Faculty, administration and staff woke up on March 11 to an email from headmaster Stephen Repsher saying that the unthinkable had happened – seventh-grader Connor Burns had died the day before.
This was the second time in Country Day history that a student has died while attending the school. In 1985, sixth-grader David Clayson died from an inoperable brain tumor on Dec. 21 after developing cancer the previous year.
Students in Clayson’s class knew what was coming as they saw their friend become more ill each month.
But when Brooke Wells, head of high school, and Sandy Lyon, head of middle school, stood in front of their students and told them of Burns’s passing, the news came as a shock to most.
“We didn’t try to get a lot of academics done that day,” said Lyon, who allowed students to leave school early if they felt they needed to.
After making his announcement to the high school, Wells read the poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas and initiated a moment of silence.
The shock and sadness that followed was just the beginning.
“Connor’s unexpected passing was a devastating tragedy for our community, and it remains so,” Repsher said.
The impact was apparent almost immediately.
“There were a lot of drawings that went on paper and whiteboards with outpourings of feelings about Connor,” Lyon said.
In the garden, some middle-school students planted a flower heart with Burns’s name in it.
Students also draped paper chains and flowers on Burns’s locker.
Later that week, the middle-school student council coordinated the creation of paper airplanes that were hung up across the quad.
These planes, some with personal messages inside, were strung up along a row of trees.
Eighth-grade English teacher Lauren LaMay said she thinks it’s important for students to perform some kind of ritual after a child dies.
When Clayson died, LaMay was his sixth-grade English, history and homeroom teacher. Though Clayson wasn’t at school for most of the year, LaMay took mini-lessons to his home a couple times a week.
“He wanted to still be considered a part of the class up until the end,” LaMay said.
At the time, the sixth grade was the last year of lower school, and it ended with a graduation ceremony.
“At the graduation that year, we had a small part dedicated to David,” LaMay said. “And we planted a tree out by the lower school. The tree planting was the ritual we had for David.”
The Colorado blue spruce now towers over the gate between the lower and middle schools and most of the buildings surrounding it.
At the base is a plaque with Clayson’s name and the years he attended, 1978-85.
Barbara Ore, then director of development and admissions, remembers watching Clayson’s mother chuckle while the spruce was planted.
“It was a beautifully shaped tree,” Ore said. “It was full of energy and bouncing. I think it gave (David’s mother) a wonderful feeling of her son as a bouncing little boy.”
Hannah Clayson Smith, ’91, Clayson’s older sister, said her family wanted to “create a lasting tribute” by planting the spruce so Clayson’s friends would remember him each time they walked by the tree.
Smith said she remembers LaMay and former fifth-grade teacher Judy Bennett visiting Clayson at home and bringing projects for him.
“A Country Day teacher and long-time family friend, Frank Pignata, visited our home regularly (to tutor) David,” Smith said. “And David’s classmates sent notes of encouragement and visited (him) at home.”
Smith, who was only a grade ahead of her brother, said she became close to many of his friends in high school, having one as a bridesmaid.
“For me, there was always an empty chair at the Class of ’92 events,” Smith said.
Ore remembers Clayson’s death as impacting the lower school most profoundly.
“It wasn’t campus-wide in the same way as (the impact of Connor’s death),” Ore said. “It’s always painful for students to lose a classmate.”
LaMay, who also taught Burns in a film study elective, agreed that young students, especially those in Burns’s class, were most affected.
“The whole concept of death and mortality is not one that middle schoolers are used to thinking about,” she said. “There was a lot more talk about death and ways of dying – they needed to talk it out.”
On March 16, a memorial service was held for friends and family of the Burnses. School was let out early, and the high-school tennis match was cancelled so that students could attend.
“The memorial service was attended by a large number of Country Day families,” Repsher said.
Clayson’s funeral, held on Christmas Eve in 1985, was also a chance for the community to mourn.
This year, freshmen Kyra Petersen and Molly Gherini, who have known the Burnses since the second grade, were both at the service, which was held at Trinity Cathedral.
“There were a lot of people that we’d previously known who went to other schools,” Petersen said. “It was devastating that that was how everyone had to meet up again.”
Following the service, the high-school Jazz Band played at the reception, at the Sutter Club.
“I think the music helped to clear up the mood,’ said senior Grant Miner, who played saxophone. “Without it, the memorial would’ve just been a bunch of sad people standing in a room.”
The band played lively songs, including “Groove Merchant,” “Tangerine” and “The Nearness of You.”
Just as many high schoolers attended the memorial, many also found ways of honoring him, despite many of them knowing only his freshman brother Nico.
At the boys’ basketball playoff game, March 11, the athletes wore ribbons on their shoes and had a moment of silence before starting.
“There was this subtle sadness over everyone,” said sophomore Adam Dean, a center on the team.
Many high-school students also made ceramic hearts with messages for the Burns family, an idea that ceramics teacher Julie Didion and Gherini came up with.
“The idea (was) to say that our hearts are with you,” Gherini said.
“It kind of kept our minds off of the sadness and made us more happy to do something for the family,” freshman Lily Brown said.
To help students with such sadness, the school brought in grief counselors. The day after Burns’s death, law-enforcement chaplains came to campus.
These counselors work with the police and provide services to affected groups, often including schools, according to Repsher.
“The counselors provide a comfortable place to talk,” Wells said. “It’t not always just someone who was directly affected. I think Connor’s death brought up other things that students needed to deal with as well.”
The chaplains brought a St. Bernard named Sophie with them.
“The dog was kind of an excuse,” Repsher said. “You could go to see the dog but then also chat with the counselor.”
Dr. Jessica Vando, ’92, a clinical psychologist who works with adolescents and adults presenting with a variety of problems, including depression, eating disorders and anxiety, also came to campus.
Vando described her role as “providing a safe and validating place (for students) to express and process their emotions.”
“I think a lot of it was validating that it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to feel upset, it’s okay to feel angry, it’s okay to feel anything they were feeling,” she said.
Vando said she also tried to help students “be aware of signs that they may need to reach out for further help processing their emotions.”
The counselors were also available to faculty and parents.
The day after Burns’s death, Repsher held a meeting with the counselors for faculty, administration and staff.
“They were the ones who needed the immediate attention,” Repsher said.
Repsher also invited parents to come to school on March 18 and meet with the counselors.
“We had about 25-30 parents who came,” Repsher said.
Up through Spring Break, Repsher also sent emails to families detailing the school’s plan to “help the community learn to cope.”
In contrast, the school had been preparing students for Clayson’s death for months, LaMay said.
“His classmates, his parents and the community knew he was dying,” she said. “The good side was they knew it was coming. The bad side was you had to watch him deteriorate and get sicker and sicker.”
LaMay recalls Clayson had a birthday party during sixth grade and invited some classmates.
“They were really shocked at how David looked,” LaMay said. “That was the hard part – for the kids to see someone they had known since Pre-K turn into someone they barely recognized.”
Vando, who was also a member of David Clayson’s class when he died, said she remembers David being physically changed by his treatment.
When Clayson was no longer attending school, his family organized some gatherings with his friends. Vando recalls seeing “E.T.” with Clayson and his friends and family and attending parties at his house.
“I remember feeling distressed or maybe some dissonance about the fact that the rest of us were healthy and being provided with an entertainment but that David was quite unwell at that point,” Vando said.
History teacher Daniel Neukom never taught Clayson, but he taught his sisters and would often have free-throw contests with him in the lower-school quad.
“I think a lot about those days,” Neukom said. “He was enjoyable, lively and delightful.”
But as Clayson became increasingly sick, Neukom said it “became apparent that it would become a very bad situation.”
“This didn’t make his death any less gruesome, but (his death) didn’t have the ultimate shock,” Neukom said.
Vando agrees. “We were prepared to a certain extent,” she said. “Although one always hoped he would recover, it didn’t come out of the blue.”
In contrast, Vando said the community reacted with more shock when Burns passed.
“It was very raw and very immediate,” she said.
LaMay said students and teachers had sessions with a group counselor before Clayson’s death.
“A lot of parents took it upon themselves to get their kids some counseling,” LaMay said.
When Vando, who was in LaMay’s class when Clayson died, came to work with grieving students, LaMay talked to her about Clayson.
“I said, ‘The last time this happened was in your class,'” LaMay said. “She immediately teared up and said she remembered it like it was yesterday. These kids will not forget this. It’s not going to wash away.”
Clayson’s death has certainly stayed with Vando.
“I just don’t think it’s the kind of thing that will ever leave you,” she said. “And now that I have children, I have a completely different perspective on the situation – I relate to it in a different way.”
For Lyon, the shock and sorrow of Burns’s death have yet to subside.
“There’s a hole in the middle school of a person that we will miss,” she said. “I think that’s ongoing.
“It may be scabbed over, but it’s never really healed.”
Previously published in the print edition on April 28, 2015.