The last eight days have been some of the most emotionally draining on my small town of Carterville. We lost not one, but two beloved kindergarten teachers within days of each other.
Mrs. Lynn Byrnes, 72, died September 29. She experienced complications after a surgery. Mrs. Byrnes fought and appeared at times to be recovering. But sadly, she did not recover and we lost her.
My children started school after Mrs. Byrnes retired in 2005. But even though she was retired, she stayed active in the community. In fact, she substituted when one of my son’s started kindergarten and his teacher was out on medical leave. Mrs. Byrnes also subbed at the Pre K program that my daughter attended.
I had the pleasure of meeting her on several occasions, even doing a “Class Act” story on her at the time of her retirement. Mrs. Byrnes was a very patriotic lady. She and her students would make flags in honor of the men and women who serve our country. The class would mail the flag to different places each year. The White House, the war zone, television studios. Lots of people got a little piece of that love and respect from our community.
My wife also got to know Mrs. Byrnes after seeing her almost daily when she dropped our daughter off for Pre K. Mrs. Byrnes death touched all of us Hunspergers. So it was only natural that we would attend her visitation at the former high school. Hundreds of people came out to pay their respects.
That service was Monday evening. About 45 minutes before we headed to the old high school (4:15 p.m.), I noticed an ambulance came zipping up the road between our house and the elementary school. Concerned, I watched as a school employee rushed out the side of the building to meet the paramedics who unloaded a gurney and ran up the sidewalk.
I wondered to my neighbor what was going on, but never imagined the reality of what was occurring. In fact, the ambulance seemed to be there for a long time, I never saw them come out of the school. But I did hear the ambulance race away again, probably 20 minutes after it first arrived. My assumption was either a student (latch key) or a teacher had a non life threatening injury of some kind.
We went to Mrs. Byrnes service and then to my oldest son’s fall band concert. After a tearful time at the service, it was nice to laugh and clap and watch some talented young musicians. The happiness did not last.
My wife received a call from the school district’s alert now system that kindergarten teacher Linda Walker was in the hospital in critical condition. The message explained that counselors would be at school Tuesday morning to help students.
My first thought was that Ms. Walker had passed away. Why else would they have counselors at school? Then I got on Facebook, and everyone in this small town had posted the same question, “What is going on with Ms. Walker?” And no one knew. Finally around 9:30 that evening we had gotten word that they were preparing to harvest Ms. Walker’s organs. My wife and I were both devastated by this news.
Again, none of my children had Ms. Walker, but she had a huge impact on everyone she met. In fact, just that afternoon, Ms. Walker had given my daughter a high-five because she held the door open for a little boy. My daughter was beaming with pride by this. She loved Ms. Walker even though she wasn’t in her class.
Explaining to her that Ms. Walker had died wasn’t easy. She covered her ears and told my wife to stop talking. This broke our hearts. As the day wore on Tuesday, the details of Ms. Walker’s death became public. I had heard a rumor early that morning that she had committed suicide, but I chose not to believe it. But the grim reality set in, Ms. Walker had taken her own life.
My wife and I decided to be up front and honest with our kids. They came home from school and had questions and we answered them truthfully. Our reasoning is we’d rather set the record straight with them, than have them picking up misinformation from classmates and other students.
We explained to them that if they’re ever feeling depressed and need someone to talk to, we are here for them. If they’re not comfortable with that, there are professionals at school that can help.
After attending the memorial Friday evening, I feel a sense of comfort. I’ve spent several days this week crying, trying to understand why both of these tragic events had to happen. I’m glad the pastor talked openly about what happened. Suicide is hard to understand. It leaves loved ones and friends searching for answers and asking why. And while we’ll never know why, I won’t judge her for what she did either.
At the memorial service Ms. Walker’s colleagues read a few of the hundreds of handwritten cards hanging in the church lobby. Some were short and sweet. Others expressed sorrow with several sentences. But all of them talked about how much Ms. Walker was loved. I hope that she sees that now.
Depression probably prevented her from seeing that. But her students, friends, family, and coworkers all loved her. She had such a warm smile and kind words every time I ever talked with her. My heart goes out to her family, students, friends, and colleagues. I know this is not going to be easy. But this community has rallied, and for the most part, the best in people has truly shined through this tragedy.
In closing, I will (as will all of us in Carterville) miss Mrs. Byrnes and Ms. Walker. Both of these women touched thousands of lives through the years. And their legacy will continue through memorial scholarships and in Ms. Walker’s case, organ donation.
God bless and Rest in Peace.