Ascension School mourns loss of ‘shining star’

| November 6, 2012 | 0 Comments


Ascension School principal Dorwatha Woods took a few moments Nov. 2, the Feast of All Souls, to read from the religion class journal of one of her students, eighth-grader Peter Wilson.

A collective gasp rose up from the students and teachers who filled Ascension church in Minneapolis when she recited these words of Peter’s aloud: “I’m praying for my soul.”

On this day, they were praying for his.

Just four days earlier, at around 4:30 a.m., the 13-year-old died at the hands of an assailant who also killed his grandmother, Beatrice Wilson, 57. Police have arrested her 22-year-old son, Ishmael Roberts, who fled to Iowa in her car before rolling it over and trying to run from the scene, according to a report in the StarTribune. He has been charged with two counts of intentional second-degree murder.

With very few details of the crime to ponder, Woods is left to think about the first time in her 26 years as principal that one of her students has died from violence. Both Peter and his grandmother were stabbed to death.

“It just shattered us,” said Woods, who found comfort in the words written by Peter just days before his death. “[The journal entry] was a confirmation for me that he was with God, that his soul was with God.

“This was Peter. He was thinking about the important things in life and he was thinking about his eternal salvation.”

Learning horrible news

What Woods was thinking about when she arrived at school that Monday morning was all of the work that needed to get done to prepare for the eighth-grade Christmas program scheduled for early December. Costumes were strewn about the floor of her office, and she had just called in the eighth-graders to work on them.

In all of the commotion, she failed to notice that one out of the 33 students was missing — the one who had a hug for everybody, loved to talk and sing, and stood half a head taller than the rest.

Then, her phone rang. It was an administrator at a local public school asking if she had a student by the name of Peter Wilson. When she asked him why he wanted to know, he merely gave her the name of a police inspector to call.

Before dialing the inspector, she did a quick search of her own to see if Peter had shown up at school that day. Junior high teachers said he hadn’t, so she went to the phone to call his home. Finally, after getting no answer, she called the inspector.

Four days later, the costumes still sat on the floor of her office, untouched since she got the horrible news and discreetly led the eighth-graders out of her office and back to class. After consulting with other staff and Father Michael O’Connell, Ascension parish’s pastor, she decided to tell the seventh- and eighth-graders first, then the rest of the students later.

By the end of the day, all 255 students in kindergarten through eighth grade had learned of Peter’s death.

“Psalm 11 had been in my mind, so I opened the Scriptures and I read Psalm 11 to them,” she said. “And then I told them, ‘I don’t want to have to say this. I really don’t want to have to say these words, but something tragic has happened.’ And, I told them that their classmate was gone — he was dead, along with his grandmother, and that he had been murdered. And, they looked at me. Some of them fell out of their chairs and started crying on the floor. Some of them were just looking at me, as if to say, ‘What did you say?’

‘A shining star’

When the school held a memorial prayer service for Peter on Nov. 2, Psalm 11 again came up. As Woods listened to the words, she thought of Peter, especially at verse 7: “The Lord is just and loves just deeds; the upright will see his face.”

“He was a shining star,” Woods said. “He always had a big smile on his face. In the mornings, he would go around outside while they were waiting to come inside. He would go around giving everybody a hug and asking them how was their day.

“That’s just the kind of kid he was. He was hugging everybody. I had a little first-grader come in here on the day I told the school . . . and she stood right next to me and said, ‘I’m so sad.’ I put my arms around her and I said, ‘I’m sad, too.’ I said, ‘We’re all sad.’ She said, ‘He was my friend.’

“Kids from all over the school considered themselves friends with him. We had our [fundraising] marathon last Friday and he was in the cafeteria after the marathon walk. He was trying to get the third-graders to laugh. So, he’s pretending that he’s walking into the wall, just being goofy, a clown, just having fun with them, wanting them to laugh and doing things to get them to laugh. He was a friend of everybody.”

Though Peter’s death has sent a shockwave through the school and the surrounding neighborhood, Woods said it is crucial that everyone at the school continues to trust in God — and resist the desire for vengeance.

“I know that our response as a school to this situation has been critical to the lives of the children that are left behind, that are still alive,” she said. “I believe that most, if not all, of them are going to mature in a way that only this type of tragedy allows you to mature. And, we’ve dedicated this entire year to Peter, but we’re going to have to take this entire year and intentionally mold and move our children into channeling the hurt and anger that many of them are feeling, especially the older ones. We’re going to have to teach them how you rely on God when things of this sort — these things that you would never have imagined — happen.”

For those outside of the Ascension school and parish community who want to know how to help, Woods offers one simple word: prayer.

“They can continue to pray for our children,” she said. “If this is going to be their safe haven — and for many of them, it is — we want to have as safe a place for them as we can possibly have. And, prayer gives us that hedge of protection, it really does.”

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