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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Our Town: Multi-hued memories Our Town: Multi-hued memories (October 15, 2003)

by Rachel Metz

Wf"Times">hen I heard Jordan Middle School's locker rooms were being remodeled, I was concerned.

Not because students wouldn't have access to showers and changing areas before and after physical-education classes or because the project is seriously delayed. I was concerned because the girls' locker room was not a grimy, damp space but a brightly-painted memorial to a former classmate.

On Sept. 30, 1993, Autry Pritchett, a seventh-grader at Jordan, died after being hit by a car on her way home from school.

At first, it was hard for my 12-year-old self to grasp her absence, but sobbing students and stone-faced teachers comforting each other in the halls and library of Jordan in the days following her death swiftly brought it home.

For many of us kids, this was our first real, tangible brush with death. Sure, there were members of our families who had died, and another classmate, Ira Kushlan, died after being struck by lightning in the Sierra during the summer.

But the timing of Pritchett's death -- right into the school year, a little more than a year after our class was thrown together from our various elementary schools -- forced everybody to confront her absence. It didn't matter if you were a best friend or somebody she barely knew existed. This sense of absence surprised me . It spanned grades and affected many more people than she knew.

But grief quickly gave way to action. Girls began writing colored-marker-pen messages on the door of Pritchett's now-empty locker. Some left flowers and handwritten notes inside, to fill the emptiness.

Pritchett's parents sponsored several projects at Jordan to preserve her memory -- one of which was re-decorating the girls' locker room.

Inspired by the colorful messages on the locker door, by March 1994, what started out as a place to change for P.E. and stash backpacks was transformed into rainbow rows of lockers, walls covered with robin's-egg-blue skies and white, puffy clouds. The word "Imagine" was written on one wall, and a close look revealed a face in the clouds.

Mirrors were etched with inspirational words like "respect" and "love." A mobile of planets was hung from the ceiling near her locker, one planet filled with notes written in her memory.

In subsequent years,, Jordan girls were told why their locker room looked the way it did. But soon there won't be much to explain. Pretty much everything will be gone, according to Dan Sarouhan, who works on Building For Excellence (B4E) projects at the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Pritchett's father was contacted in Arizona and told of the remodeling. He asked the school to send him the locker door and the notes in the planet.

Cindy Pappas, head of Jordan's P.E. department, hopes some of the decorations can be put back up -- she asked for the etched mirrors, in particular, to be preserved. Pappas is the only female teacher in her department who was at Jordan when Pritchett was a student. Until the locker room was closed for construction at the end of last school year, 12-year-old girls still came in and loved it, Pappas said.

My understanding, at age 12, was that a memorial was intended to last forever. Maybe it was naive of me to think that the brightly-colored homage would stand the test of time, especially when the memorial is a school locker room. But it remained intact for a decade -- long enough for Pritchett's friends and acquaintances to graduate, and for hundreds of new students to hear what happened on that September afternoon.

On a trip to Jordan last weekend, however, something caught my eye. In a courtyard adjacent to the locker room a plaque mounted on a green stone is a permanent reminder of Pritchett and three others (Kushlan, Jeffery Feriante and Courtney McCoy) who died while attending or after passing through the school.

It's no psychedelic locker room, but maybe it can better withstand the test of time.

Rachel Metz is a staff writer at the Weekly. She can be e-mailed at [email protected]


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