Professing Education

 

Professing through Eulogy, Activity, and Memoriam: When Death Strikes a University Learning Community

Darlene Ciuffetelli Parker

Brock University

Death is often regarded as an uncomfortable topic in the regular "course curriculums" of the day. Yet death, like life, is an integral part of our course of life (Dewey, 1938). Avoiding the topic of death in education, especially when it hits us straight on in our own learning communities, is like avoiding the obvious of what we teach our students about how to live educationally in the course of their lives. That is, we seek to have our students study through inquiry. In this manner we live, as Dewey (1938) implies, a life pursued educationally. As a new assistant professor in the academic community, I write this piece to encourage the discussion of what a death means in educational contexts, of what supports there are in learning communities for students, faculty, and family and on what is involved in getting community involved in a university setting. This includes professors' actions in the community as, in the examples that follow, writing a eulogy for a student that has passed, involving students in activities to celebrate a peer, and bringing university and family communities together.

When we lost Caitlin

When we lost Caitlin, a third-year student, to a tragic car accident, it significantly shook up our educational community in the teacher pre-service and undergraduate -graduate departments at the Faculty of Education. I was Caitlin's professor and taught her a curriculum foundation course in the third year of her Concurrent Education Program at Brock University.

Even though I knew Caitlin for a limited time, our foundation class was one where thirty students explored their personal philosophy of education by examining those qualities of teaching that meant most to them - qualities such as integrity, trust, care, respect, authenticity, diversity, and, most of all, relationships in education practices (Ontario College of Teachers Foundations of Professional Practice, 2006). Our class was transformed into a close-knit community as we reflected deeply on our insights into professional and personal teacher knowledge and learning. The effect was powerful, and when the course was completed, students remained connected through their writings in a unique longitudinal project that continues today (Ciuffetelli Parker, 2007a; Ciuffetelli Parker, 2007b). When Caitlin tragically passed away, in the midst of `the course of life', it was obvious that her classmates as well as the larger university community reacted in shock, and it was equally obvious that there was a need for some sort of intervention to support the loss at a university community level.

University support system

As personal messages came through my voice and email from my students, I felt a moral obligation as their professor to support them in a caring, open, honest, and accepting manner, rooted in the integrity and ethical virtues of presence, responsibility, and authenticity (Starratt, 2004). I committed myself to be present in the grieving process, to be responsible to take action in order to provide comfort for my students and our community, and to be authentic in this process as best as I could.

The Chair of the Pre-service Department, knowing a little about the strong community that was forged in the course described earlier, approached me asking if I would attend the funeral in Ottawa on behalf of the university. I gladly obliged. Attending the funeral, meeting Caitlin's parents in person, and speaking personally with a handful of students - who were lucky enough to be able to make the trip - led me to realize that a formal memorial for Caitlin needed to take place back at Brock University for the many peers, professors and the community of learners that could not be present in Ottawa. I felt that these people still needed to be supported in order that they could start to make sense of the tragedy through their lived community. Caitlin's parents were grateful for any celebration that might take place to honour their daughter in the university setting. Our relationship strengthened throughout this deliberation process as I formed ideas for the memorial, ensuring as well that Caitlin's parents were in approval of such plans throughout all stages of the process.

I approached key people. One was the Director of the Concurrent Education Program. The other was the Chaplain of the University. Both agreed to support and commit to a memorial service on behalf of Caitlin. I became the liaison between family, friends, and community members. Meetings were set up to discuss what activities and ideas best shaped a memorial service for Caitlin and were facilitated by the Chaplain. We met together with students, brainstormed unique writing and presentation ideas to honour Caitlin's life, designed invitations for the memorial, suggested musical interludes performed by Caitlin's own peers, and so on. Caitlin's parents received a formal invitation to attend the memorial from the Dean of Education. The Director of Concurrent Education began a process to inquire about a posthumous degree for Caitlin, details of which would be announced at the memorial. I began the process of writing a eulogy, which led me to have much more intimate contact with Caitlin's parents.

Writing the eulogy

When Caitlin died, like everyone else I was in shock. In the fifteen years of being an educator in school systems I had never lost a student before. Immediately, I turned to that with which I felt most comfortable, Caitlin's own writing. Because my students' critical writing pieces were part of a larger research project that began during the course that year, I had their writings as collected data. I re-read all of Caitlin's writings for the course. The pieces affected me profoundly, down to the bones. She had written on topics such as: the meaning of educational life; education as communication and community; and how death matters to education and how it too should be a part of the curriculum particularly when tragedy strikes. Immediately, I knew that I had to incorporate Caitlin's writings into the eulogy and that, more important, the writings would drive the core meaning of her life as her last written expressions. To proceed with such a task as using Caitlin's own words and then contextualizing them for further meaning in a eulogy, I knew I needed to ask permission from her parents. They immediately consented. The consent was made easy, perhaps, because of the close-knit relationship that had already formed. However, my suggestion here to ask consent follows from my ethical duty to care, and the recognition that the eulogy itself is a message both given and received. It mattered that Caitlin's family be informed about the content.

The Memorial

Nel Noddings (2005), in a recent university address, tells us that to know happiness, one must first know what it means to not be happy. Grief, undeniably, is an emotion of great depth of sadness and unhappiness. To come through it, for certain, means that we need to feel the extent of that unhappiness without falling into the abyss of despair. For the university and family community that mourned Caitlin during a memorial on October 3, 2006 at Brock University, this event became a "rite of passage" to both feel the pain in order to feel the happiness of Caitlin's life.

Students volunteered for many activities. Some welcomed the congregation as they walked in, giving out programs and directing them to sign the guest book, view the photographs, and read some of Caitlin's passages which were displayed. Others sat with their own writings in hand, waiting to deliver their last "letter" to Caitlin in an oral presentation during the memorial.

Two students gave of their gift of music. One played the piano as an opening and closing to the celebration. Another played the guitar and sang a harmonic melody that gave further insight into the collegial relations Caitlin had made in our course.

The Chaplain facilitated the memorial, asking key members to approach and speak: the Dean of Education; the Director of the Concurrent Education Program; myself as Caitlin's professor and reader of the eulogy; Caitlin's parents. There was a beautiful over-sized urn of sand placed at the center of the room. As each member spoke, they lit a candle and placed the light in the sand.

Key moments came when students were welcomed to read or say anything they wished to or about Caitlin. Many chose, as in the activities of our course, to write a letter to Caitlin. These were type-set and placed in a memorial book for Caitlin's family to keep.

For me, as a professor who chose to be involved intimately in this process, the greatest moment of honour came when I spoke Caitlin's own words. I wanted to be able to share Caitlin's voice. Ultimately, I wanted to make new meaning of our lives as teachers, students, and learners. Caitlin herself wanted the same. I share here an excerpt of her final words:

I think that, if possible, we should try and view death as a learning experience; I know this is really hard to do while you are in the situation or it is occurring around you, but once there has been time to reflect, we can become better for it…. My words intertwine the beginning and the ending, as they provide for me not only closure, [but] an opening into a new way of being….I now believe, and know, that there exists a flip side to this equation: one which is faith. And I think that is perhaps the best I can ask for from life. (Caitlin McCracken, 2006)

My hope is that this narrative and example of what happens in university communities when tragedy strikes, in any form, can provide some usefulness to the support system that exists and to the potential of all members of the community gathering together to provide aid towards a healing process. Caitlin's parents remain in communication with a university that provided significance to their daughter's life. They have indicated recently that they wish to continue honouring Caitlin in her university community by setting a bursary in her name, to be rewarded to a recipient whose writing, communication, and analysis of ideas excel, as they did with Caitlin. Caitlin McCracken will graduate posthumously with her peers.

 

References

Ciuffetelli Parker, D. (2006a). Related literacy narratives: Pre-service letter writing and collegial practice as an enabler to critical literacy instruction. American Education Research Association, April 2007, Chicago.

Ciuffetelli Parker, D. (2006b). Pre-service teacher literacy narratives: A critical development approach. American Education Research Association, April 2007, Chicago.

Noddings, N. (2005). Happiness and education. Keynote address delivered at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Educaton, October 2005, Toronto.

Ontario College of Teachers. (2006). Foundations of Professional Practice. Toronto, ON: Author.

Starratt, R.J. (2004). Ethical leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.