It's the town where dreams could become a reality. I always imagined some day making my fortune in America and moving to a small town with white picket fences, quaint restaurants, adorable stores and well-maintained parks just like this one.
As I drove into South Hadley, Massachusetts last Friday the sun shone brightly overhead, making the town from the offset sparkle with hope and beauty.
For a minute I was lost in the white washed houses, oversized gardens and expensive cars parked out front. As I drove slowly up Newton Street I opened the car window and turned off the radio. The air was fresh and I could hear the birds singing overhead as I crawled up the road.
And suddenly, as I glanced to my right, a dark cloud suddenly draped over my brief notions of South Hadley.
There it was; the school that an Irish girl, just like me, but half my age, was bullied relentlessly before she took her own life on January 14.
I pulled slowly into the school car park. It was early morning and the only sign of life was coming from the football field.
South Hadley High School where Phoebe Prince spent the final hours of her life being called horrific names such as “Irish slut” and “whore” was on spring recess but activities on the football pitch brought life to the place.
As I sat there for a few minutes trying to imagine what went on through those walls that caused Phoebe to hang herself, I became almost nauseated. I was lost in my emotions, anger, upset and confusion. The sound of car doors closing and engines roaring to my right caught my attention.
A group of girls, no more than 16 or 17 had finished up what appeared to be hockey practice and were going their separate ways, in top of the range SUVs. I felt slightly intimated by their confidence, their big cars and loud personalities.
After the crowd thinned out I approached two young women. Albeit friendly, when I told them who I was and what I wanted (their opinions on what happened to Phoebe) they cut me off and said, “We’ve been told not to talk to any media,” said a taller girl, although not divulging who told her to remain mum.
I’d hit a dead end before I started.
I crawled back out onto the main road and was in front of Phoebe’s home, the home she shared with her family after moving from Ireland last September within minutes.
The house, brightly painted white with elegant purple shutters, is also on Newton Street. It’s a few hundred yards from the high school.
It struck me that Phoebe hadn’t far to walk home from school, yet the day she died she was taunted on that very road by some of her school peers. They even went as far as throwing an energy drink at her.
It hurt to the core as I saw in my mind the beautiful Irish teenager walk through the front door and up the stairs to her death.
After a short prayer for her and her family I continued into the main strip in South Hadley. An impressive little village adorned with stores, restaurants and offices.
I had lunch with a mother and daughter teams who have been very vocal on the responsibility the school should be taking in Phoebe’s bullying and were eager to share their opinions with the Irish Voice.
Erica Laughlin, 39, and her mother, Susan Clow, are beyond angry at the way school authorities have handled themselves in dealing with Phoebe’s death.
Laughlin, a parent of four children, lives in South Hadley. However, her children attend school in the next town over.
There is a chance that next year her kids will be expected to attend South Hadley High School.
“This will not happen,” said Laughlin.
“If it comes to that I’m ready to home school my kids,” she said.
“There is no way I’m going to send them to South Hadley High.”
Clow said South Hadley has a “culture of bullying.
“It’s always been like this and people have turned a blind eye. If you don’t fit in or wear a certain type of clothes then you are looked down on and bullied,” said Clow.
Laughlin has attended all the school committee meetings to show solidarity for the few people in the town that are standing up to the South Hadley school authorities.
“I’ve been at meetings where several people stood up and spoke about the bullying of their own child,” said Laughlin.
“But nothing has been done- Gus Sayer (schools superintendent) had neglected to do anything. It’s a disgrace.”
Clow said she would like to see the “school stand up” and taking responsibility.
“It would be nice to see adults in the school, morally coming forward and standing beside the kids who are being charged.”
Both mother and daughter agree that although it’s imperative the six students charged in relation to Phoebe’s bullying should be punished they feel the South Hadley school authorities are hanging them out to dry.
“Their life is being ruined and the school is doing nothing to take responsibility,” she said.