That Touchy Feely Feeling
The music of the cell phone ring jarred him from his sleep.
"Hello?" Max mumbled after stabbing through the dark to find the cell on the bedside table.
"Mr. Contrill?" It was a nervous, spent voice on the other end of the phone.
"Yes?" Max glanced at the bedside table radio clock which read 12:48 a.m.
"It's Tim Hinkley, Sir."
Hinkley was the Senior Class President at Mt. Griffin High School. Max was this year's Class Advisor.
"What's going on, Tim?" Max asked, sitting up in the bed.
"There's been an accident," Tim reported. "It's pretty bad. A bunch of us are down here at the hospital. I thought you'd want to know."
"Thanks, Tim," Max responded on auto-pilot. "I appreciate that."
Tim ended the call without further comment and Max sat frozen on the bed, not sure what he was supposed to do.
There was nothing in the Class Advisor Job Description about car accidents. His job as Class Advisor was to coordinate the senior class calendar, communicate with seniors and parents regarding important issues, hold meetings with senior class reps, assist with the coordination of graduation events, and work with the Principal and Guidance Counselors regarding student performances. But middle of the night car accidents?
In his fifteen years of teaching, this was Max's first crisis of this magnitude. It might have helped had Tim been more specific – who was involved, what happened, what was the prognosis – but in the end it didn't matter. Max realized that he needed to get down to the hospital and support the students. There were only 78 Seniors in this year's graduating class and Max was familiar with all of them.
He rolled out of bed, threw on a pair of sweats and sneakers and headed for Blue County Medical Center in Greenville.
It was a relatively pleasant late April night with the temperatures tolerable. Several Mountaineers were standing outside the ER entrance when Max arrived. He nodded his hello and gave a half wave as he entered the sliding glass door and found the ER Waiting Room mobbed with a couple dozen Mt. Griffin kids.
Tim Hinkley bounded over to greet him. He was a tall, thin and lanky kid with a bushel of blond hair on his head, the basketball team captain. "Hey, Mr. C," he said, looking fatigued and uncertain.
"What's going on, Tim?" Max needed to know.
"I'm not sure," Tim admitted. "But it doesn't look good."
Max noticed his fellow teacher Barb Dana sitting in a nearby chair, looking zoned out. He was surprised by her presence because she wasn't the most outgoing or personable teacher on the staff, certainly not one of the kids' favorites in the pecking order. She had a reputation of being strict and tough and not a whole lot of fun.
Ms. Dana and Max had been teaching together at Griffin for eleven years but Max didn't know her very well beyond the general acquaintance of being co-workers. They chatted now and again but she was rarely interested in carrying on a conversation beyond the normal pleasantries.
"Ms. Dana?" Max said, sliding into the chair next to her. "What are you doing here?"
She looked dazed when she glanced at him. Max had never seen her in jeans before – she was always among the most best dressed teachers, but here she sat with a sweatshirt and her hair a mess. "Margie is one of my best Student Math Tutors," she said weakly.
"Margie Adams?" Max asked.
"Yes. One of her friends called me."
"Who else is in there?" Max had to ask.
"Curt Shelky, John Ward and Kathy McNight," Tim reported from nearby. "They were all in the same car."
None of the four were among the class movers and shakers. Margie was a Math Wiz Brainiac but not socially popular. Curt was on the Chess Club. Max worked with Johnny Won Student Council. Kathy was a polite and friendly kid but Max couldn't think of anything that made her standout other than she was a nice person.
"Jesus," he said, letting out a breath.
"I'm not good at this," Ms. Dana said, her usual confidence and control wavering. "I don't know what to say or do."
"Just being here helps," Max assured her.
Max saw Principal Jack Benson coming out of the ER Ward looking pale and shaken. Max popped out of his chair and went to his boss.
"Jack?" He asked tentatively.
"Shelky is still in the OR but they think he's going to pull through," The Principal reported.
"And the others?" Max cautiously asked.
Benson sadly and slowly shook his head. "They're all gone," He sighed.
"Jesus," Max said again.
"I need to get back," Benson said in a far off voice. "There's a bunch of Clergy and Cops in there. You need to get these kids out of here. The families need their privacy. Tell them to go home. Hug their parents."
The Principal returned to the ER Bay, walking as if his shoes were made of cement. Max sucked in his breath and turned to face the gathered.
"Tim," he said. "Could you ask those outside to step in here a minute?"
Sensing the importance of the moment, Tim nodded and headed for the door.
"Ms. Dana?" Max said quietly, motioning with his hand for his fellow teacher to stand and join him.
The kids gathered around the two teachers, looking expectedly and frightfully.
"Curt is still in surgery but they think he's going to be okay," Max reported once the kids from outside made their way in.
"What about Kathy?" Somebody asked.
Max held up his hand while wrapping his other arm around Ms. Dana's shoulder. "We need to pray for the others," he said quietly. "That God will be good to them."
"Wait, what?" Somebody asked.
Max felt Ms. Dana shutter next to him.
"Are you saying they're dead?" Somebody wailed.
"I'm sorry," Max said with as much sensitivity as he could muster. "Margie, John and Kathy didn't make it."
He paused for a moment to allow the kids to take in the news. He gave Ms. Dana's shoulder a squeeze.
"Mr. Benson wants the families to have privacy," Max said. "We should go home. Drive carefully. Ask for a ride if you're too upset to drive. I'm here if you need one. Take care of yourselves."
There was crying and sobbing and hugging all around. Max and Ms. Dana offered a few words of support and condolences to some of the more upset kids. The two teachers waited until the group slowly disbursed from the ER in shocked disbelief.
"You okay?" Max asked Ms. Dana once they were alone.
"No," she admitted. "This is surreal."
"It's tough," Max agreed. "Can you drive?"
She nodded yes. "Margie was a wonderful girl," she sighed.
"They were all good kids," Max said. "Such a tragedy."
Ms. Dana wiped a tear from her eye. I'm glad you were here," she said. "Thanks for taking charge."
"Look, there's no right way to deal with any of this," Max revealed. "All we can do is listen, comfort, and be supportive. The less said is usually the better. Let them talk and express their feelings. Be positive. Be hopeful."
"You know what they call me," Ms. Dana sighed as they started for the door.
Ms. Data, after the android character in Star Trek: The Next Generation because Ms. Dana was so stoic and unemotional.
"They're not going to listen to me," she said. "They think I have no heart."
There were still a few kids lingering around outside the hospital when the two teachers came through the exit door. Max offered some encouragement while gently suggesting the kids go home and be safe. Then he walked Ms. Dana to her car.
"We just don't teach in the classroom, Barb," he said. "Every moment is a lesson in learning, an opportunity to plant a seed and make a difference. Those kids will remember us for tonight more than anything we ever said in front of the chalkboard."
"Margie was my protégé," Ms. Dana revealed as they stood by her vehicle. "I feel like I lost my own kid in a way."
"They're all our kids," Max said. "They're not supposed to die."
"So many of them come in and out of our lives that it's easy to take them for granted and forget about them when they move on, but I'll never forget Margie."
"They're so young," Max sighed. "Just beginning to straddle adulthood. Bursting with energy. Untested. Naïve. But excited and ready to go out and conquer the world."
"It's not supposed to end this way," Ms. Dana complained.
"Take care of yourself," Max advised as Ms. Dana opened the driver's door to her car.
"Good Night, Mr. Contrill," she replied as she slid into the car.
Max watched her drive away into the sad night.
He was too emotionally whipped and troubled to sleep so he drove to the school and sat in the parking lot staring at the building and thinking about the three dead kids – and all those he had taught in there over the years.
Finally, with the eastern sky beginning to lighten, Max drove home and climbed into his bed, hoping to drift to sleep.