Learning from Tragedy: Honoring Kenley’s Spirit

NOTE: I first wrote this two weeks ago, but needed some time to collect my thoughts and thoroughly review it before sharing. This is a tough story and includes my personal journey for making sense of tragedy, including a few spiritual thoughts and beliefs. There is a powerful message here for all parents and educators. I hope you will help me honor this special little girl.

Last Monday morning, I was awoken by the most heartbreaking news. My son’s first-grade teacher lost her 18 month-old daughter, Kenley, in a tragic accident over the weekend. His teacher went on maternity leave to have her baby girl while my son was in her class. I gave her a baby gift and waited excitedly to hear about Kenley’s arrival. This news didn’t seem real.personal story

There is a second tragedy here, as well. As far as I understand (from newspaper articles and a memo from the district’s superintendent), Kenley was staying with friends while her parents, Sarah and Dan, went to a wedding out of town. The father of the family watching Kenley was backing his truck out of the driveway, heading out to get his daughter from a birthday party. Somehow, Kenley toddled behind the truck and was struck.

This horrible situation has devastated two families. My heart and prayers go out to both of them!

Sarah teaches at the school where I had several conflicts last year. (I’ve written a lot about those challenges in an attempt to channel them in a positive direction, helping other families dealing with ADHD and learning disabilities.) She was our angel during a very challenging time.

She was a consummate professional, yet extended total kindness and grace towards us. Of course, Sarah is the kind of person who is so genuine, she probably doesn’t even realize how significant her kindness can be. But, when someone has your back like that, especially when dealing with Mama Bear Emotions, it leaves a significant impression.

Likewise, when that same person is hurting, you naturally want to reciprocate…especially when dealing with Mama Bear Emotions. I so wish I could be the angel for Sarah that she was for me, but this is a situation I can’t fix. I have offered support, prayers, and love, yet it feels so insignificant. My heart, and every fiber of my body, is aching for her and her husband.

Looking for Answers

Our entire community is mourning Kenley’s loss. I think we are all trying to make sense of it. There is nothing like the death of an innocent child to make a person turn to religion…or question it. I’ve been doing a bit of both over the last week and some thoughts are crystallizing.

This situation is one of the greatest tests of love and forgiveness. As far as I am concerned, Jesus is the best role model for both. Since my feelings of despair were doing nothing constructive for anybody, I finally said a prayer asking him to come into my heart and lift some of this pain from my heart, as well as from the hearts of everyone affected by Kenley’s loss.

I then asked a specific question, “Why won’t you let me walk away from this school? Is there something I am supposed to be learning from this? Is there something I am supposed to be doing?”

I have written publicly about many painful things we experienced at this school while my son was in 1st grade. However, there are many elements and events that I have not shared because they would not serve the purpose of helping others facing similar challenges; they would only be perpetuating negativity.

The night before I learned about this tragedy, I wrote a letter to someone we knew at the school, at my son’s request. In my mind, I had closed the book on this chapter of our lives, but he still had an “open loop” and needed help in getting some resolution. The letter was not easy to write and evoked some difficult memories, particularly of the desperation and isolation I felt in trying to get help for Mark. The process definitely invoked tears.

When I was done, I reviewed the letter carefully to be sure it was as honest and compassionate as possible. I slid it inside an envelope, planing to deliver it to the school on Tuesday. However, I hesitated over sealing the envelope. Invariably, any time I seal an envelope, I always discover something I forgot to include or another message I want to add. So, I deliberated over this for a few moments.

Finally, I thought, “I’ve shed my last tear over this school! I’m done with this…I’m sealing it up!” So I did. With that, I turned off the lights and headed to bed. Other than mindlessly working through my night-time routine, the adamant decision to seal the envelope was the last conscious thought I had before I went to bed.

It was only twenty waking minutes later that I learned about Kenley. There are no words to express the conflict in my brain that morning. The emotional part of me wanted to deny it. “No! I JUST sealed the envelope. I’m done being sad over this school. I don’t wanna be sad anymore! This can’t be happening.”

The logical part of me was attempting to face reality. “But, Sarah and Dan can’t walk away from this. This is real. You can’t avoid this.”

As the shock wore off, I became more aware of the disparity between my proclamation on Sunday night and the devastating news on Monday morning. This was awful news for anyone, even my worst enemy. But, this happened to Sarah…our angel. I had no choice but to be pulled back into the emotional vortex that surrounds this school in my mind. What are the odds?! The timing seemed far too uncanny to be coincidental.

For several days that followed, I had been thinking in frustration, “God! Why won’t you let me walk away from this school?!” These words rolled through my head as I tried to process my grief. But, as I focused on my prayer that afternoon, I suddenly realized this was a legitimate question. Maybe there really was something more for me to learn.

It was quiet in my brain for a few seconds. But suddenly, a stream of thoughts came cascading down…faster than I could possibly describe. Most of them barely ending before the next began. There is no way to gracefully describe this stream-of-consciousness, but the connections are significant…

I first thought of something special my dad does to commemorate a person who has passed away. He asks himself, “What virtues, values, or traits did this person best exhibit in their life that I can use to make me a better person?” It is a very deliberate way to honor the person and keep their memory alive.

However, my next thought was, “What do you take away from an 18 month-old who was just getting started in life? Just beginning to explore her world?”

And then, like a bolt of lightning, I got it…It is her spirit! It is her spirit of unconditional love, total honesty of emotions, unbridled curiosity, and sense of exploration. Our spirit is all we have when we come into our life and it is all that is left when we go. Kenley didn’t have time to be anything but a bundle of spirit. This is her legacy.

Kenley personifies the most valuable element any human being has to offer. The experience of humanity is not about how much money we make, how successful we are, or even what we do with our time. It is about respecting and loving our spirit and the spirit within everyone around us.

Our Children’s Spirits Are in Crisis

This connection over what I can take away from Kenley’s life is particularly significant to me; I have become increasingly aware that we are sabotaging the spirit of far too many children. During our monthly “Ask the Author” sessions, I talk to dozens of parents who are struggling to motivate their children over academics. They tell me, “I’m losing him.” Or, “She’s ‘gone.’ I just can’t connect with her anymore.” Sadly, their children have struggled so much, they’ve given up. Parents, teachers, and society all place so much emphasis on academic abilities…often at the expense of a child’s spirit.

I recently read an assessment report about a young teenager with serious learning challenges, prepared by a professional Ph.D. This young man’s parents were concerned about a potential learning disability and invested a lot of money in this evaluation. They received a very thorough, yet overwhelming, 23-page report and asked me to weigh in with my thoughts.

The report began with a general description of this young man and included a summary of his interests. It was noted that he particularly enjoyed music and drama, had success with them, and drew positive friendships out of both activities. A little while later, his pleasant disposition was noted, “Despite periodic frustration, his effort was consistently full and his attitude was very positive.”

This comment was very significant and I shared my thoughts with his parents , “This IS his greatest asset is overcoming these challenges. Most kids with similar struggles are so used to ‘failing’ at everything in school that they give up. They have no motivation because school has only focused on what they can’t do. You, however, have invested time in building your son up and focusing on what he *can* do. With his positive attitude, he will have no problems overcoming these challenges…now that you know what to do.” It was a breath of fresh air to see that his challenges had not shut him down!

However, the final recommendation of the report was:

Due to the additional services that are recommended and that will require additional time, a careful examination of extra-curricular activities with the goal of reducing extra-curricular demands is strongly recommended at this time. Until more effective study skills and strategies are learned and routinely implemented, his non-academic activities should be reduced. As he becomes accustomed to adhering to various routines to complete schoolwork, including study hours for test preparation, outside activities may be gradually re-introduced.

This suggestion enraged me! For one, as a professional Ph.D. she is extremely ignorant of *efficient* learning strategies. Most significantly, however, it was an utter contradiction to her opening comments where she recognized those activities as his source of confidence. She was now suggesting that the very things that build him up, make him happy, and give him a sense of success and accomplishment should be minimalized and reduced!

I obviously believe it is important that he get proper assistance to support his learning challenges; that can happen with a few modifications to his curriculum (he is home-schooled) and a couple extra hours of therapy each week. However, test scores should never trump the things that “light a child up!” As I read her wordy paragraph about extinguishing the fire in this child’s life, I realized that this mentality -that academics are superior to everything else in a child’s life- is what got me in trouble with Mark’s principal last year!

For the first time, I could see this issue with a larger perspective. *I* was focused on the spirit within my son that had disappeared. Despite the fact that I am a dedicated educator, there were several months last year when his academic progress was a distant second on my priority list. I just wanted to see my son “light up” again. I wanted his spirit back!

I really couldn’t fathom that someone could be so short-sighted to focus solely on academic progress, that he would risk killing a child’s spirit. I know very well that once a child loses his confidence or motivation (aka “spirit”), there is no hope of making academic progress. Most parents have at least some nagging sense of this.

In the last few weeks alone, two different friends called me with concerns over their children’s spirit. One of them explained specifically, “He’s doing well academically, but it’s like he goes into school and a light is turned off in his personality. He goes flat. What do you think?” she asked.

I replied, “Do whatever you can do to preserve his spirit! Keep his interest in life alive!”

Just the day before I learned of Kenley’s death, I heard an interview with Barbara Corcoran, a real estate tycoon and an investor “shark” on ABC’s show, “Shark Tank.” Barbara struggled in school with dyslexia, often bringing home report cards with straight Ds. Yet, she grew up to build a real estate business that she started with a $1000 loan from her boyfriend and sold years later for $70 million.

When asked about how she persevered, Barbara gave all of the credit to her mother, who always focused on the positive and emphasized her gifts. Barbara explained, “For a lot of parents, the gifts that they are helping their children find are good grades at school. It gets very narrowly defined by our system. Thank God my mother didn’t buy into that. She would say, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’ll fill in the blanks with your imagination!’ She was so off-handed about it that I never really saw it as something terrible, you know?”

Barbara explained that her son grew up to have the same challenges with dyslexia. While she worked in the background to find a school better suited to help him with his reading challenges, she focused her energies towards him on emphasizing the positive. She discovered he loved sports, so she filled his life with sports. “When Tommy started getting D’s in school, I hung his report card from the chandelier. He was embarrassed, but he loved it. I was so proud that he was able to survive. When he moved up to a C, then a B, and then A’s, he was like, ‘Of course, mom! What did you think I was going to do?’”

Tommy had almost perfect scores on his SATs and is now going into Columbia University, one of the top schools in the nation. No one would have guessed that was possible when he was in second grade and struggling to earn Ds. “But once he got past the reading and writing, I found I had a math and science genius,” Barbara said. “He can read a textbook better than the best of them! But how did he get there? He got there because I preserved his confidence.”

She honored Tommy’s spirit.

Kenley’s Mom Already Does This

When my son was in Sarah’s class, I was not specifically keyed in to this perspective. But, from the first moment I met her, it was clear that she valued my son’s spirit. She first introduced herself to me as he was wrapping up kindergarten. “I will have Mark in my class next year,” she explained as she stopped me in the hallway one day, “I taught one of his after-school enrichment classes this winter. He’s really creative and has great ideas. I can’t wait to have him in class next year!”

It meant the world to me to know that she “got him!” She had already observed –and valued- his spirit.

As the following school year began and his struggles became more obvious, I was always impressed with Sarah’s thoughtful considerations in helping Mark. She carefully selected strategies that walked the line between nurturing his soul and supporting his academic needs. I felt the significance of this support long before I could articulate it, but it endured her to me and my family.

I’ll be honest, I was disappointed that she would be leaving Mark’s class for a few months to go on maternity leave. Of course, I was in full support of her family time, but I knew Mark & I would both miss her special touch.

The new teacher was just as kind and nurturing. However, other things in the building began to deteriorate. Without the “insulation” of Sarah, I slowly discovered how little support we had. Mark had serious health issues. I was just beginning to suspect a learning disability. However, it became clear that the principal did not support my concerns and two support instructors were treating Mark very poorly. I volunteered in the school regularly and happened to observe two completely appalling situations involving the principal and a reading teacher while Sarah was gone.

Everything came to a head shortly after Sarah returned from maternity leave, during my infamous meeting with the principal. I left the meeting in utter shock and full of tears. Sarah met me in her classroom, gave me a hug, and provided kind words of support. She gave me her cell number and invited me to call if I needed anything. She was a significant source of light on a particularly dark day.

I believe every person is put on this planet for the benefit of others…to serve each other and build the greater good. (Some people may have more distractions from this purpose than others, but I digress.) On the individual level, the significance of our interconnections is very difficult to see. It’s like looking at individual cells without being able to see the full body that they form. Kenley’s life may have been short, but that does not reduce the significance she plays in serving others. She came with a purpose.

24 hours after Sarah gave me her phone number, I called to inform her that we were pulling Mark from the school. It was a very difficult call; I was so disappointed to be leaving Sarah behind, especially since she had just returned from leave. In her continuous mode of support and concern, she apologized that she couldn’t do more to help Mark. She apologized for the timing of her maternity leave, wishing she could have done more to help us.

I replied, “Don’t apologize for that! Kenley came exactly when she was supposed to come. She did us a favor, exposing things we wouldn’t have seen if you were here…”

I never imagined how poignant those words would truly be! Kenley did come exactly when she was supposed to come. As impossibly hard as it must be for her parents, grandparents, and all who were touched by her little life, I have to believe she returned to Jesus exactly when she was supposed to return to him, too. Her departure provides a severe lesson for all of us; to actively value the spirit within our children.

Honoring Kenley’s Spirit

“Kenley” sounds a lot like “kindling” and she’s already sparked a light for me…a reminder to nurture the 18 month-old within each child, and even within myself. She can serve as a beacon for all parents and educators, especially as the benchmarks for standardized tests are increasing and the stakes for funding are rising. As we strap our wonderful children with these increased expectations, let’s not forget that our core purpose on this planet is to honor their individual spirits. We can provide a relevant education for them while celebrating their individual gifts, not in spite of them.

As her obituary said, “Kenley was a funny, happy, bright and loving little girl. She was a great hugger and kisser and always on the go.” She can teach me to be vigilant about respecting that funny, happy, bright, and loving person inside both of my children and all of the students we touch through SOAR. She can teach all of us to spend a little more time letting our children express themselves and have more opportunities to explore their own interests, not make academics their only standard of measurement for self-worth. And, parents and teachers who already get this, should never be made to feel guilty for making the spirit of their children and students a priority.

This simple, yet profound legacy of a jubilant toddler is supported by intense and meticulous scientific observation and analysis. Dr. Maria Montessori spent over 50 years observing children across many different cultures in several different countries. She tested and refined thousands of theories and approaches in education, earning nine nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Montessori’s ultimate conclusion and greatest legacy was that nourishing the spirit of the child was as critically important as nurturing the mind of the child. In her words, “It is the spirit of the child that can determine the course of human progress and lead it perhaps even to a higher form of civilization.”

This is exactly where our society stands at this point in history… in the doorstep of that “higher form of civilization.” Society no longer needs conformity in manufacturing institutions. It needs innovation. Innovation is fueled by people who have the confidence to take risks and test ideas. People who aren’t afraid of failing because they know how to innovate more opportunities. People with spirit!

Please help me honor Kenley’s life by making a significant effort to recognize and nurture the spirit within your children and your students. This simple shift –lessening the pressure of academic performance and increasing the value of their spirit- can change their world, and ours, in profound ways!

I also ask you to join me in expressing your support of Kenley’s family and her legacy in any of the following ways:

  1. Pray for everyone involved.
  2.  Share a comment to them in the blog below.
  3. Make a contribution to the scholarship fund being established in Kenley’s memory, even if only $1. This simple action can be tremendously healing for her family in recognizing that she is still serving her purpose in this world by inspiring others.

Send check donations to:
Dabrowski Family
c/o Chief Financial Credit Union
790 Joslyn Ave.
Pontiac, MI 48340
Include Memo for her Family: “In Honor of Kenley’s Spirit”

Finally, I want to be clear to Kenley’s family that my words are an expression of total and sincere sympathy. I hope I haven’t made statements or assumptions that come across as insensitive. In a situation like this, it is easy to say things that seem thoughtless or inconsiderate to those who are grieving simply because we don’t know what to say. When trying to offer our love and support in a tough situation, it is easy to become tongue-tied or say things that might not be what the grieving person needs to hear at that moment. Regardless of what the words are or how they come out of someone’s mouth, they really are just *code* for, “I sincerely wish I could take your pain away!” I spoke with Sarah and Dan at Kenley’s wake and am pretty certain they know where my heart is. I hope these words respectfully reflect my intentions.

I also feel compelled to extend my hand to the poor man involved in this accident. He is a father. This was an accident. I don’t know him, but I have no doubt that he is completely devastated, too. I can’t imagine Sarah and Dan’s position in this situation and can’t blame them for any of their feelings. But, anyone who is not directly involved in this situation and makes negative judgments is a Godless person filled with fear; fear that is masking what they know is true…that this could just as easily have happened to them! Every parent has had moments with their children where something could have very easily gone terribly wrong.-I know I have! Please keep this particular father and his family in your thoughts and prayers, too.

(Thank you to Debbie Phillips and Rob Berkley of Women on Fire for allowing me to share their interview with Barbara Corcoran…and for extending significant love and friendship to me when I first learned about Kenley.)

-Susan Kruger


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