being on the job, no matter what the test scores showed. Most principals take the heat for many years before they prove themselves worthy of respect. Brian got it, and lots of it, his very first year.
I'm not pretending my grief is wholly personal, Brian and I never spoke again after I left that middle school in 2002. My grief is public. Simply put, he was doing great things with his God given talents by making a difference where a difference really counts: children, their self-esteem and their education. Mr. Brian Betts should still be here. His death was utterly senseless and completely horrific. It should never have happened to a man like him and I'm having a hard time making peace with it all. His funeral was held Wednesday night. I did not attend. I cannot make peace with the fact that this generous and gifted person is no longer here. His life was taken from him just when he was hitting his groove and living the life for which he seemed destined.
There were six busloads of students, parents, and teachers who drove to Mannasses, Virginia from DC to pay their last respects to their principal, their leader, their friend. Six busloads of people hurting, crying, and clutching their chests because the pain of losing him runs so deeply for them. He was their shining star, their hope and their reason for proving themselves better than many thought they could be. Brian Betts mattered and it is more than just sad that he is gone before his time. It is devastating.
His spirit will live on in those who knew him. His life will no doubt be remembered with reverence and respect. His specific heart and unparalleled devotion to his role as mentor, however, will be not be replaced anytime soon. And if that day ever comes? I'm betting the farm he taught the kid who will rise to the occasion.