Susan Romero became a teacher more than two decades ago, fresh out of college and full of great ideas and theories.
The most important one, though, she learned through experience and not from a textbook or in researching her master’s thesis.
“As teachers, we think we know the stories of the people in front of us,” Romero, who teaches eighth-graders at Somerset Middle School in Modesto, said. “In reality, we have no idea.”
Never did this become more apparent than in the spring of 2013, when conversations with students led her to an amazing discovery: Fifteen of them had lost a mom, dad, brother, grandparent or best friend. They lost them to leukemia, to murders, to suicides, to drugs. Only two of them had ever received any sort of grief counseling, and all of them felt a sense of emptiness.
None knew any of their schoolmates had also suffered the same kinds of losses. They kept their feelings to themselves, believing they were the only ones among them who endured through such sadness. Romero realized they needed help, as will other children in the future. But where to find it? What would reach them? Professional help?
She asked them each one simple question: Would it help them to hear from other kids their age who have been there?
“Better from somebody who’s been through it rather than someone paid by the hour,” said Riley, a 15-year-old Beyer High student, who lost her best friend when her grandfather died years ago.
Romero, Stanislaus County’s 2005 teacher of the year, recognized the opportunity for her students to use their hardships to help others. So as the school year wound down in May 2013, she approached the students and their surviving parents or guardians with an idea: They would tell their stories in a book. She developed a format upon which each student wrote his or her own story describing the circumstances and impact of their losses. They would end it by writing a letter to the deceased loved one. Then Romero added a letter to each writer, personalizing her support and advice to them as they proceed into adulthood.
“I call them my ‘Healing Writers,’” Romero said, playing off of the title of the 2007 film, “Freedom Writers.”
Only two of the students declined to participate or were forbidden by the parent or guardian from doing so, she said. And she met with each student individually during summer 2013. It became their collective personal project, not one affiliated with the Sylvan Union School District.
The result of their work is “Teens Dealing With Death: Stories From My Students,” published in December. Thirteen told their stories of loss and how it has affected them. Most of the students are now attending high schools.
They tell stories that will break your heart, and make you wonder why children so young could be dealt sudden trauma. One, named Briana, was only a few years old but remembers her mom’s death vividly.
“I was watching the show ‘PB&J (Otter)’ on the Playhouse Disney channel,” wrote Briana, now 16 and a student at Beyer High.
She heard her mom arguing with a man she said she never saw. The first of two shots struck her mom in the rear end, preventing Briana herself from being shot.
“The second gunshot was also from behind and hit her in the back going straight into her heart,” she wrote. “I saw the second one hit her, and I watched her fall to the ground.”
Then, moments later, she heard another shot as the killer took his own life.
Briana was one of the few who received counseling. Now, her engaging smile masks the memories of that day.
“I came into Ms. Romero’s room one day and there was a lady who said she’d read my story and was very moved by it,” she said.
Riley, now 15, is perhaps the most outspoken of the group. She wrote of how much she misses her grandfather, whom she considered her best friend. A heart attack killed him when she was just a young girl, and the suddenness of his passing hurt her deeply.
Until Romero began the project, Riley said she rarely talked to anyone about her feelings, and had only a few friends.
“It’s not something you really go around talking about,” she said. “And it was really difficult to write. I had to go back and think about what I’d gone through, losing someone.”
“Riley’s transformation was night and day,” Romero said.
One wrote about a brother killed while riding his bicycle. One wrote about his father, killed in a drug deal gone bad. One wrote about losing her father to leukemia. Another wrote about his mother’s death and the way his family dealt with it. And yet another wrote about losing his dad to a roadside bomb in Iraq and then his family coming to America to try to rebuild their lives.
Justyn, now a 16-year-old Johansen High student, wrote about losing his mom to leukemia, then the grandmother who raised him afterward a year later.
All grappled with their emotions, of growing up without these people in their lives. And all said their lost loved ones have come back to visit them in their dreams.
“I felt relieved just to be able to tell people about it,” said Tonny, 16 and now at Davis High.
Now their book is out, available in paperback for about $9 on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. They also have a Facebook page. Sylvan Union includes the book in its school libraries, and Romero said she hopes other districts will recognize its value as well. Romero wants only to recover her out-of-pocket printing costs.
“Everything else will go to them,” she said. Already, the teens are getting some returns. Other students have seen the book since school resumed a couple of weeks ago.
“People have seen it on Facebook,” said Acquielle, 16, who now attends Beyer. Her father’s troubled life ended in a shooting death in June 2012. “I’m proud that I might be able to help someone.”
Because she, like the rest, has been there. They share the common bond of losing a loved one, and learned there are many others their age just like them.
“It feels good,” Acquielle said, “knowing I wouldn’t have to be alone anymore. I thought I was the only one.”