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Explosion: ‘We’ve lost a dear friend’

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(Provided) An undated wedding photo of Jennifer and Dion Longworth. PHOTO BY JOSHUA MARSHALL
(Provided) An undated wedding photo of Jennifer and Dion Longworth. PHOTO BY JOSHUA MARSHALL

As Jennifer Longworth’s students came into their classroom Monday morning, they went immediately to their desks and started working.

Longworth had left an assignment for them before they left for the weekend, and they knew their teacher would have wanted them to keep working. Longworth owned one of the homes demolished in the southside explosion and died in the blast.

The Monday-morning assignment is an example of how she operated her second-grade classroom, Southwest Elementary School Principal Beth Guilfoy said.

“She’s the most organized person. When we went into her classroom (Sunday) she had everything ready — stuff for parent-teacher conferences this week, her lesson plans. The kids have what they need on their desk,” she said.

The first few hours of Monday morning were the most difficult for Longworth’s students, Guilfoy said.

Parents had come in to help, and the sorrow permeated the room.

The students and staff at Southwest Elementary School tried their best to structure Monday like any other school day.

Students completed math problems at the board and practiced writing cursive. They went through their morning assignments, ate lunch and went to recess.

But a massive rip had been left in the fabric of their school.

The Southwest Elementary community leaned on each other for support during what was likely the hardest day of school they’ll ever face. In the wake of the explosion that killed Longworth, 36, and her husband, Dion, 34, the heavy pall of grief blanketed each classroom, hallway and office.

Extra counselors from other schools helped students who wanted to talk, as well as teachers who needed someone to listen. Even at other Greenwood schools, students were encouraged to seek help.

“There were so many people who were touched by Jennifer’s life. Students in the middle school and high school who had her as a teacher remember her very fondly,” Superintendent David Edds said. “It goes well beyond her own classroom.”

To help them express what they were feeling, they all came together to talk about their teacher and what they loved about her.

“We shared celebrations about Mrs. Longworth. That really helped break the ice,” Guilfoy said. “Two students clearly stated that she’s the best teacher they’ve ever had. One said she really helped her learn math. Another got help with reading. They all had stories to tell.”

As the school day went on, the children seemed to lose themselves in their work. Class became more normal, and students didn’t want to talk about it more, Guilfoy said. Academic activities picked up, though students still had the option to stop and talk to a counselor if they needed it. Many took advantage of it.

“We let them know that we don’t know why these tragedies happen. We’ve lost a dear friend, a trusted teacher and someone who had been a wonderful addition to the Greenwood family. She’s been taken from us, and there’s nothing we can do besides move on,” Edds said.

Staff members wore Colts blue in honor of Longworth’s avid love for her favorite football team. Some students wore the hand-knitted stocking hats or scarves that she made her class every year for Christmas.

The students themselves consoled each other. Older children were seen helping the younger ones at lunch or on the playground with a pat on the back.

“They gave them just a pat on the back, letting them know that they know how they felt, that they loved her, too,” Guilfoy said.

School officials brought in additional counselors from throughout the district. No students had to talk to them but were told that they would be excused from class if they wanted to.

Clergy from throughout Greenwood also were on the premises to help explain the death in faith-based ways.

That was available for the children but also for the teachers who lost their friend and co-worker.

“This is going to be a very difficult day for the teachers. We have people there to help them and give them support,” Edds said. “The biggest thing is to be good listeners, and if they need help, ask for it.”

Administrators had spent Sunday afternoon calling the parents of every student in Longworth’s class this year, as well as those who were in the class last year.

They let them know that Longworth and her husband had been killed in an accident and left it up to them if they wanted to tell them before coming to school Monday.

Guilfoy and others in her staff took turns going from classroom to classroom Monday, letting the students speak about Longworth.

“Our goal today was to be real to the kids, to express our emotion that we lost someone that we deeply love and care about, and that it’s OK to be sad and angry and whatever other emotions are going to come,” Guilfoy said.

A special education teacher at Southwest stepped in to lead Longworth’s class Monday and likely will stay in that position for the next few days.

“Today has been a long, emotional day for the staff,” Guilfoy said after school Monday. “It’s still very fresh.”

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