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A Tragic Loss and a Lesson...I Hope

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I really can’t say that I knew Deven Black all that well. Because I’d learned he was a thoughtful and well-known educator, I had called upon him to be a commentator for a couple of shows on BAM Radio Network. He happily accepted my invitation. When I asked what topics he would most like to address, he listed: Getting rid of school beyond 8th grade. Not testing kids to the point where we drive out their curiosity, creativity, and passion. Focusing on the individual child. Things in school currently set up around benefits to the system. He told me he was opinionated and not afraid to speak his mind. My kind of guy.

My next encounter with Deven was at the first Bammy Awards celebration. I recall him standing on the stage, clutching his trophy, which he’d received for his work as a school librarian, and expressing puzzlement that he should be the one to get it. His confusion Deven Bammywas genuine. But I knew he was honored when, soon after, he posted to his social media accounts a photo of himself holding that trophy.

Unfortunately, the next photos I remember seeing were not nearly as pleasant. He’d fallen and broken his neck and was documenting the story, along with his eventual healing process. His attitude was amazingly philosophical and good-humored. Many of his Facebook friends, myself included, expressed their sympathy and encouragement.

He was still wearing his neck brace when I saw him at the next Bammy Awards ceremony. Again, he was good-humored about his situation. In fact, he was attending expressly because he wanted to be of help. In an earlier communication he had said to me, “How could I not be at the Bammys?” I was delighted that he felt that way.

Sadly, as I went about the (sometimes-exhausting) business of my daily living, I failed to realize that I hadn’t heard from or about Deven in a long while. Not once did it occur to me to wonder why. He had simply slipped off my radar screen. And then, last week, I learned of his horrific death – and that it had occurred in a homeless shelter for the mentally ill, where he was residing.

It simply isn’t possible to describe the various emotions that assaulted me as I read the newspaper headline. Days later, I’m still trying to process them.

How could something like this happen? How could a person with nearly a thousand Facebook “friends” and more than 8400 Twitter followers get so lost in the shuffle? Was there no one among the thousands who could have helped him? Why had it come to such a lonely and terrible end?

These, of course, are the questions on everyone’s mind. Another is why he didn’t reach out for help. Although I don’t believe the onus should be placed on the person in need of help, it turns out that he did. On June 2nd of last year he posted the following to Facebook: “I need positive thoughts to help me through some very hard times. I have hit a new low.” Forty-three people, myself included, hit the “Like” button. Nearly one hundred others offered words of love and inspiration. Perhaps some of them picked up the phone to call him, or offered to visit. I don’t know. I wasn’t one of them. I don’t, in fact, remember that post or hitting the “Like” button.

And therein lies the problem with virtual relationships: it is all too easy to click the mouse and move on.

I’m not laying blame (except to myself because I can’t help but feel that I failed him). I’m making a statement on the culture in which I find myself living. Not only does it appear that virtual relationships are substituting for the real thing; also, we are all just so damn busy that we’re too often satisfied that a click of the mouse will suffice. It doesn’t.

In a real, actual, face-to-face (or even voice-to-voice) relationship, Deven’s desperate need for help would have been all too evident. Perhaps no friend could have assisted (much has been said about how the system failed him). But it’s unlikely that anyone seeing or talking to him in the actual world would have simply patted him on the shoulder, offering words of inspiration and love, and simply moved on.

I, for one, will try to be more diligent in my virtual relationships. I will try to remember to read between the lines. But I will also try to take more time and care with all of my relationships. Because no one should be too busy to lend a hand to a friend in need.

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Rae Pica has been an education consultant specializing in the development and education of the whole child, children's physical activity, and active learning since 1980. A former adjunct instructor with the University of New Hampshire, she is the author of 19 books, including the text Experiences in Movement and Music and, most recently, What If Everybody Understood Child Development?: Straight Talk About Bettering Education and Children's Lives. Rae has shared her expertise with such groups as the Sesame Street Research Department, the Head Start Bureau, Centers for Disease Control, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, Gymboree, Nike, and state health departments throughout the country. She is a member of the executive committee of the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences and is co-founder of BAM Radio Network, where she hosts Studentcentricity, interviewing experts in education, child development, play research, the neurosciences, and more on teaching with students at the center.

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Guest Sunday, 16 December 2018