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Students entering Sacré-Coeur elementary school in Lac-Mégantic. Life in the town that was destroyed by the worst rail disaster in recent history in July 2013 is slowly returning to normal. (Benoit Aquin For the Globe and Mail)
Students entering Sacré-Coeur elementary school in Lac-Mégantic. Life in the town that was destroyed by the worst rail disaster in recent history in July 2013 is slowly returning to normal. (Benoit Aquin For the Globe and Mail)

New school year brings hope to grieving Lac-Mégantic teachers, students Add to ...

The young children outside Sacré-Coeur elementary school are wearing bright sneakers and backpacks covered in cartoon logos. Some run for the front door or eye the playground; others linger and say goodbye to mom or dad.

They are, in many ways, no different from the millions of students returning to school across Canada. For them, the start of a new year of school is a milestone – a time marked by trepidation over tests, strangers and new teachers, but also hope for the future. Except that here, two blocks away from the worst rail tragedy in recent Canadian history, those feelings are magnified.

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That is easy to understand: From the front walk on the school lot, the scar cutting across the village’s downtown is plainly visible looking down leafy Champlain Street.

Almost two months after a runaway oil train shattered the picturesque town, the routines of life are slowly returning as a summer none will ever forget comes to an end. Some at the school have lost parents and siblings. Others were evacuated for days or weeks. An unlucky few remain marooned in motel rooms, their bedrooms gone forever. Even the school displays scars. Only a few weeks earlier, Sacré-Coeur was the temporary headquarters of the Quebec provincial police.

The order to teachers when classes began on Tuesday was simple: “Push through, we need to move on.”

While the adults of Lac-Mégantic continue to struggle with the tragedy that claimed 47 lives and destroyed the core of their town, the children have taken the message in stride.

Inside the school, the thick smell of newly waxed floors permeates halls. Missing are the “Courage” signs so ubiquitous in Lac-Mégantic. No traces of the disaster are visible, only hundreds of schoolbags and shoes neatly placed in open lockers.

Standing by the fence outside a loud schoolyard filled with some of the 372 students who showed up for roll call on the first day at Sacré-Coeur, Émilie Bédard waited to walk her daughter’s twin boys home.

The boys were camping with their father when a train belonging to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway derailed on July 6. In the hectic days after the disastrous rupturing of more than 60 oil cars, the boys were evacuees. However, the tragedy was far from their minds as they walked home on Aug. 27.

“Things went well. We didn’t really talk about what happened,” an excited 10-year-old Jacob said. “We had cookies though.”

In the week before school started, three psychologists joined the area’s teachers and social workers. The psychologists will stay in Lac-Mégantic for the next year, maintaining a constant watch over the student body for signs of emotional trauma.

The teachers at the three local schools were also drilled on what to expect and how to deal with problems. Ms. Bédard’s two grandsons experienced the results of that training, a technique known as positive reframing.

“We can’t avoid the subject, but we can’t wallow in it either. Our guidelines are clear: No dramatic details, nothing scabrous,” explained Bernard Lacroix, the head of the local school board.

“We forget that children live in the present. Adults see the consequences in town; this is as real to them as it was that morning two months ago. For children, it happened in the past. They are more excited to go back to school and see friends,” Mr. Lacroix said.

Students at the local high school, the Polyvalente Montignac, were given one period of classes on the first day in which they could speak with their teachers about what happened. After that, teachers were directed no longer to speak about the issue.

“We were prepared for crying, for hugs, for everything,” said Heather Gordon, a local English teacher. “However, it’s like nothing ever happened.”

In a nod to the disaster, Ms. Gordon’s son Henry wore lime green and light blue on the first day of school: Lac-Mégantic’s municipal colours.

With more than 900 students from across rural southeastern Quebec, many of the students at the Polyvalente Montignac were not directly exposed to the disaster. However, the high school, the largest in the region’s sprawling school board, has a long history of dealing with tragedy.

Deep, abandoned granite quarries dot the landscape around Lac-Mégantic. On a warm summer’s day, local youngsters dive into the deep blue pools, flying down past the stepped grey sides. A decade ago, four students were killed when their car slipped over the lip of a quarry.

“We’ve gone through tough times before and we’ve always found a way through,” said Thomas Quigley, the head of teaching for the local school board. “All the teachers at Montignac are very close, they’ve been through tough situations and they hang together.

“With no similar schools nearby, people don’t move around, they stay here for their entire careers, this is a family.”

The death of the students tested Mr. Lacroix then, when he was the new principal of the high school. Maryse Talbot, his latest successor at the head of the Polyvalente Montignac, had been on the job for only six days when she received the first frantic phone calls on the morning of July 6.

“I already knew how to deal with this type of situation,” Mr. Lacroix said. “It was Ms. Talbot’s first experience as a principal. It probably wasn’t the best way to start.”

One of the lessons Mr. Lacroix drew from the earlier tragedy, and the more recent murder of two students, is that signs of trauma and distress can express themselves weeks or months after an incident.

“I didn’t see any worrying signs on the first day,” Mr. Lacroix said. “Maybe in the autumn or later we will see signs of distress. Our psychologists already had their caseloads, so we added new psychologists to help them. We want to make sure that every school will have a psychologist at all times.”

A native of Lac-Mégantic, Mr. Lacroix lives about a kilometre from the accident site. From his front porch, he could see the police lines in the days after the derailment.

Ten students lost a parent in the disaster; one lost both. According to Mr. Lacroix, no student has left Lac-Mégantic since the incident.

The teachers have been told who lost family members so that they can watch them for signs of distress. According to Robin Cox, an expert on disasters and emergency management, teachers are a natural early warning system due to their close contact with students.

“Children can be traumatized. How that is expressed is a factor of how old they are. Older children may become aggressive or they might withdraw to earlier behaviours, they’ll start wetting the bed or something like that,” said Dr. Cox, who teaches at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C.

“Most children will respond like most adults will, they will cope and move forward.”

While the children show signs of quick recovery, the teachers reflect Lac-Mégantic’s suspended grieving process. None of the 47 bodies pulled from the rubble downtown have yet been buried. That includes the remains of Mathieu Pelletier and Natacha Gaudreau.

Ms. Gaudreau was a part-time social worker at the high school. Mr. Pelletier was a popular math teacher who gave up a prestigious hockey scholarship to teach in Lac-Mégantic.

“The kids recover really fast. I think it’s harder for the teachers. They held a moment of silence for Mathieu and Natacha. I just completely lost it. I was not prepared for that,” Ms. Gordon said.

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