They call it the peace garden, a small plot carved out at the top of the hill in remembrance of fallen Raiders, students at Eleanor Roosevelt High School whose lives were cut short by tragedy. Seniors Melissa Cooper and Teresa Doherty, both 17, stand atop the hill a few days after the death of another fellow student, rifling the dead leaves scattered about two slate-gray engraved markers. They wonder aloud where to now place a third.
"I guess they could put one here," said Cooper, as she brushed away some debris with her foot. "This would be a good spot. I think we all would want a stone here for Alex, you know, something to remember him by so people know he was here."
On Jan. 7, 17-year-old senior Alexander Merrill Walsh died after being struck by a freight train while walking with friends across tracks in College Park. Prince George's County police are conducting a death investigation to determine the circumstances surrounding the incident, said Cpl. Tim Estes, a police spokesman.
Walsh was an outgoing and popular student who overcame a heart blockage and an immune system deficiency to become varsity lacrosse team captain at Roosevelt.
In June, he was elected to the Men's Independent Lacrosse League first team. He had been accepted at Connecticut College, where he was planning to play lacrosse. Walsh was partially deaf, but he learned to read lips in elementary school. He was accepted as a freshman into the Roosevelt sign language program, where he learned to sign.
"The thing that stood out the most about Alex was his ability to love life and love people. He was the most compassionate and the bravest person I know to have overcome so much," said Erin McDowell, his best friend. "He is the greatest friend I have ever had, and I'm lucky to have known him."
Students at Roosevelt are no strangers to tragedy. Walsh is the third student at the school in the last five years to die.
In 1996, 16-year-old junior Gary White was killed in a street fight; 17-year-old junior Julie Lynn Ferguson was abducted and killed in 1995. And although tragedy is not unique to Roosevelt, the school and its students seem to have responded in a singular way. The students are becoming more adept at dealing with death, bonding together, helping each other cope. Students say this is the Roosevelt way.
"Unfortunately, we've gotten good at dealing with these things," Principal Gerald Boarman said. "In my time, I've seen some deaths here and it's not real easy, but I have to be here for them, and it helps that they are here for me. We are here for each other."
When Boarman announced that Walsh had been injured Jan. 4--he was struck by a train about 11 p.m.--students immediately organized a blood drive, at which 244 students donated blood. Caroline Humphrey, a senior who was close to Walsh in grade school, began planning a get-well vigil for about 20 students. But when word spread quickly that Walsh was not going to survive, Humphrey, 17, scrambled to find enough candles for the 1,500 people who arrived Jan. 10. They were students of all races who came to remember Alex as the "kindest, goofiest, friendliest person."
"It was absolutely amazing. We weren't expecting that kind of response, but the students here are just like that. We rely on each other to get us through," Humphrey said.
Roosevelt is mainly a neighborhood school, but it also is home to an exclusive science and technology program for 900 students who applied for admission. The majority of the 3,300 students are from Greenbelt, Glenarden, Lanham, Landover and New Carrollton.
The student body is 58 percent African American and 29 percent white. Asian, Hispanic and Native American students make up the other 13 percent. Most of the students come from middle- to lower-middle-class families.
Boarman, who has been principal since 1989, said his focus has always been to try to have the all students connect as family, despite racial, ethnic and socioeconomic differences. He said that connection helps them most in times of crisis.
"You go up to any student and you ask them what the Roosevelt way is, and they will tell you that we stick together," he said. "Not that there aren't problems of identification of race, but the color lines were erased with [Alex's] death. It brought us together for a human being, so it wasn't a group of black, Hispanic or Asian kids coming together to mourn a white kid, it was our school coming together to show our love for a fellow student."
The diversity of student support at the vigil particularly struck Alex's father, Christopher Walsh, a University of Maryland professor and who also was Roosevelt's lacrosse coach. He said he was touched to hear so many students of all races speak about his son's impact on their lives.
"We knew he was special, and it was nice to see that a lot of other people thought so, too. The kids were so mature, polite and caring. I was just overwhelmed," he said. "I couldn't believe how many kids showed up, a whole range of different people. The vigil was a very positive healing experience for my family."
Ronald Federici, a child psychologist in Alexandria, said vigils and other memorials are important for young people to deal with their grief and help aid the healing process. He said the students' solidarity should be a model for all schools dealing with a loss.
"For the kids to do this on their own is a statement that they are different, that they are caring and sensitive to each other and their community, they are different than other communities where some kids just don't care," he said. "It's not about knowing him personally. Even if they weren't really friends with him, it's about doing something morally respectable for themselves and the family that makes them feel empowered. It's quite admirable that they did that, and I think it will help them in the long run appreciate both life and death."
Beth Dunbar, an English teacher who spoke at the vigil, said that she was proud that the students had the initiative to organize so effectively.
"I was pleased and amazed that everyone--that all different types of students--came together to give each other strength through this difficult time," she said. "Throughout this whole thing the students have given me strength as well."
Boarman said the last few days have illuminated the true spirit of today's youth.
"So many times we underestimate the young people, we think they are incapable of compassion, that they are incapable of unifying on anything besides music or movies," he said. "But here you have young people who have come together for a higher, more important cause and it's a wonderful thing."
Cooper and Doherty are also proud of their classmates. They were sure that Roosevelt's class of 2000 was going to go down as "the least school-spirited in history" until they saw many members of the senior class get involved in the tribute to Alex.
"Our class has been notoriously known for having no spirit at all, for being, like, the laziest ever but when it mattered, we showed up strong," Doherty said. "Graduation and prom without Alex will be hard, but I think the efforts of the vigil and the blood drive captured his spirit. He'll always be here."
CAPTION: At left, Eleanor Roosevelt High School teacher Mary Jacobs speaks at a memorial service for student Alex Walsh, 17, above, who died this month.
CAPTION: Roosevelt chamber choir members sing at the memorial service for fellow student Alex Walsh.