In Paulette Hallman’s second-grade class in 2007, two seven-year-olds at Oakdale Elementary School were inseparable. One was a boy, the other a girl. The boy was white, the girl black.
The girl’s name was Sydney. The boy was Jesse.
‘Best friends,” recalled Hallman the teacher.
“The name Jesse was a household name in our house,” said Kellee McClenningham, Sydney’s mother. “She talked about him all the time. I mean, every day.”
Pencils and Spider-Man united them.
“Every day Jesse brought me a pencil,” Sydney McClenningham said 10 years later, at age 17. “I would bring him one too. We did it every day. Jesse loved Spider-Man. And car racing. He was my friend. He was everybody’s friend.”
On Valentine’s Day, all the kids in the class exchanged ‘Warm and Fuzzies’ awards for being nice. Jesse got the most in the whole class.
The next day death divided them.
On Feb. 15, 2007, Jesse’s mother, Sandra Glover, picked him up from after school care. The day before, on Valentine’s Day, Glover had been convicted of domestic violence against Jesse’s father and sentenced to counseling. She never went to counseling.
Instead she picked Jesse up, took him home and shot him seven times. Then she shot herself.
Paulette Hallman and the other second-grade teachers were at a conference that day. Everybody rushed back in time for school the next day.
“We had to be there for those children because they would be hearing things,” Hallman recalled. “It was all over the news.”
Hallman, the principal and other teachers and counselors from the Rock Hill school district talked to the children, with special emphasis on Jesse’s classmates. Sydney was one of them.
“I remember Mrs. Hallman told us that Jesse died, and I cried,” Sydney said. “We all cried. I don’t know if I used the word then when I was little, but it was shocking.”
There were no regular curriculum lessons that day. The students sat on the carpet that was their special place for sharing and reading, and wrote about their friend and made pictures of their friend. Staff and counselors from across the Rock Hill school district helped all of them, talked to them, let the kids talk. It was the first of many days of dealing with grief that anyone, let alone second-graders, wound find hard to handle.
Jesse’s desk was put at the front of the room. The basket that held his classwork was put on it.
“This was an event that kids would never forget,” Hallman said. “It would affect their lives. It affected mine. It still does.”
The students made cards for Jesse’s father, and were part of the school’s remembrance, and garden put in to remember Jesse. The way to heal, said Hallman, was to remember Jesse -- not forget him.
Sydney’s mother, a hospice nurse, remembers how sad her daughter was. The way to handle grief is to be there for anyone handling death, and children are no different
“Sydney had questions and we answered them as best we could,” her mother said.
As Sydney grew and moved on, she never forgot Jesse.
“I thought about him all the time, and how he was so outgoing,” Sydney said. “Everybody was his friend. I was shy then, kind of timid. He taught me to make sure everybody was my friend too.”
Sydney is now senior class president at South Pointe High School, and a top student. She will attend college in the fall, and plans to become a lawyer.
“Jesse would have wanted me to do my best,” Sydney said.
This week, Sydney and her mother met with teacher Paulette Hallman at the grave where Jesse is buried. There is a heart-shaped rock that someone left there years ago. Another rock from another classmate says “BFF.”, best friends forever.
It was the first time Sydney had been to the grave. She talked about her friend, and what she remembered. It was sad. And then a smile came across her face.
“I realized right now, today, that Jesse is a part of who I am and what I have done,” Sydney said. “Jesse showed me so much. He was my friend. He taught me things that I didn’t even know I had until right now.”
At graduation in a few months, as class president, Sydney will likely give a speech. Her classmates, some who were in that Oakdale Elementary School second-grade class 10 years ago, will be there with her. Some of that speech will talk about pencils, Spiderman and what it means to be a good friend.
“That part of the speech will be for Jesse,” Sydney said.