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Remembering Ben...

by Sarah McDowell, Head of School

Recently the news of the death of a former student of ours here at Midlothian Montessori has rocked my world. Ben Gateley passed at 22 years of age, after losing the battle with depression.

I met Ben’s dad Eugene Gateley in my college days as a fellow chess buddy, then a roommate, then a friend, and then an adopted older brother. When he introduced me to Tina, who would soon become his wife, she believed we were raised brother and sister at first. They married and had a son, Josh, who is now 25. When I started my family the next year, as Chris and I were finishing up our college years, Tina was the only other mom that I knew at the time. Tina was to become my greatest friend, the maid of honor at my wedding, my confidant and support system, and my best friend. She became the sister I never had. She worked with me for more than a decade and gave so much to every student who crossed the threshold. Ms. Tina was loved and appreciated very much around here, especially by parents and coworkers who could rely on her stability and good nature.

After having my son Rowan and daughter Madelaine back-to-back, Tina and Gene welcomed Ben the next year, so I can say I have known Ben his whole life. I remember babysitting him one summer when he was 2- he had a mighty strong will and was like the king of resistance when he didn’t want to do something. He liked going in the pool with me though, and I loved seeing him finally relax.

Ben will always have such a special place in my heart. By the time he was in preschool, he became best buddies with my daughter. They were truly like cousins together. They were always making up games, riding their scooters and bikes in the circle around the tree here at school. They romped through the woods around the school property. They loved animals and were always trying to catch the five-lined skinks and cicadas. They had superhero names for each other, Nature Girl, and Power Boy. He could absorb all powers and she had the forces of nature on her side.

Tina would always say as soon as Josh and Rowan came around, Josh and Mads would team up against them. Ben was on the shy, sweet side, but he could be “as stubborn as the day is long,” as the saying goes. But then there was the baby of the family, Bella, who grew up to “bring balance to the force.” She was close to Ben, as a fellow Montessori adventurer, a little sis to Mads, and a natural ally to Josh.

In our first year opening at the school, Josh was already in first grade, but Rowan was one of our kindergarteners under Ms. Susan, Ben and Madelaine were in Primary, and Bella was the Office Baby with Ms. Tina. Tina went on to do her Infant/ Toddler Montessori training and Bella was side by side with her, a Montessori kid from birth. When the school grew, I went back to do my Elementary training. Tina moved into Primary and Admin and Ben came back to be my student. I was lucky to be Ben’s teacher for many years.

Ben was a quiet but fiercely curious student— he loved science and math the most and adored our many field trips. We had a very special relationship. He laughed at almost all my jokes— even the worst puns— and made quite a few of his own. I loved math lessons with Ben. He liked analysis a lot and enjoyed puzzling out trinomial cube roots. He could be a deep thinker.

Adolescence was hard for Ben- he really was a different kind of person — the word neurodiverse comes to mind. He also had some medical struggles with growth. While he had functioned so well in the Montessori childhood oasis, the ways he was wired differently started becoming more and more challenging for him. Coming back to school each fall got harder and harder. It looked to me that he had a really hard time keeping his sleep schedule over the summer… he would finally get adjusted to the dreaded mornings, only to be hit with fall allergies and colds, and as the days shortened, the struggles would get overwhelming for him. Tina would always try to help him get caught up and back on track. Gradually, my bright-eyed pupil started to drift away…

We chalk these things up to becoming a teenager- the moodiness, the hormonal changes- but step by step mental illness began to pull Ben down. The greatest tragedy is that he couldn’t have been loved more. Tina and Gene could and would have done anything to keep Ben safe and healthy.

There are so many ways we don’t do enough by our youth and by all that struggle with mental health. Our babies can grow up to learn and adopt the worst types of beliefs about themselves- and their thinking and habits are like an undertow pulling at them even as they try so hard to tread water.

I have missed Ben so much these past few years and I’m so heartbroken I didn’t get one last big hug in with him. I wish I could wrap up Tina, Gene, Josh, and Bella in an embrace and never let go.

I love you so much, Ben. I am so grateful you were in my life. I desperately want you back. I hope I can do better every day to help students like you. Sweet Benjamin, may you rest in peace.

-Sarah McDowell


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