February 4, 2020

SULLIVAN BAKER | Visit Your Old High School, Because Nothing is Forever

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As we slowly descended the winding road from campus to the shore of Cayuga Lake, whose nighttime calm I hoped would give my friend at least some comfort in her grief, she tightly clutched a high school basketball shirt emblazoned “TARTANS” in block print.  Though she’d confessed she used to feel embarrassed wearing the shirt around campus, she resolved to don it proudly the next day; what once had seemed like a distant tragedy had suddenly forced its way into her life.

My friend had just learned that a 13-year-old member of her K-12 school’s girl’s basketball team, which she had once captained, had lost her life in the helicopter crash that had also claimed the lives of Kobe Bryant and seven other people. My friend had never met the girl who passed, but she felt the loss deeply. The community was small, and my friend saw herself in the young player. Sure, my friend joked, she hadn’t been good enough to fly around with Kobe, but she had shared a court, she’d shared a coach, and she’d shared a will to to sacrifice for the team she loved.

At first, I struggled with what to say to her. I’m great at putting my foot in my mouth, even when the stakes are low, and I knew that I could worsen my friend’s grief if I said something stupid. But as she described her school and its closely-knit basketball community, I realized that I did know how to respond.

Her institution sounded a lot like mine, which had also recently suffered a tragic loss.

A few days earlier, Colleen Sieberg, a beloved music teacher who had been a fixture of my K-12 school for 40 years, passed away suddenly — leaving a gaping hole in the fabric of the community. She was demanding, especially for a music teacher, and I vividly remember my frustration when she’d chastise me for talking in class, messing with instruments when I wasn’t supposed to or generally causing trouble. But she had mastered the art of keeping elementary school children in line, and my family — especially my grandfather who seemed to think she was a wizard — was consistently wowed by her ability to turn a group of rowdy brats into a cohesive chorus or orchestra that actually sounded pretty good.

But after sixth grade, the last year that I took a class from her, the sternness of her classroom persona faded, leaving only her warmth and kindness. In the years since, she never failed to greet me with a smile. She always expressed a genuine interest in my life, and she was one of the few teachers you could joke with —  she especially enjoyed needling me for the lackadaisical attitude I used to have toward her class.

Your school certainly had a Mrs. Sieberg: a teacher who was both a symbol of the school and an embodiment of its ideals. These figures, as Mrs. Sieberg did, probably seem like they’ll always remain in their classrooms, waiting for you to drop back in on some college break. And the younger kids following in your footsteps seem like they’ll follow an unbroken trajectory similar to yours — especially if you, as I do, hail from a privileged middle or upper-middle class community.

Our twin losses of 2020 shattered this illusion and led me to realize I’ve taken the school that shaped me for granted. While I remain close with my best high school friends, whose siblings still attend with my younger brother, I haven’t gone out of my way to reconnect with the community. I’ve only stopped by occasionally, pushing aside the reality that the teachers who prepared me to succeed at Cornell and in the wider world won’t be around for a drop in visit forever.

I’ve resolved to do better, and so should you. Next time you’re visiting home, stop into your high school, especially if you haven’t been back in a while. Reconnect with your old teachers and let them know all you’ve accomplished with the foundation they helped you build. Show up to one of your former team’s games. Cheer harder than you used to.

And follow my friend’s example. She showed how a community member should help her community pull together after a shocking loss. She supported other former teammates as they sought comfort amid their grief, she posted a message of empathy with the basketball community and the deceased girl’s family and she wore her school colors proudly. She understood that these simple acts were all she could offer, even though she knew they weren’t extraordinary. But there’s no doubt that they meant a great deal to the many others who were struggling with the loss of her teammate. My friend felt their pain, she cared deeply for them and she stood with them.

John Sullivan Baker is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at jsullivanbaker@cornellsun.com. Regards to Davy runs every other Wednesday this semester.