Reflections from “Tales from the Office” #1: The Train Incident

In light of my pending departure from the Elk Grove Charter School, I wanted to share some memories from the past eight years. Perhaps they won’t be in the same anecdotal format you’re used to, but they are moments that have stood out in my mind.

The Train Incident

In December of 2008, we were located in Old Town Elk Grove near the railroad tracks. That close proximity meant that we could hear the passing trains, and I could almost tell the time based on when they passed. Around noon we heard the train sound its horn, except this time, it wasn’t the typical 2-3 quick blasts as it approached the crossing. This time, it was a sustained blast that was combined with screeching brakes.

We figured out very quickly that the train had hit something or someone. We just weren’t sure what or whom. The incident occurred right during the break between our two sections, so students were coming and going as they usually did. Were our students okay? Who might it be? Naturally we quickly began an internal process to account for all of our kiddos. A flurry of phone calls ensued to the homes of any absent student, trying to ensure that they were safe. As the afternoon progressed, the list narrowed. Finally Law Enforcement came up to the office and the coroner asked for a picture of a specific student.

“Is It One of Ours?”

At this point, we had no confirmation that it was one of ours who was the victim. Yet our own internal accounting had narrowed the list to three students and this student was one of them. Teachers and students constantly probed for information, but we couldn’t say anything. Not yet. Finally around 4pm we got confirmation that the victim was in fact one of ours, Matthew.  Our hearts dropped.  We were speechless.

By 6pm the train was gone, the scene returned to its previously innocent state. The only evidence remaining was the pages of Matthew’s textbooks that were strewn about the tracks. I went out to collect them, not wanting our students to return the following morning to such a sight.  As I was picking up his items, I heard a train in the distance and noticed a bright light far to the north on the tracks.  Not wanting to be another casualty, I quickly went back into the building.

Pesky Reporter

Inside the building, one of our teachers was asking for info about the accident, trying to identify which student it was. We were still under a gag order since law enforcement hadn’t yet been able to contact the boy’s family. Suddenly a Sacramento Bee reporter came walking down the hallway, having sneaked into the locked building behind someone from the business downstairs. He quickly began questioning everybody in sight, asking if they knew Matthew. Matthew’s English teacher began to cry. Her worst fears had been confirmed. I immediately ushered the reporter out, screaming at him for intruding on our privacy and moment of loss.

13.6 – Deceased

Matthew’s death was one of the hardest moments of my career.  I didn’t know the boy that well, and had only spoken to him a handful of times.  None of that mattered though, he was one of our own.  Even harder was returning the next morning to a distraught staff and student body.  Thankfully we had chaplains and grief counselors on site to help our students work through their emotions.  Later that day we disenrolled Matthew from the school using a drop code I’ve never had to use since: “13.6 – Deceased.”

13.6 Deceased Reason Code

The train incident will forever be engrained into my mind.  Even now as I pass along Elk Grove Blvd and cross the railroad tracks, I turn off the radio, remove my hat, and observe a few seconds of silence in his honor.

We miss you, Matthew.  Gone, but never forgotten.

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Christopher is a bonafide pizza snob, and loves spontaneous adventures to wherever the skies deem fit.

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