A day in a death

02 November 2006


7 a.m. The headteacher of the comprehensive where I am chairman of governors rings with the tragic news that Paul, head of lower school, has died suddenly overnight. I rush around, ticking off urgent parish jobs, and then cycle into school, collecting my thoughts as I ride.

8.30 a.m. Meet with the head, deputy, and head of music. The school is in the middle of nightly performances of Grease, which we decide to continue, provided the cast feel up to it. Paul was also head of drama, and producer of the show.

8.40 a.m. The head and I break the news at the daily staff briefing. Many weep, unashamedly. Paul was a teacher of intellectual stature, a firm but fair disciplinarian, whom I admired greatly. My experience, though, is that people with such qualities aren’t deeply loved. How wrong could I be.

8.50 a.m. The head and I break the news to a hastily convened upper school assembly. I end with Cardinal Newman’s prayer, “O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life”, which I’ve prayed with every mourning family I’ve ever encountered. Many children from this 600-strong family are crying — the bruisers, the bullies, those who look as if nothing could move them, are moved this morning.

9.00 a.m. We break the news to lower-school assembly. For decades, Paul managed the transition from primary to secondary school like a caring father. I talk about another transition, from life on earth to life with God, and another loving Father.

Grief and silence

9.10 a.m. We meet with the cast of Grease, distraught and seemingly inconsolable. This isn’t the odd tear-in-the-eye stuff, but body-wracking sobs. The cast, though, is unequivocal: they want to continue with the performance as a tribute to Paul.

10.10 a.m. Most of the cast comes together again for Year 11 drama, which the deputy head, another teacher, and I cover. Those who seem most distraught I take out to walk around the playing field with me. The pupils talk openly. Many are in the category “disaffected by school”, yet voice their gratitude to Paul for keeping them on board, realising that such care is costly; even, perhaps, unto death.

11.10 a.m. At break, I mingle with staff taking the strain of being strong for the children. I sense the teachers’ own grief is complex, including being surprised by how much Paul was loved by his pupils; and, by implication, how much they are loved.

11.30 a.m. I talk to the head, who was Paul’s neighbour and close friend. We are interrupted by a heartless phone call from County Hall, asking if we want to stop Paul’s pay immediately, or will pay him to the end of the month.

Then another call comes from Paul’s widow, who asks if I can take his funeral. I agree to preach, but suggest that the rest of the service is taken by a marvellous retired bishop, who is managing Paul’s parish during an interregnum.

12.30 p.m. Lunchtime. The quietest one I have known in my eight years with the school. The head and I man the reception desk, while dictating a letter to be sent to parents and governors.

2.30 p.m. Return to school after a lunch break. Talk with the administration staff, and then spend a long time in the empty hall with the head, saying very little.

The show goes on

3.40 p.m. School ends. I walk through the empty classrooms. Most of the women teachers have gone home. Several men remain at their desks, looking busy, but happy to talk.

“Are you going to Grease, then?” I ask the head of history.

“Well, it is the centre of Western civilization; so I feel I really ought to go one day,” he muses. It takes a minute for the penny to drop.

“No, I mean the musical, not the country,” I reply, and we both laugh. The first laugh of the day.

7 p.m. The head explains to the audience that the show goes on as a tribute to Paul; I then introduce a minute’s silence committing Paul to God’s gracious mercy; we then launch into Grease. The production has a breathtaking energy and talent worthy of a professional theatre company. They certainly do Paul proud.

9 p.m. To a standing ovation, the head announces that the new theatre suite will be named after Paul.

Commended to God

A WEEK LATER, on Maundy Thursday, Paul was buried in the hilltop cemetery at Thornton le Dale. At his funeral, Jack, a 15-year-old pupil, gave the performance of his life as he paid his teacher his final tribute. Heather, Paul’s colleague, who had been far from well herself, was similarly stunning.

We marked well a man whose cherishing of all God’s children had been costly, and whose very death made everyone realise how much they, too, were loved. It formed a fitting precursor for Good Friday.

The Revd David Wilbourne is Vicar of Helmsley and chairman of governors of Ryedale Perfoming Arts Comprehensive School.

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