By Julia Sendor
For The Register-Herald
On the afternoon of April 12, 2010, the first day that students returned from spring break, a long line of children stretched from Whitesville Elementary School to the temporary miners’ memorial.
The children carried pictures they had drawn, posters they had made and letters they had written to place around the new memorial in honor of the 29 miners who died just a week before in the Upper Big Branch explosion.
“We let the kids make anything they wanted to make,” said Principal Chris Duncan, explaining that he had hoped it would help the students through the grieving process.
“A lot of times, you don’t want to say something, but you can write something, or you can draw something.”
The entire school walked together.
“I got on the intercom and said, ‘We’re all going to walk to the memorial,’” said Duncan. “The kids were all right ’til we went up, and then you saw some crying — and then you saw some hugging their friends who were crying … It was a time to let them get it out of their system, to be with their friends for support.”
“It was heartbreaking,” said sixth-grader Justin Canterbury, who was in fifth grade at the time.
As the Whitesville Elementary School principal, Duncan and his fellow staff faced a special challenge after the UBB explosion — handling the emotions of some of Whitesville’s youngest residents.
Students were out of school for spring break in the week that followed the explosion. Duncan called the teachers together as soon as the break ended to decide how to address the pain of the disaster.
“I met with all the teachers and told them, ‘This is not about school’ — and if the kids need to talk, to let them open up,” said Duncan. “At that point in time, it wasn’t about school. It was just about making sure the kids were OK, and then we’d worry about school later.”
“We (the staff) just talked about making sure we were there for the kids, to talk to them, listen to them, hug them — whatever we needed to do.”
At the time, the school was preparing for the WESTEST — which, for the moment, no longer seemed so crucial.
“I said, ‘This is more important than a test you’re going to take. Until the kids are ready, it doesn’t matter,’” remembered Duncan.
The Whitesville Elementary staff went into the day without a set plan — simply open to responding to the students’ needs as the needs came up. Counselors stayed ready to listen to any student, and Boone County’s School Board sent extra counselors to the school.
“If they needed to talk, they had people to talk to,” said Duncan, pointing out how many of the teachers were on the same level as the students with their grief.
“A lot of our teachers’ family members work in the mines,” Duncan explained. “It was very hard because it brings back memories for some that have lost family members in other mining accidents.”
For sixth-grade teacher Lori Jarrett, her thoughts immediately flew to her students when she learned about the explosion.
“The first thought I had was, ‘How many of my kids have a parent or family member working in the mine?’”
In fact, none of the Whitesville Elementary students were children of miners, but several had lost relatives or friends’ parents.
“Every day you’re on pins and needles about something happening like that because you just don’t know,” said Duncan. “They were thinking, ‘That could’ve been my dad’ or ‘I don’t want my dad to go back in the mines.’”
Young as the students are, Duncan said that he consistently reminds them of one of life’s hardest lessons.
“I try to tell them every day, ‘You know you’re not promised tomorrow.’”
The disaster hit Duncan himself on a personal level. He had graduated with UBB victim Gary Quarles, and his wife’s uncle was supposed to be working the day of the explosion. Duncan’s father had mined coal his entire life and Duncan’s grandfather before him.
For the first few days back in school, Duncan and the teachers let the regular schedule fall by the wayside to make space for time to talk and emotions to flow.
“Everybody was crying,” said sixth-grader Camilla Averson, who was in fifth grade at the time of the accident.
Jarrett let her students lead the way, talking.
“We discussed what happened. I kind of just had an open floor … They talked about friends who had lost family members,” said Jarrett.
“The big question was, ‘Why were the mines not safer for the men? Could it have been prevented?’ I mostly said, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s hard to answer those kinds of questions, especially with kids in there whose best friend just lost a father.”
Jarrett described how the accident actually brought her closer to her own students.
“I was crying, and they were crying,” she said. “I think it also showed the kids that I do care how they feel. You can say that and you can say that, but until they see it and see that I’m here for them, they won’t believe it.”
The sense of closeness has extended beyond her own classroom, Jarrett said.
“It has brought the school closer together as a community.”
“One thing about our school here is everybody gets along so well; it’s like family. The kids, they know when somebody’s upset, and they want to help … everybody just rallies.”
Duncan also described how the school’s already existing closeness helped the teachers work together throughout the tragedy. On April 5, Duncan was in Indianapolis, watching West Virginia University compete in the Final Four NCAA basketball championship.
When he learned about the disaster, fellow teachers and administrators assured him they had everything under control — even when the school’s playing field was used as a landing site for helicopters.
Whitesville also stayed in touch with Marsh Fork Elementary, the base for most of the rescue operations.
“If Marsh Fork needed anything, we were going to do it,” said Duncan.
Since the disaster, the memories have never left the school building, Duncan said. He and other teachers have instilled in students the significance of the tragedy.
“It’s one of those things that will be in history,” said Duncan. “We told the students, ‘Maybe before you get out of school, you’ll read about it in your social studies book.’”
When the Chilean miners made it to safety last fall, the entire school gathered in the gym to watch the miners re-enter the world.
“That was part of the grieving process; it brought it back to the forefront, but at least it had a happy ending,” said Duncan.
Jarrett recalled how the gym filled with emotion.
“They (the students) were cheering and clapping when (the rescuers) were pulling them (the miners). And they were crying, and I was crying,” she said.
To mark the one-year anniversary of the explosion, the students will get the chance to draw posters and write letters again. Duncan said that teachers will be ready to listen to anything students need to talk about — like last year, like always.
“That’s one thing I always tell them (the teachers) here is, you’ve got to get to hearts before you get their minds,” said Duncan. “And the kids here know we care about them.”