PHOENIX – Rebecka Johnson stood in front of her fifth-graders at Holdeman Elementary School in Tempe on Thursday with a printed statement in her hand.
She looked at her students’ faces, their eyes big as they watched her.
A group of counselors and administrators stood along the classroom wall.
Johnson read aloud from the statement: “It is with great sadness that we inform you of the death of Holdeman student Summer Bell.”
Summer Bell Brown was 10. She was shot in her driveway in an apparent road-rage incident. Her father also was shot but survived.
Johnson choked back tears. She pressed her fingernails into her palm and kept going.
“Summer died suddenly yesterday evening. For those of you who knew Summer and her family, we ask that you remember and celebrate Summer’s laugh, smile and personality.”
Her classmates started to cry. A few put their heads down.
The students were supposed to take a state standardized math test that day. Johnson had put smiley-faced pencils and a pack of Smarties on each desk.
The test could wait.
Johnson put down the statement and went to them, hugging and consoling them. In her 15 years as a teacher, this was the first time she’d lost a student.
Johnson went to Summer’s box and pulled out a drawing of a red robin. She was the first done with almost every assignment and would help her classmates. She loved to dance and draw.
On Wednesday, the class had started an art project to go along with their reports on birds. Summer had finished her report that same day, even though it wasn’t due until Friday.
Johnson would make a copy of the drawing for each student.
Johnson asked her students if they would like to write to Summer’s family. Children cope better if there is something to do.
Some wrote more than others. Some drew pictures. She wanted to keep things as normal as possible, but there was no ignoring this. A counselor stayed in her classroom.
A few parents came to pick up their kids when they heard the news. “I want to stay here, Mrs. Johnson,” one boy said. He stayed. It seemed better that they were together. Only one student left.
“It was a hard day,” Johnson said. She lay cool lemon-lavender scented cloths on the back of their necks. She touched their foreheads and their faces.
They talked about Summer, sharing happy memories of her. They talked of being sad and how their insides felt twisted.
“Let’s do the math activities because Summer loved them,” Johnson said. Math was Summer’s toughest subject, but on her last test, on March 28, she got a 100 percent.
They worked at math stations and played math bingo until lunch.
When the students came back from lunch, something had changed.
A student in another class had heard on the news how Summer had been killed. One boy was angry Johnson hadn’t told them. Johnson understood.
“I was just dumbfounded,” Johnson said on Friday. “How can a person do this?”
Not even the teacher knows the answer.
Johnson started to read Summer’s essay on the golden eagle to the class but choked up again. “I’m going to need your guys’s help,” she told the class.
The students passed Summer’s essay from one student to the next, reading aloud.
“I know she wants you to finish yours,” Johnson told the class. “So get it done.”
On Friday, Johnson heard her students say, “I miss Summer” again and again.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams and Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego announce April 5, 2019, that 20-year-old Joshua Gonzalez has been arrested in the shooting death of 10-year-old Summer Bell Brown.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com
So in reading, they wrote poems about Summer. Johnson will give them to her family.
In her classroom, quiet after the students were gone, Johnson went to Summer’s desk. In it, she found an order form for spring picture day and the beginnings of a letter:
“Dear Mrs. Johnson.”
Johnson had wondered what to do with Summer’s desk. She asked her pupils. They wanted to leave it where it was as a reminder of Summer.
Maybe they could write to Summer, Johnson suggested, and leave the notes in her desk.
“Maybe I’ll be too sad,” one girl told Johnson. That’s OK, too, Johnson said.
They don’t have to decide right now.
Follow Karina Bland on Twitter @KarinaBland.
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