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written Sunday, 1/13/2008

Maddy Prevost with her dog

Madeleine “Maddy” Prevost, one of our 11th graders at Lusher, died last Sunday.

In days since, Maddy has frequently been described as smiling, sensitive, and caring. I believe it. In my Algebra 2 class this year, I saw a beautiful, quiet girl who I never got to know very well.

Being a Child Advocate in California helped nudge me into the teaching profession, yet I remember being reluctant. Trading in a close bond with one child for daily classroom interactions with one hundred or more, I worried that this “thinning out” of the adult-youth relationship would severely limit any gratification.

Thankfully in every school at which I’ve taught, I’ve met kids who’ve opened up to me in some way. I’ve enjoyed trying to foster their good qualities and help them work through struggles (academic or otherwise). Nonetheless there are always those kids who remain closed – at least in my classroom. Whether it’s the math content, me, or some other factors, the job doesn’t allow enough time or opportunity to connect with all of them.

“Mr. White hates me,” Maddy would allegedly bemoan to a close friend during days when she wasn’t performing so well in math. I know she was wiser than to truly believe that. I trust that she correctly sensed my disappointment in her falling short of my expectations. She probably felt quite disappointed in herself for falling short of her own expectations.

Maddy had just recently begun to reveal her personality in my class. Math had not come easily for her since she joined Lusher after Katrina. For most of this school year she clearly had other things occupying her mind. Her mom and dad struggled to do whatever they could to get their beloved daughter on track.

Things finally appeared to be coming together for Maddy. I observed an unmistakable new motivation to address her studies. The blank stare was gone, and she began participating in class discussions. I even saw an occasional smile.

I eagerly looked forward to seeing Maddy come alive academically in the second semester. What an utter shock to instead get a phone call a week ago from a colleague relaying the news that Maddy had just passed away a few hours earlier.

Teachers were scheduled to return to school the following day, but students wouldn’t come back until Wednesday. The timing afforded school administrators and faculty time to discuss the tragedy amongst ourselves first and arrange for social workers and counselors to be present during an extended one-hour homeroom upon the students’ return. By Wednesday morning the news had already reached almost all of the student body. Some students close to Maddy were visibly grief-stricken while other friends of hers seemed in shock. Even some students who didn’t know Maddy well were likely surprised by how much her death shook them emotionally.

How could this be happening? What was the cause of death? We all had questions, yet in my homeroom we talked about the need to respectfully avoid propagation of rumors. Online forums had already given way to such uninformed and ill-mannered speculation about Maddy and students at Lusher High School in general.

Thursday morning, the day of Maddy’s funeral, The Times Picayune ran an article entitled “Bad Combination.” An autopsy had confirmed that a lethal mix of heroin and cocaine had cut short Maddy’s life. Her parents were commendably forthcoming about the cause of death and their hopes that Maddy’s peers would heed the heartbreaking lesson. By my estimation, over five hundred people overflowed St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in the old Lakeview neighborhood where their family had lived before the devastation of Katrina. At least a hundred were Lusher students, with the school offering bus service for those who didn’t have other transportation. Maddy’s dad shared loving memories of his only daughter. Without being preachy, he proceeded to warn that attributing his girl’s death to a “heroin overdose” is inaccurate, as that would imply the existence of a safe heroin dose. He implored the youth present in the church to recognize the grave risk they pose to their lives when dabbling with even the smallest quantities of illicit drugs. Maddy’s mom echoed the message and expressed their willingness to discuss such matters or set the record straight regarding rumors people may hear.

Even seeing Maddy’s lifeless body didn’t seem real. The surge of emotion that I anticipated while approaching the coffin didn’t occur. Instead, a stab of grief suddenly struck me upon the closing of the casket. We could no longer deny the realization that no one would ever see Maddy’s smile again or be in her physical presence.

“Maddy would be mortified” by all the sadness she’s brought about on this day, said her dad. I couldn’t help but hope that some of the troubled kids I saw mourning in the church at that moment were also feeling that mortification. Those kids who are simultaneously victims and propagators of a drug and alcohol culture in our city and in our schools. Those kids who believe the best moments of their youth are captured in drunk and stoned photos of each other posted on their MySpace pages. How much clearer of a cautionary message could they hope to receive than the death of a dear friend? I want to believe that Maddy’s misguided friends will honor her life and death by finally exhibiting the courage to set their own lives straight. Sadly, I suspect too many of them will simply pause for a brief moment of reflection before continuing with their old destructive habits. I hope we can find a way for them to prove me wrong.