Christmastime and the Death of a Student

Early on the morning of Saturday December 21st, I learned that Bishop Kelley sophomore Brock Norton had died overnight in a car accident. Brock had been driving home and hit a patch of ice and slid off the road. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt. According to news reports, he slid off the road and was ejected from the vehicle.  When the police found him, it was too late. 
My heart sank at the news. I knew Brock. He was an energetic and lovable kid.  He had transferred to Bishop Kelley at the beginning of the year.  I always try to take an interest in transfer students because leaving one school and coming to another can be difficult.  Brock had made the baseball team, had an easy time making friends and generally made the transition to BK look easy.  He had a bright future ahead.
Unfortunately, I had felt this pain before. In 2009 and again in 2011, a student died during their time at BK. I remember it happening during my first year as a teacher at BK back in 1999. I knew what was ahead both personally and professionally: a devastated family, sad and confused friends, teachers mourning the loss of a student, days and weeks of mourning, my own personal grief (I love these kids!) and a funeral. Oh, and Christmas.  “Christmas is Wednesday” I thought when I heard the news.  There’s never, ever a good time for tragedy but Christmastime somehow makes it worse.
After speaking with Brock’s mother, I started to call around to my fellow administrators to break the news to them. The news was starting to spread via TV reports but it was early enough that the students hadn’t heard yet.  I knew once word got out that via social media (mostly Twitter) that there would be a lot of sadness, a lot of confusion, and a lot questions. 
Being a priest is the most interesting, rewarding, sad, joyful, and unbelievable life I can imagine.  Spending my time with high school students and those who teach them is a great joy.  Teenagers are full of zeal, big questions, and their futures are full of promise.  When a student dies it is an unbelievable tragedy because that future full of promise is snuffed out. But, time and time again, the tragedies I’ve been a part of are also times of incredible grace.  The week of Brock’s death I saw teachers and counselors going out of their way to comfort one another and their students.  I watched students minister to each other and to the Norton family.  It was a sight to see.  It was God’s incarnational love breaking through in a terrible, terrible time. 
And that’s what Christmas is. Yes a time of family, good food, presents and decorations, but at the center of Christmas is God breaking into a world that is often full of sadness.  At the center of Christmas is a baby, Emmanuel, God with us.  God humbled Himself and took on human flesh to show us how to live.  He also showed us how to suffer and die.
In this Christmas season and in the new year, I ask for your prayers for the repose of the soul of Brock Norton and for his mother, father, older brother, and their extended family.  I also ask you to pray for the students and teachers of Bishop Kelley who have a lost a classmate, a student and a friend.  May the peace of Christ that Mary and Joseph saw on that first Christmas, reside with us in our good times and in our sorrows.

About Rev. Brian O'Brien

Priest of the Diocese of Tulsa and President of Bishop Kelley High School in Tulsa, OK.
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