When you see news trucks in front of a high school, it’s usually not a good sign. This week at my school, the trucks were out in full force. But there was no school shooting, no acts of violence, no arrests, no protests. There was just a lot of quiet mourning in the halls, classrooms and courtyards of Westfield High School.
Nearly eight weeks ago, I became aware that something horrible and potentially tragic had taken place during a procedure in which my boss, Dr. Derrick Nelson, was donating bone marrow cells to try and save the life of a boy in France for whom he was a match. The complication resulted in Nelson being in a coma for seven weeks, and he passed away last weekend. Nelson was the principal of Westfield High, a proud Army Reservist, a father, fiancé, son, friend, Delaware State alum, Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother, and Plainfield, NJ, native and resident.
Students and staff have known for weeks that Dr. Nelson was sick, although the specific details were not released to most in order to afford the family the privacy it needed. News of Nelson’s death brought immediate grief, and that grieving will continue for some time. When leaders and selfless givers depart from this world, we are left with holes that don’t fill themselves easily.
In our school’s journalism program, we discuss and debate the definition of news – what makes a newsworthy story? Is it what the public needs to know, or what it wants to know? Is it informative news? Sensationalism? Partisan politics? Internet-fueled images and videos? While those questions are at the heart of today’s journalism instruction, there are also times when news decisions make themselves, and reporters know instinctively that a story needs to be told.
That was the case with the death of Derrick Nelson. When the news trucks showed up, they were there for good reason. This man’s story was well worth telling, and his life’s work was well worth sharing. This past week, individuals from throughout the region, country and world have learned about Derrick Nelson. That is a very good thing. There is tragedy, of course, at the heart of why they learned. But to know this man’s story and his unwavering commitment to service is to know something more about the better angels of our nature.
Dr. Nelson hired me out of the classroom less than a year ago, and I am an assistant principal because, quite simply, he and our superintendent chose me. He asked me, during our midyear review, how I thought he was doing in supporting me. I told him that he was in many ways the perfect boss, because he set clear standards and also gave me the freedom to try my own methods of leadership and learn from them. The Friday before his procedure, he allowed me to give two presentations at a staff in-service day, one on media literacy and the other on social and emotional learning. Before we parted ways for the weekend, he told me who he had chosen for our school’s “Unsung Hero” award, to be presented at a Union County event. A few weeks later, I stood in for him in giving this award to one of our students.
It was a busy Friday when we parted ways, and as usual the two of us were in the building later than we should have been, getting a bit more work done before leaving. From the moment I learned of his illness, there was a heavy weight associated with carrying a combination of grief, worry, and a desire to support colleagues and students. I’ve done what all of my fellow school leaders have done – worked, worked, then worked some more. I’ve paid attention to the pulse of the building and done what was asked of me as the junior administrator on staff. I would wake up in the night thinking of my mentor and friend, I’d find myself saying his name out loud, and I’d drive up to the hospital to visit. I’d confide in my wife, pastor and fellow assistant principals, but otherwise I just kept at the work, as I know my boss would have wanted.
During the week ahead, we will attend the viewing and funeral for our principal. Our students and staff have a week off, and when they return we will continue talking about how we’re doing, how we can support one another, and how we can help his family. The news trucks will be long gone by then, and we’ll have lots to do: state testing makeups, AP exam preparation, end-of-year conferences, class scheduling, final budget orders, and student attendance conferences. More will be added to that list as well; we’ll be busy, as we always are.
Our school will continue to function, because it has to. Our staff will do its work with a heightened awareness of what our boss would have asked of us. And we will, somehow, keep on going. We will find our way through staff meetings, awards night, prom and graduation without him there, and we will carry his spirit with us in all the ways we can.
They say that we are the authors of our own life stories, and I agree with this. But sometimes, we are also contributors to others’ life stories. Our own decisions, words, personality or actions slip inside the pages of another’s narrative, and that person’s life is never the same. That’s what has happened this week in Westfield, NJ. I know that Derrick Nelson’s story is now a part of mine, and I will carry that with me always. The students and staff of Westfield High are saying the same. And, thanks to some smart news decisions, so are many others, who have paid attention to his inspiring story and allowed it to resonate.