There should have been hundreds of mourners around Phillip Perry’s grave Saturday — classmates from Waco High School’s class of '89, colleagues from four public school districts where Perry had worked and fellow worshippers from Carver Park Baptist Church.
And certainly among them students and teachers from G.W. Carver Middle School. Perry had taken over as the troubled school’s principal this academic year, and many believed he was the leader to help the Waco school finally soar. Perry died the morning of March 31 at the age of 49, soon after being hospitalized and testing positive for the new coronavirus. A tall man with a smile for everyone, he was among the first Texas educators to die of COVID-19 complications.
Carver Middle School has been through years of upheaval, but Perry's death still rocked the community. Unable to gather and share memories and warm hugs in person, grief-stricken Waco Independent School District staff and students have been forced to find more fragmented ways to process his death.
Before dispersing for spring break March 6, Carver students excitedly cheered on their peers playing a team of staff members in an afternoon basketball game — unaware they weren't going to return for months. Perry cradled his grandchild and walked around the gymnasium, while the staff (Team Perry) racked up points.
"That's the last way most of us really saw him. To find out he's gone is unbelievable,'" said Shirley Langston, Carver's family support specialist.
Tabitha Hawkins, a 13-year-old seventh grader at Carver, found out on Instagram, before her mother could gently break the news. Tabitha said she has barely shared her feelings about it and is struggling to get any schoolwork done from home.
Tabitha credits Perry with keeping her out of a disciplinary alternative education school, which could have derailed her education; he promised to make her a breakfast burrito every week as long as she stayed out of trouble. And when Tabitha, who has depression, had a mental health crisis earlier this school year and the family's car was broken down, Perry gave them a ride to the hospital on a Saturday.
"The last time I had a principal like him was in elementary," she said. Tobie Hawkins said her daughter has asked to transfer schools, balking at the idea of returning to Carver without Perry.
Traumatized by the loss, Tabitha's 10-year-old brother, Christian, reached out to his teachers on video chat and begged them not to go outside, his mother said. "'I don't want you to get sick. I don't want you to die like my sister's principal,'" she overheard him saying. "That's really weighing on him."
The day after Perry’s death, middle schoolers TK and Ty'T Johnson sat with their mom, Giggett Johnson, in their yard, devastated by the news. They had spent the previous day crying in the house, unable to believe Perry was gone so suddenly. They knew school wouldn’t be the same without him.
At their mother's suggestion, the two girls donned white dresses and began to praise dance around a tree in the yard, twirling and improvising to the music as a form of worship. "In the middle of the dance, I wanted to stop and cry my eyes out," Ty'T said. "I've never seen a principal that's done so much."
Giggett Johnson took her kids to view Perry's body Friday afternoon; they all wore masks, and the funeral home limited the number of people who could enter. Otherwise, she said, they wouldn't have believed he was really dead and would struggle even more to start healing.
Perry went to great lengths to get parents more involved in their children's educations, hosting barbecues and even giving away televisions to those who showed up to parent-teacher meetings. TK and Ty'T, who were adopted six years ago, struggled to read when they first began living with Giggett, behind after years of instability. "He encouraged them to do better, to be better," Giggett said. "He was like, 'We're down at the bottom right now, but we're going to start working on this and working on that."
Perry had been an assistant principal at Carver from 2013 to 2015 and spent a few years as a principal in Temple ISD before returning this year. Carver is one of five schools run by the nonprofit Transformation Waco in partnership with Waco ISD, created to pump money and talented staff into low-performing campuses.
The school, on Waco’s historically black east side, serves mostly low-income, black and Hispanic students and scored an F in last year's state ratings. But under Perry, “there was a feeling from staff that Carver was moving in the right direction," said Robin McDurham, the CEO of Transformation Waco. She’s planning an “aggressive summer bridge program,” fearful Carver’s students will lose the progress they made.
Perry’s death came on suddenly, according to his wife, Angela Perry. A little more than a week before he died, the two had gone fishing, a recent passion of his, and he complained of feeling tired. Days later, he ended up in the emergency room and got checked into the hospital. The couple FaceTimed regularly until the pneumonia made it hard for him to talk.
“The last day was Wednesday, the week before he passed. He was having difficulties breathing. He said, ‘I’ll text you.’ After that, I didn’t hear from him anymore,” she said.
Perry had helped pack at-home learning kits at the school administration building March 20 and then went to Carver on March 23 while they were handed out to parents. With the help of the local public health district, school officials tracked down staff members and others who were in direct contact with him and told them to quarantine for two weeks, said Superintendent Susan Kincannon. With permission from his family, they also notified parents who had been at the school during distribution day. None have reported symptoms.
Waco ISD is providing virtual group counseling sessions and staffing a counseling hotline for students and families who need the support.
The day after Perry died, McDurham pulled 65 Carver staff members onto a video call with a licensed therapist and a licensed counselor to guide them on explaining their principal's death to students. "The teachers appreciated having the opportunity to process, 'What can I say to the kids, especially when my own heart is breaking?'" she said.
In the days after Perry's death, a memorial in fluorescent chalk organically sprouted on the sidewalk in front of the middle school. "RIH [Rest in Heaven] Mr Perry," someone wrote in pink above a blue and yellow heart. Alongside it popped up an array of stuffed animals and a wide selection of potted, plastic and arranged flowers, a socially distanced tribute to a beloved educator.
But the memorial was transient. Sometime after the recent rains, the chalk washed away. And by Saturday morning, the plush creatures and flowers lay piled up messily.
Tabitha and her mother stopped by last Thursday to drop off a stuffed bear. But it didn't feel like enough. Tabitha weighed going to the visitation and then the funeral itself, but she feared her asthmatic lungs would leave her vulnerable to COVID-19.
Many other loved ones made the same decision to avoid Perry’s funeral. Given the warnings against large gatherings during the pandemic, just family and close friends saw him buried at Oakwood Cemetery. His wife and his 10 children and stepchildren stood closest to the gravesite. Others stood or sat in their cars spread out across the grass and roads. His parents stayed in their car, even when later answering media questions about the importance of Perry’s relationships with his students.
About an hour and a half after the funeral was scheduled to start, four miles north of her principal's grave, Tabitha stood with her mother by the memorial in front of Carver Middle School, each holding three star-shaped balloons. With her mother's encouragement, Tabitha said a few words honoring her principal and mentor as a good man who will be missed by most students.
Then, Tabitha and Tobie Hawkins opened their hands and watched the stars float up into a cloudy sky.