There’s a three-year waiting list for Professor Norma Bowe’s Death in Perspective course at New Jersey’s Kean University. For some students, the draw is nothing more than morbid curiosity: The syllabus includes unorthodox ”field trips” to morgues, hospices, and a maximum-security prison to interview death-row inmates. But for others, the main attraction is the charismatic Bowe, a nurse who challenges her students to confront their fears about dying — and to learn how to live again in the wake of personal tragedy. Kids who’ve had close brushes with mortality find her especially compelling.
In The Death Class, journalist Erika Hayasaki focuses on Bowe’s interactions — in and out of school — with some of her most at-risk students: Caitlin, a young woman whose pill-addicted mother made her upbringing chaotic and unpredictable; Caitlin’s boyfriend, Jonathan, who took care of his schizophrenic younger brother after their father stabbed their mother to death; and Israel, a former gangster who once held a man at gunpoint. Bowe relates easily to kids with traumatic backgrounds. An unwanted child, she grew up worrying that her abusive parents would kill either her or each other. But that fear hardened into a resolve that drove her to work with dangerous psych patients as a nurse, and later, to create the course that changed a number of students’ lives.
There are moments when Hayasaki’s eagerness to insert herself into these young people’s dysfunctional narratives feels opportunistic, like the search for a good story. But those are rare. Readers will come away struck by Bowe’s compassion — and by the unexpectedly life-affirming messages of courage that spring from her students’ harrowing experiences. B+