In Atlanta, a mock funeral seeks to help students bury their pain

ATLANTA - By the time the last student walked past the open casket, hundreds of notes were piled inside, bits of pain the mourners hoped to bury.

The casket was real, but the funeral was symbolic, staged at a west-side Atlanta high school surrounded by poverty. It began with gospel music blasting through the gym. A pastor preached redemption and self-worth. Grieving mothers remembered their teenage sons, whose real funerals were just last year.

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After it was over, the high school social worker and the principal sat down to read hundreds of essays retrieved from the casket.

"It was cold, no lights, no water, and it was winter time . . ."

"Everybody around me sold drugs . . ."

"I never knew what my dad looked like . . . "

"This is why they can't learn, Doc," Ed Morris, a social worker at Frederick Douglass High School, said to Principal Ellis Duncan. Morris read an essay written by a student considering suicide and tucked the paper into his pocket. "I need to find this kid."

The goal was to force students to confront their rawest emotions, even if painful. In coming weeks, teachers would be asked to talk with students about forgiveness, about the people they can count on, about helping others.

The mock funeral in Atlanta is part of a broad movement that has taken hold in schools throughout the country. It aims to see students as people with social and emotional needs as well as academic goals, and to address life traumas that stand in their way.

The field has gained currency amid a backlash against testing and accountability and the relentless focus on reading and math.

Students learn about managing disagreements, making good decisions and developing healthy relationships. Often, it's as simple as students greeting one another in the morning, or sharing feelings while sitting in a circle. Research shows the programs improve test scores, too.

The programs vary. One survey found that one in three schools have social emotional learning programs, but a smaller share met benchmarks for quality. It is not clear whether the mock funeral in Atlanta will wind up being transformative or another disappointment for teenagers facing some of life's hardest problems. Unlike programs that are well-established and backed by research, this one was more improvisational. Follow-up exercises were not in place ahead of time and ended up delayed by at least several weeks.

Atlanta's public school system has embraced the idea, and the superintendent is a leader in the field. But district officials made clear that the mock funeral, which has not been formally evaluated, is not part of the school district's official program.

"A number of schools and districts have homegrown programs. They don't all have an evidence base to them," said Melissa Schlinger, vice president for practice and program at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which conducted the survey and works with school districts in developing programs.

Schlinger said the mock funeral appears to be grounded in research showing that children do best when they feel that adults in the school know them, but said the exercise would benefit from follow-up and evaluation.

"It's a really powerful message that the school is sending to the students - that we value who you are: We see you, we know you, we understand you are more than how you perform in algebra," she said.

It's not the only time a mock funeral has been tried, and the events have sometimes drawn controversy. Early this year, the principal of a Memphis grade school apologized after staging a mock funeral featuring an improvised baby casket with a doll inside. It was meant to symbolize the burying of poor test scores but upset some staff members. Schools in California, Michigan and New York have staged mock car accidents followed by mock funerals and trials to dramatize the risks of drunken driving.

Douglass High, on Atlanta's west side, is known for prominent graduates including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, rapper Killer Mike, and two of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s children. It is known, too, for rock-bottom test scores. Last year, 9 percent of students passed the state proficiency test in English, and 2 percent passed in math. Ninety-seven percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The day of the funeral began with students, in their first classes, watching a video with teachers and school staffers recounting a range of troubling stories from their own childhoods: a mother in prison, a missing father, witness to two murders, bullying, motherhood at age 17, a childhood house that was more like a shack with an outhouse and no electricity.

Students were then asked to write essays about their own lives. What is keeping you from being the best you can be? What do you want to bury?

"Why this gotta be so personal?" one boy asked his teacher. "I ain't got no feelings," said another. But in a nearby classroom, where Tremetrice Wheeler teaches social studies, students didn't need much urging to start writing.

"It's going to get deep. We all got a story that needs to be told, need to deal with it, need to bury it," Wheeler told her students. After they finished, she asked if anyone wanted to share what they had written. Five hands shot up.

"I'm an angry person and I have a bad attitude because of everything I went through," one girl said, gripping a pair of sunglasses that could not hide her streaming tears. Another said she had attempted suicide. "I felt like nobody understood how I felt," she said. A boy told the class about seeing a younger boy attacked by a dog, the little boy's face destroyed, and not being able to stop the attack. He can't stop thinking about it.

Morris said he came up with the idea for the mock funeral when he was working at another Atlanta-area high school, a place, he says, that was plagued by disciplinary issues and gangs.

He grew up in St. Louis with his share of trauma. He says his father was a big-time drug dealer and remembers, at age 3, walking into a bathroom to see him shooting heroin. He remembers his dad beating his mom. At about age 5, he says, strange men kicked in the front door of their house and held a gun to his mother's head and another to his.

His mom took him away after that, and after college he landed in Atlanta.

He started working at Douglass High in 2015 and spends a chunk of each day striding through the hallways, an unmistakable figure at 6-foot-3, as he fist-bumps, hugs, encourages or admonishes just about every student he passes.

"You're doing better. Don't start messing up."

"Get your butt in there. I believe in you! Bye!"

"Take that hood off. I love you. Take it off."

"That's the key to education," he says. "Love the kids." Every day, he tells dozens of kids, and teachers, that he loves them.

Attendance at the mock funeral was voluntary, but the bleachers were full. A controlled chaos reigned as students found seats and Byron Cage's gospel song "Broken But I'm Healed" filled the room.

Players on the state-champion girls basketball team, in their matching black sweatshirts, served as pallbearers, rolling the casket into the gym, down the center aisle and to the front of those assembled. Flowers were placed on top of the satin-lined coffin. The mourners took their seats.

At first, it was hard to say how many students were really listening. The master of ceremonies asked them to believe in themselves. The school choir performed. In the stands, there were murmurs and some laughter, with some kids more interested in whatever was playing in their ear buds.

It turned quiet when three mothers took the stage. Each had a son attending Douglass High who was shot and killed last year, and photos of the boys were projected onto giant screens. A cousin of one of the boys spoke to the students. "We're standing before you today ... telling you, 'You are loved. You are valued. We need you,' " Chevian Dudley said.

The last speaker was Penny Brown Reynolds, a former state court judge, onetime TV courtroom star and ordained minister. She was dressed in a judicial robe, but she was preaching this day.

She told her story: born into poverty as a product of rape, raised by a single mother. Later came degrees in law and divinity. She recalled once when she didn't get a job, a professor told her, simply, "You are enough."

"I just started to weep because nobody ever said to me, 'You are enough,' " she said. "So many of you, nobody's telling you, 'You are enough.' "

And with that, the casket was opened. Brown Reynolds invited students to come down, and a surge of teenagers came off the bleachers, notes in hand.

"We are enough. You are enough," Brown Reynolds said, over and over, her voice booming through the gym. "You are enough."

Teachers, some of whom dropped their own notes into the casket, spontaneously formed a receiving line. It snaked along the gym, carrying students with hugs and tears from the casket, around the bend, back to the bleachers. The line was long and the hugs lingered. It took a half-hour for the whole school to make it through.

Then, everyone went back to class.

"First," said Wheeler, the social studies teacher, "I want us all to just take a deep breath. I'm not saying that your troubles are going to end today."

"It opened up taboo topics," said Kristin White, a student in Wheeler's class. "It created a safe space."

Wheeler, 50, who sports inch-long blue fingernail tips and bright blond hair, said later that the funeral helped her, too. She is still grieving the death of her husband. The day helped her feel more connected, as she heard her students' stories and saw their tears. "Today was one of those great days," she said.

Later, Morris began the work of reading the essays.

"My Mom said your grandma should have left you (where) you was at, which means should of left us me and my two sisters in foster care."

"My grandad was already physically abusing me and my mama didn't really do anything to prevent it."

"RIP Uncle Tim. RIP Big Brother. RIP Mommy. RIP twin sis. RIP Grandpa."

"I hate the feeling that people give me that they are gonna kill me. And ever since my cousin got killed it haven't been the same. I been wanting to fight. And I just want to kill."

"I want to forgive my rapist and my mother who never really [was] by my side."

"Waking up with glass everywhere and a man standing over my head with a knife. All I could do was cry and try to get away but it was no way so I cry and ask to just stop."

"I'm kind of glad that I'm writing this because honestly I don't have nobody to talk to."

Now, Morris says, they have to build the kids back up.

He has an eight-week program, a curriculum crafted with the help of two of his friends - husband and wife Kevin Salwen, a writer and entrepreneur, and Joan Salwen, a former managing director at Accenture. The program features motivating videos, classroom discussions and assignments such as writing a letter of gratitude to someone. Lessons touch on visualizing success, releasing anger and learning to teach others.

Morris said he is not concerned that the curriculum has not been vetted by experts in the field but wants that to happen.

The sessions were supposed to begin a week after the mock funeral, but on the day of the event, teachers had not yet been trained. Morris mused that it might make more sense for him to record the messages in videos to play in each classroom, to ensure the right information is conveyed. But he had not recorded the videos.

Soon after the funeral, Morris said, his stepfather died, taking him away from Atlanta and postponing the follow-up program. Nearly a month after the mock funeral, no formal follow-up has taken place, although Morris is still hoping it will.

In the hours after the mock funeral, Morris couldn't stop thinking about the notes he'd read, worried about the weight the students are carrying. He wants to reach them, but the essays were written anonymously.

Morris comes onto the loud speaker during morning announcements the next day.

"I want to let you guys know I started reading the essays last night . . . and I just want to let you children know, we are here for you if you have any problems, come and let us know. . . . "

"They read them?!" one kid yells out in his class. "They're supposed to be buried."

Morris's voice continues to beam in from the speaker.

"There will be follow-up. We're not going to leave you in this alone," he promises. Then he reminds them of what Brown Reynolds told them the day before. "You're enough. I don't want you to ever forget - you're enough."

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