Your Turn: My Daughter Was Here


Like thousands of other American teenagers this month, my daughter met the qualifications and was conferred a high school diploma last week. Her family was in attendance to celebrate the achievement, the bridge between childhood and the first steps into adulthood. But Emily was not there. I carried my daughter’s ashes with me when I walked across the stage to collect her diploma, one of the final acts I will ever have the privilege to do on her behalf.

There are no words to describe this ordinary moment made extraordinary. In fact, there were no words spoken about Emily at this graduation ceremony at all.

My daughter Emily Murillo was a special education student. She was not a conventional beauty; she was quirky and perfect with unruly curls that she would sometimes color outrageously. She was not a star athlete or captain of the cheerleading team. She would not be heading to the Ivy League in the fall. But Emily was here, and she was kind, with a beautiful spirit and an artist’s soul. A champion of the misunderstood and the maligned, Emily was fiercely fair, a true and loyal friend.

Emily was here, but Emily was invisible. In a commencement speech given by South Brunswick High School Principal Peter Varela honoring what the Class of 2021 lost in the past 18 months, Peter Varela mentioned two proms, a senior dinner cruise, “normalcy”-  but not the loss of a classmate. In a time when the entire audience was mourning things missed, there was no recognition of the ultimate loss; no moment of silence, no mention of Emily except when her name was called for her diploma and Board of Education President Barry Nathanson presented it to me with a perfunctory handshake and, “Congratulations, Emily.”

I am not Emily, but Emily was here, and she was beloved and important and human. But like too many of our children who feel differently, who are different, Emily was bullied. She suffered and was marginalized. Even in death, she could not escape her tormentors who harassed her memory in the most despicable and deplorable of ways. I pray for the humility to forgive the children who sought to sully who she was, but struggle finding the grace to excuse the grownups who simply didn’t remember her at all.

I wholeheartedly believe that had Emmy been the star football player when she died during her senior year, it would have been acknowledged at graduation by the administration and certainly by Principal Varela, who has yet to call or send a note of condolence, even though Emily was a student under his care for her entire three-and-a-half-year career at South Brunswick High School.

I cannot adequately convey my family’s disappointment in South Brunswick schools. We believed we were part of something special, a caring school community that supports one another. South Brunswick prides itself of fostering a legacy of community and family. We have history here and a legacy of dedication.  My older daughter, Kaylee, is a graduate of the Class of 2017.  Emily’s father has been employed by the district for more than a decade. Emily’s grandmother was a beloved school nurse for 20 years and I, myself, was a Board Office employee for six years.

I lost my daughter. South Brunswick Schools erased her memory, and maybe even worse, they missed a teachable moment. Emily died by suicide on the coldest night of the year, certain that she was forgotten and alone, and you proved her right.

Emily Michaela Murillo was my daughter, and she was here.

Erin Popolo

South Brunswick