Homecoming is not a day at Ukiah High School; it's a week-long series of events. After the Northern California wildfires tore through Redwood Valley, the school district postponed the football game and festivities to give the town some time to recover.
Three weeks later, the night before the rescheduled events were about to start, high school junior, Kressa Shepherd, died in the hospital. She was 17.
“The mood is definitely complicated and complex,” said Gordon Oslund, the school principal, as he watched students milling in the courtyard. “It’s people trying to figure out, how do you deal with a community tragedy and then carry on and have a community celebration all at the same time?”
Kressa and her parents were found in the road near their home the night of the fire and flown to hospitals for treatment of severe burns. Kressa’s younger brother, Kai, 14, died that night, Oct. 9, before help arrived. Both of Kressa’s legs were amputated in the hospital, and she suffered cardiac arrest and multiple infections before she also died.
On the morning of the big football game, Nov. 3, students packed the bleachers in the gym for a homecoming rally, one of several held throughout the week. The juniors wore all shades of pink, their class color. Hanging on the wall above them, gold balloons shimmered in the fluorescent light, spelling out K-R-E-S-S-A and K-A-I.
For some of Kressa’s friends, the ones who made it to school that week, the whole scene was just weird.
“It was just like, ‘Wow, like how can you be happy right now?’” said Sasha Wilkins, a sophomore.
The class period right before, she had been to a grief circle for Kressa’s friends and classmates.
“It was weird being in a group of everyone having such strong emotions, of being sad and down. And then going to another group of people who's so excited and so happy,” Wilkins said. “But then I realized not everyone's thinking about that all the time, but that's OK.”
Before Ukiah high, Kressa went to a Waldorf school. From fourth grade through eighth, she was in the same class with the same teacher and the same 23 kids. The high school counselors gathered them, and the class of sophomores below hers, to talk and share memories of Kressa.
Wilkins remembered feeling intimidated last year about becoming a sophomore. She was confiding in her friends about it when Kressa walked by.
“She overheard that and came up to me later and we just sat down and talked about it, and she comforted me,” she said. “She was like, ‘Yeah I was really nervous, as well, but it's going to be OK and it's not as hard as you think it is.’ It was a wonderful moment.”
Kressa’s teachers embodied the mixed emotions of the week. Some cried openly in front of their classrooms, then dressed up days later in purple and gold for homecoming. Across the board, they remember Kressa as a star student who kept a 4.0 GPA.
“She’s the rock in the classroom,” said Meagan Davis, her English teacher. “To have at least one student in the class be there for you. You look up and you see them fully enveloped in what you're teaching – she was that student in my class.”
A peacemaker, is how Liz Johnson, Kressa's U.S. history teacher, described her.
“She had a lot of compassion for multiple points of view,” Johnson said. “She had a deeper understanding of the world around her.”
And she was a natural born artist, according to her art teacher, Rose Easterbrook.
“She wanted to be an illustrator someday, and she truly could have done that,” she said.
Kressa had been working on a series of drawings of a young girl with blond hair frolicking in a meadow. She carried them everywhere with her. For her photography class, she took a similar picture of her cousin picking flowers, and photo shopped fairy wings into it.
“That was her: innocent and sincere,” said Lech Slocinski, her photography teacher, as he hung a collection of Kressa’s black and white prints in the school lobby. “There was nothing fake about her. Everything was just real. And kind. And it shows in her pictures.”
Her work often portrayed a calm world, he said, removed from madness and conflict.
And that was the kind of scene the school tried to recreate in her memory the night of the homecoming game.
“This evening, we pay tribute to the lives of Ukiah high school junior, Kressa Shepherd, and her brother, Kai Logan Shepherd,” principal Gordon Oslund said to the crowd, asking them to join him in a moment of silence.
Before the marching band came on, before the football players took the field, and before screaming erupted in the stands, more than a thousand people stood up and went completely quiet.