Few things in life are more difficult to deal with than grief. It has a unique tendency to dive deep within your subconsciousness for sometimes months at a time before, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, some little event, memory, scent or other impetus suddenly resurfaces it from the depths back into the forefront of your being, reinvigorating the pain as if the loss happened just yesterday.
Students at Toll Gate High School experienced this phenomenon this week when they realized that a rock that had been painted to memorialize their late principal, Stephen Chrabaszcz – who passed away suddenly at the beginning of the school year in 2016 – had been painted over in as part of an attempt to beautify the school campus, without advance notice that the rock would be altered.
The students who remember Chrabaszcz and still attend the school, and those who have recently graduated, took immediate and strong offense to the painting over of the rock, which was washed clean of the phrases dedicated to him and replaced by an allover coating of Toll Gate blue, along with red lettering calling for “TG Pride.”
In doing so, the Toll Gate administration unleashed a wave of “TG Pride,” for sure, just not in the way they probably hoped. The pride they felt was for their deceased principal, along with a grief-fueled dose of anger at the school for seemingly trying to rob them of that pride without so much as a heads up that it would be happening.
While the administration has a point that Chrabaszcz lives on at the school through two permanent fixtures – a rock garden dedicated by the senior class of 2018, which was dedicated in a ceremony attended by hundreds of students and faculty alike in December, and a conference room bearing his name – they failed to consider something.
Grief isn’t rational, and it has a sensitive trigger.
While we would never claim that the Toll Gate administration chose to paint over the rock for any nefarious purpose, or were trying to upset anybody in any way, it isn’t unfair of the students to feel upset for not being considered prior to the rock being painted. That rock, to someone who truly cared about Chrabaszcz, could hold significant emotional value for any number of reasons. Even if they wound up not liking the final decision, those feelings should always be considered before decisions are made.
In this case, the decision to paint over the rock could have been a mutual discussion. Perhaps the rock could have incorporated input from the students, faculty and the administration in a way that still beautifies the area and makes it appear to be less vandalistic. Who is to say it would be impossible to evoke Toll Gate pride and honor Chrabaszcz on the same rock?
Judging by the students’ reaction, such a decision would have inspired much more positive pride for the school than what appeared to be a cloak and dagger problem solving approach where the school simply waited for students to leave for the summer before doing what they wanted to do.
Many of our problems can be chalked up to a lack of proper communication, and when those problems involve the complex issue of grief – especially among a student population that has been exposed to other tragic deaths within the population within a short time period – communication over what to do with an object that has become memorialized is no longer just good practice, it’s essential.
While things can be argued retrospectively indefinitely, we believe the best, most mature response to the situation has been seen from the person who, ironically, has more right to be upset about the whole thing than anybody – Chrabaszcz’s widow, Barbara.
Rather than huff and puff and make a spectacle of the whole situation, or point fingers at anybody, Barbara Chrabaszcz has essentially said it’s not such a big deal. The fact that people are still so affected by her husband’s life and legacy, she said, is the only thing that matters to her.
In a way, we can all learn from her. The only way to truly memorialize someone you looked up to or admired is to live by their example, even when doing so is difficult. Judging by Barbara Chrabaszcz’s position on the subject, cooler heads should prevail and this issue shouldn’t divide the school, because that’s the last thing Stephen Chrabaszcz would have wanted.