Wednesday, April 30, 2008

In the halls of Selkirk, the memory of a young boy burns brightly

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 30, 2008


The school year is winding down, those chirpy September beginnings a dim memory as notebooks fill up and crayons get worked to nubs.

At Selkirk Montessori, the combined Grade 1 and 2 class has been enjoying field trips. This week, they are going swimming.

In the classroom, the pupils have been working on arithmetic and handwriting.

They do so with a missing member.

Christian Lee won lots of friends in his kindergarten year. He liked to play with balls in the gym. He liked to perform for his classmates.

He sang My Roots Go Down with gusto.

Before dawn on the first day of school, he was knifed to death by his father inside his family's million-dollar home. His mother and maternal grandparents were also murdered before his father killed himself.

A coroner's inquest is listening to testimony about the murders this week. The details are grisly and disturbing.

At what was his home, at 310 King George Terrace in Victoria, the picture windows overlooking Juan de Fuca Strait are no longer covered by the blue and orange tarps that hid the aftermath of the mayhem inside from prying eyes.

There seem to be no curtains, although it is reported the home has sold, prime real estate being immune to even the ghastliest horrors.

The tidy lawn on which the boy once frolicked still holds a sign for a burglar alarm, a useless defence on a morning when so many warnings would prove inadequate.

Once again, a little boy's smiling face is on the front page of the newspaper, but he is nowhere to be found.

His absence is felt most keenly at school.

“There's an emptiness. There's a spot missing,” said Penny Barner, the administrator at Selkirk.

“There are so many reminders in the Grade 1 class that Christian was meant to be in. His name on a list. His name on a locker. His desk. He won't be there with us. We'll remember him. But he won't be there.”

The first day of class is a giddy time. Children are eager to see their friends. Teachers are invigorated after a summer break. Parents rejoice in the return of a daily routine.

On Sept. 4, the day after Labour Day, a buzz of excitement filled the hallways and classrooms at the modern, three-story school. Many of the grownups had dedicated their lives to teaching the Montessori method, in which calm prevails and the joy of discovery is not discouraged.

The principal was entering her 22nd year, a kindergarten teacher her 28th.

It was noted that Christian had not come to school that morning. But many families take extended holidays, so no alarm was raised.

After lunch, Ms. Barner got a phone call from a business acquaintance who had been contacted by police. Christian was dead, but the details were sketchy. She could not, did not, want to believe it to be true.

She told the principal, called in Christian's two kindergarten teachers, informed the after-school caregivers, before sharing the terrible news at an emergency staff meeting.

The next morning was a fog of tears and hugs and counsellors and numbing disbelief.

The children sat in circles. One talked about his grandfather dying.

Another said he had lost a dog.

Outside what was to have been his classroom, Christian's locker on the bottom row remained empty. The older kids get to use the lockers on the top, as not all the Grade 1s can reach that high.

The staff mourned a boy they loved, known for his smile and irrepressible joy, who was often seen with his arm wrapped around a friend's neck in that loosey-goosey boy way. They also grieved for a mother and father who had been active at the school.

“Teachers are trained observers,” Ms. Barner said. “They never had a concern about Christian's parents. It was just not something that came to the school. That made it all the more shocking and sad. We lost Sunny [Christian's mother] and we lost [pause] Peter [Christian's father], as well. It was a tragic event.”

Amabel de Lara, one of the boy's kindergarten teachers, channelled her grief by planning a memorial ceremony in the school gymnasium.

Christian's classmates constructed a wreath of white flowers to surround a picture of the smiling boy. Other images of him flashed overhead. In one, he lights one of the candles in a kinara, a kente cloth draped over his right shoulder as part of class Kwanzaa observations.

The memorial raised more than $600, which was donated to the Cridge Centre for the Family. A fuzzy menagerie of cuddlies was also sent to the not-for-profit organization.

Because Christian so much enjoyed singing My Roots Go Down, it was decided to plant a tree in his memory. They selected a Korean dogwood, which blooms at this time of year.

At Selkirk, they want to remember not how his life ended, but how he lived it. Christian is remembered not as a victim, but as a playful, smiling, caring friend whom they miss.

“In his short life, he loved and was loved,” Ms. Barner said. “He spread a lot of joy in that time.”

He liked to give hugs. He liked to celebrate Chinese New Year. He liked to play a game in which he scooted beneath a large nylon parachute held aloft by classmates.

He will be forever aged 6.

2008 CTVglobemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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