It took just a split second for an accident to end Kathleen Hwang’s 60 years on this earth. And in the shocking and untimely death of a beloved principal, a Loudoun County community suddenly shifted from teaching children their ABCs and multiplication tables to explaining the existential questions of life, death and “why?”
The grown-ups tried — in their typical, grown-up way — to figure it out at first.
The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department gave the details of the accident. Hwang, who’d been principal of Sanders Corner Elementary School in Ashburn since 2005, had been walking with her earphones in on Wednesday afternoon. She wasn’t in a crosswalk, and the teen driver of the Dodge Durango that hit her apparently broke no laws.
So, of course, people launched tirades online against technology and earphones, the imperious, right-of-way nature of pedestrians, the broad streets and car culture of the suburbs, gas-guzzling SUVs and teen drivers. I bet if I’d read long enough, I could have found some commenter blaming President Obama or the GOP as well.
But as the grown-ups looked for someone to blame for this woman’s death, the kids seemed to go about grief in their own way. In the way that Hwang had taught them.
They took teddy bears and flowers, posters and cards and a pink monkey to the memorial display growing outside of their school. They showed how much she had meant to them.
Some families made big placards from all their kids, with pictures of each child with Hwang.
Other children offered smaller tributes. “I am so sad that you are gone,” wrote one bereft child in red pen on yellow construction paper. “We will miss you. Love, Anna.”
See, Hwang wasn’t an administrator whose office students feared, who clicked through hallways on heels without bothering to look up from a budget sheet.
Hwang knew the names and faces of every one of her more than 625 students, said Loudoun County schools spokesman Wayde Byard. On the coldest days, she bundled up to greet each child as he or she arrived for school.
“She had a tremendous effect on all the kids,” said Lisa Antonucci, parent of two hard-core Hwang fans.
One of her 11-year-old’s most treasured memories was when his friend won the Lunch with the Principal Raffle, and invited him along.
“You wouldn’t believe how many people stuffed that box with tickets. It was a sought-after prize,” said Antonucci, who is treasurer of the school’s PTA. “She really talked to them and got to know the kids, listened to them.”
She was the kind of educator kids stayed in touch with. Get this: One of her former students from her teaching days in Virginia Beach scored the winning touchdown for the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. What did he do soon after getting his Super Bowl championship? Plaxico Burress called Hwang, Byard said.
That’s seriously cool.
At Sanders Corner, Hwang began a program called “I Read to the Principal,” in which every child sat down with Hwang and read her a book.
Kathleen Nealon’s daughter, Molly, had just read a Clarice Bean book to Hwang on the last day of school before the Thanksgiving break. On Thursday, Nealon was sitting down after dinner to chitchat with family when she saw the first line of the e-mail announcing Hwang’s death.
“I have four kids and all of them had her,” she said. “And I couldn’t hide the look on my face. They knew something horrible happened.”
To soothe their grief, the children all pitched in over the weekend to make a memorial placard that they put outside the school along with four heart-shaped balloons. “We each have a little piece of her with us, our own little story,” said Nealon, who blogged about the principal’s death.
On Monday, there were some tears, but most of the students didn’t dwell on their sadness or seek out the grief counselors on hand, school officials said.
Some of the fifth-graders — who had known her since kindergarten and may have been most profoundly affected by her death — also wrote sympathy cards to her grandsons, said Ginger Brennan, a fifth-grade teacher at the school.
She talked about her grandchildren often, so the kids related to them. She’d left her job in Virginia Beach to be near them here. And the PTA knew never to schedule events on the night she reserved for them every week.
And because she was so genuine, she also taught her students to think of others. So even in their own mourning, they were carrying out her lesson by reaching out to her grandsons to comfort them.
Thanksgiving was tough at the Antonucci household, where Lisa broke the news to her sons about the accident.
“They took it pretty hard,” she said. But her third-grader was happy that he had had his chance to read to the principal. “That meant so much to him.”
And that is the part of Hwang’s legacy that will live on: the hundreds of students who left her office proudly sporting their “I Read to the Principal” buttons.
Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.