[Editor’s note: Marie Boo is a school psychologist at PS 45 in Queens.]
“Brace yourself — I have bad news and you’re not going to believe it.”
The phone call came on the eve of Memorial Day last year from our school secretary. I listened in disbelief as she told me that our guidance counselor had died that afternoon. She explained that it appeared to be a sudden heart attack but I don’t really recall the rest of the conversation as I tried to absorb this horrific news. I kept thinking No…not Steve…it can’t be true…he was at work last week and seemed fine…his poor family…how will we tell the students? Then it hit me as I was telling my daughter about the call. I didn’t just lose a coworker; I just lost a very dear friend.
The next few days were the most difficult of my twenty-two-year career. As a member of the district crisis team for several years, I have had to report to other schools and assist staff and students cope with the loss of someone from their community. Now I had to call the crisis team and ask for assistance. With a constant lump in my throat I had to offer support and comfort to my own and I remember one moment when I thought, “Damn it Steve, you’re suppose to be here with me helping others deal with the death of someone else. It’s not supposed to be you.”
According to the school organization sheet, Steve Goepfert was the guidance counselor at PS 45 in District 27, Queens for approximately fourteen years. For those of us who knew him as I did, he was so much more. He was a warm, compassionate and giving person who fulfilled his role as Santa Claus over the years at the school winter concerts in more ways than one. He was fondly referred to as “Mr. Rogers” by the staff because of his variety of sweaters and as “Mr. G.” by the students. He had a way of making each child feel special regardless of their behaviors and reputations. He would often treat them to a Burger King lunch for their birthday or give them a small present. I found myself having to defend him when staff members didn’t quite agree with his cookie-and-milk technique to help acting out students relax and return to their classrooms. Steve explained to me that his role was not to be a disciplinarian and that it was important to him that the students felt that they had a safe place to go and be with someone who would not judge them for their wrongdoing.
Mr. G. assisted with the morning routine as he greeted the students and helped manage them in the auditorium or cafeteria until the teachers arrived. Everyday during all three lunch periods he would take a group of students with their lunch trays into his narrow office and show a movie. (He would then collect their leftovers to take home to his two dogs.) It was a very rare occasion that he could walk through the hallways without some student calling out “Mr. G. can you take me today?” After his death, we decided that his office door should remain closed for the remainder of the school year and it was smothered with cards made by the students. During grief counseling sessions we talked about the special times they spent with him. Most spoke of the movies, or the special birthday lunch and some even stated that “he was like a father” to them. Teachers related personal stories of how he would acknowledge their birthdays, the births of children or grandchildren or when they were out sick how he called or visited or sent a card.
On a more personal level, my friend Steve and I shared many years working together and sharing stories. As a member of the IEP team I have worked with several different team members over the years, but Steve had been my constant for fourteen years. Like clockwork, everyday after the students were in their classrooms, he would stop in our office and individually greet each of us. Often he would stay for awhile until after the morning announcements. Then at the end of each day he would stop in again and speak of the day occurrences and wish us well. When Steve would say “See you tomorrow,” my coworker would respond “God willing.” Steven mentioned once that it made him uncomfortable. Sadly, the last time I saw him, my coworker said to him, “See you on Tuesday” and Steve responded for the first and last time, “God willing.”
Steve knew more about me then anyone else in the building as we shared our life stories — past and present and some future plans. For example, I knew of his dream to build a log cabin on property that his family had owned through the years. I knew how he met his wife Joann, who is a teacher in our district, where they celebrated their 25th anniversary and how devoted he was to her. I knew how proud he was of his three children. Although he had every right to brag about their accomplishments, he never did but instead shared their stories in a more humble way. I remember how concerned he was when his daughter Lauren joined the police academy and so relived when she decided to become a teacher. As his son Bobby’s career as a professional hockey goalie unfolded, I listened to the stories and read the articles that he shared with me. His son Stephen is pursuing a career in politics and after working on the Obama campaign last year, he received two tickets to the inauguration. He chose to take his dad.
I offered to go through his office and separate his personal items for his family — the sweaters, the religious books, sports magazines, family pictures, etc. I sat in his room for a long time just looking around thinking that this is where he spent most of his day for the last 14 years. I looked at the wall and saw sayings and signs that spoke of what was important to him. There was a saying by Mother Teresa which ends with, “If you help those in need from the goodness of your heart, and they attack you, help anyway. If you give the world the best you have, and you are kicked in the teeth, give the world the best you have anyway.” Steve did that. Another sign which was somewhat yellowed and must have been there his whole career read: “Children may not remember what you taught them, but they will always remember how you treated them.” Although the author was unknown, Steve certainly could have claimed ownership since that was what he portrayed. Many of us in the building now have a copy of that sign hanging in our rooms as of reminder of Steve.
I thought that we were going to spend the next several years together at PS 45 sliding into our retirement. But instead I just glance at the sign above my desk and I miss him. I miss his presence, I miss consulting with him about our students, I miss his smile, I miss our conversation about family, religion, politics and even sports, I miss helping him with the computer, I miss sharing my life stories with him and hearing about his, I miss his laugh…And that lump in my throat returns when I think about this December, and wonder who will be our Santa Claus?