Helping Kids Make Sense of a Senseless Death: A School Remembers Josue Flores

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On Friday, sixth grader Angel Nario stood at the podium on Marshall Middle School’s outdoor stage before a sea of hundreds of white shirts, and he asked the question that no one knew the answer to. He said, “I just think to myself, Why did it have to be him? Why?…I don’t understand why he had to go.”

Nario was with 11-year-old Josue Flores, his very first friend at Marshall, in the hour before he died. They were at a science club fiesta together, the last of the school year, and Flores’s science teacher said they bought the kids pizzas and put on a movie. The students went home around 4:30 Tuesday, and Nario and Flores parted ways. Around 4:45, however, several blocks from the school, a man attacked Flores, fatally stabbing him for no identifiable reason. Police have called it a senseless killing.

“He changed our lives completely,” Nario, barely tall enough to reach the mike, said at the end of his speech. “I just wish that I could say thank-you to him.”

Nario’s speech, in many ways, reflected the community’s core conflict: wanting to celebrate Flores’s life, but not yet able to make any sense of his death. With no suspect in custody, parents and kids and teachers have been left not only with grief but with fear. And that collective burden, shared among all students and teachers and parents, is about to be fractured, once the final bell rings in the coming days and the kids go home for summer with Josue Flores on their minds.
That’s why Rebecca Lopez, the school counselor, is trying to help as many as possible before the school year ends. She said that roughly 20 kids came to see her in the days following the tragedy. Some just came to cry. Others were angry. And many, she said, had the same question that Nario did: Why did this have to happen to him, a kid with so much potential?

“I don’t think there will ever be a perfect answer to that for kids,” she said. “I’m very honest with them, and I tell them, I don’t know why him. We don’t know why bad things happen to good people.”

There’s no formula or time-tested methods that Lopez says she can use to help kids this young make sense of a tragedy like this one. What she does do, though, is ask them questions that will help them figure out how they need to express their grief: How can you celebrate his life? What can you do for others that Josue Flores would have done for you? "I do my best to give them that room to grieve," Lopez said, "and we talk about losing someone and loving someone and celebrating their life and how hard it can be."

Lopez said that the ways the kids have chosen to collectively express grief and celebrate Flores have been beautiful, and that was all too apparent at the vigil Friday.

There was the choir, which sang “You Raise Me Up” for him through tears, many of its members clutching hands. 

There were the four dancers who gracefully performed “Dancing in the Sky” for him ballet-style, and the boy who was the only one left at the end, swaying a handmade sign with Flores’s picture on it over his head.

There were the teachers who thanked Flores for the privilege of teaching him, even for helping them understand themselves better, and the elected officials like Mayor Sylvester Turner and U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who came to remind the students that they were not alone in their sadness.

And there were the brave students like Angel Nario, who took the podium to tell the hundreds of people in white a little bit about their friend Josue.
He was a giver, they said, and would give you his last quarter if you needed it. He was smart, really smart, and liked to help his classmates with homework when he had finished his own. And he was perpetually positive — always smiling, always kind and always looking for a way to brighten days.

“Even if we're all sad because of the horrific event that happened this past Tuesday,” said his friend Samuel Sierra, “we have to be positive and happy — the way he would want us to be.”

Flores’s math teacher, Hyrum Estupinan, said Friday that he hasn’t yet thought about what he will tell his class full of kids on Monday, or how he will address the empty desk where Flores, his best student, used to sit. The kids have been on field trips, he said, and they haven’t yet all been together since Flores was with them. That day, he said, Flores had finished his first assignment more quickly than the rest of the class, and then had gone up to Estupinan and asked him for more work. He was a student who had completed more online math lessons than anyone else in the entire school, Estupinan said, simply because he loved learning. And so Estupinan has been left asking the same question as Angel Nario.

“I still don’t believe it,” Estupinan said. “I still want to see him walk in the room. When we got the text that it happened, I started crying immediately. That image of him asking for more on the same day, it’s still on my mind. It’s still on my mind.”

At the end of the vigil, the students and teachers and community all released hundreds of white balloons up into the sky, hoping they would reach Flores. His principal, Michael Harrison, said he was probably still studying in heaven.

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