Outside the Whale: Autumn Leaves Must FallBy Tanya Willow
Tony Andreotti came with a rake. He is brushing back November leaves that have already covered the grass near the newly placed memorial, helped paid for through his veterans agency. Andreotti and a small team are battling the cruel effects of entropy with an announcement planned for this morning. Connor Erickson ties balloons to a tree near the memorial and worries out loud if there are enough balloons. Then he asks if the pair of vases filled with red and white carnations set on either side of the memorial look all right. He’s assured that they look great, but he adjusts them anyway.
Helena Findlen arrives without her boss. Police Chief Ken Berkowitz cannot attend because his father-in-law died this morning. The words Chief Berkowitz worked on for weeks in preparation for today will be read by Findlen. She laughs at the over-the-counter reading glasses she is wearing, though time has impacted little else on the deputy chief. It’s still easy to see why, in her youth, she was the winner of the international Rose of Tralee beauty contest. Twenty-four years of being on the police force has hardened nothing in her visage or her tenor.
Another car arrives and Beth Erickson steps out. Findlen is one of a few who know that Erickson, the editor of this newspaper, is at the center of the team that today is fighting entropy. Beverly Beckham, a close friend of Erickson’s and a well-known columnist who wrote many pieces for the Boston Herald about what happened all those years ago, is here too, along with a few relatives and friends.
A team of motorcycle riders are already in place. Harleys and black leather jackets and bandannas have long since lost their “Hells Angels” bad boy reputation and today seem almost synonymous with charity. On the back of the jackets is stamped an American eagle with “Post 24 American Legion.” These are the men and women who worked with Andreotti to help raise money for the stone.
It’s just a matter now for the Canton High chorus to arrive along with students from the Boomerang Project, CHS Principal Derek Folan, and Superintendent of Schools Jeff Granatino. None were part of Canton High when one of their own was killed and another left to grow up behind gated walls. But the administrators know that the schools and the Canton police have a protocol to exchange information on troubled kids in part because of what happened on another November day, long before the students attending today were born.
Jeanne Quinn, a Vietnam veteran, pushes her daughter Yvonne in her wheelchair up to the now ready circle. Andreotti worked on Quinn’s behalf for her to receive funds toward the memorial that bears the name of her 14-year-old son.
On November 20, 1986, Canton freshman Shaun Ouillette was brought to the “Canton pits” on a false pretense and hit repeatedly over the head with a baseball bat by classmate Rod Matthews. Before the murder, Matthews had written an anonymous note and left it in a box at Canton High School, saying that he wanted to light houses on fire and was afraid he would kill someone. Two Canton High students knew Matthews had a list of students he had thought about killing and that he had turned his focus on Shaun.
Shaun was missing for weeks until one of the students, who did not believe Matthews when he said he had killed Shaun, was shown the lifeless body. During one of many sleepless nights, the student returned to the pits, made careful notes on where Shaun’s body was located, and then left an anonymous note with police.
Speaking to the gathered circle, Findlen reminded the group that in 1986 there was no Columbine, no national awareness, as there is today, that outrageous threats can become shocking reality. There was no protocol in place on how to deal with rumors, bullying, fears or threats of classmate violence.
What is not widely known was that after Shaun’s murder, Findlen applied for a highly competitive national grant that would help finance a system that would streamline communication between the schools, troubled students, and the police. In her grant application she explained the tragedy at Canton High School and that if there had been a method for dealing with the anonymous note and a safe place for the students to report what Matthews was saying to them, that perhaps the murder could have been stopped. Findlen feels Canton got the grant in part because of Shaun’s story. Today, Detective Chip Yeaton is the school resource officer with an office at Canton High School.
When Findlen announced to the gathering that the program would, from this day forward, be named after Shaun, Quinn put her hand to her mouth. Yvonne was emotional throughout the ceremony, but Andreotti never left her side and seemed to know just when to grip her arm to console her. Yeaton then brought the plaque that would hang in his office, which has Shaun’s photograph, for both to see.
The murder was something many in Canton would rather forget, perhaps because it may have been preventable. Blame and cruel remarks were widespread during the trial and in the aftermath. Anyone who has watched Quinn in this impossible journey could say that her greatest dread is that her son’s short life will be forgotten. That no one will remember that he went to Canton High. That he was here, on this planet, however briefly.
With the announcement, it was as if entropy itself was shoved back. Students who come to Yeaton’s office will know that there once was a Canton High student named Shaun Ouillette who may have been saved by this very program had such a thing existed then. And there is the stone monument that stands against time at St. Mary’s cemetery.
Certainly the monument for the boy whose stone reads “Forever Young” will once again be covered by November leaves. The plaque that hangs in the school resource office at the high school will blend with the wall in time. Entropy, after all, always wins. But because of the efforts of a small group of people, its victory has been delayed, perhaps for decades. More importantly, a mother’s and sister’s forever pain has been softened.
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