THE TRAGEDY OF TOMMY BARBER
Toby Smith | April 2, 2017
It’s likely few adults hold warm memories of their middle school years, that bumpy stretch on the educational road to grown-upness. Bodies are changing in middle school. Bullying is common, as is anxiety. Fantasies abound, relationships confuse, lunches lousy.
How painful is middle school? In 2016, a Centers for Disease Control report said the suicide rate for U.S. middle school students surpassed the rate of deaths by car crashes.
Back in the late ’50s, when middle school’s three grades were known as junior high school, misery welcomed me at every turn. Runty, pimply and dopey, I hit the teen trifecta. As dreary as those years were, no thoughts of taking my life bedeviled my young brain. I did, however, feel that life wasn’t always fair.
For Tommy Barber, a russet-haired boy with a crooked smile, life couldn’t be better. ADVERTISEMENT He entered Albuquerque’s Grant Middle School in the sixth grade. He knew no one there and had never been inside the school. That didn’t matter to Tommy, who lived to talk. In fact, he yakked up everyone he came upon in this new and unfamiliar setting. Not a bit shy, from Day One he was Mr. Sociable.
Basketball attracted Tommy and he went out for the team at Grant. But playing hoops did not come easy for him. He stood 5 feet 4 inches and everyone else seemed way better. The coach called Tommy’s parents and suggested he might try tennis.
Being a supportive mom, Mary Barber, went straight to the store and bought him a racket. It was on sale, she remembered. “Fifteen dollars, a real cheapo.” She laughs about it now.
A beginner’s racket didn’t faze Tommy. Within a month tennis had him hooked. “He wasn’t real good at first,” his mother said, “but he loved it.”
Big dreams for a young boy
And he loved to practice, craved it, in fact. Mary or her husband, Mike Barber, would take Tommy to the Sierra Vista Tennis Center on weekends. The Barbers are not tennis players; they are horse people.
But they never turned down a chance to hit balls with Tommy. They were glad their only child had found something he truly took pleasure in doing.
Surfing the big-screen TV one day Tommy discovered Tennis Channel. As he watched, he got to know name players. To no one’s surprise he fast became a Federer fan. Tommy went so far as to record entire matches. His parents’ reaction? Total amazement.
He talked of wanting to be ranked among the top-200 players in the world. He spoke of wanting to play in a major tournament.
First things first. As soon as the school year began, in August 2015, Tommy signed up to play middle school tennis for the Grant Eagles. He arrived at the initial practice wearing sweatbands on his wrists and a headband. Tommy may have been a raw beginner, but he refused to look like one.
So drawn to the game, Tommy willed himself to improve. Middle school tennis players practice twice a week and play one match a week. If it were up to Tommy, he’d play every day of the week.
An only child, the tennis team quickly became like a family to him.
Toward the end of Tommy’s first middle school tennis season, his coach at Grant, Melissa Clark, asked if he wanted to be part of Tennis4Futures. That program offered an hour-and-a-half of practices each Sunday afternoon at the Lobo Tennis Club. Best of all, it was free.
Clark, 41, holds tennis dear. She competed with the girls’ team at Cibola High School and would be playing regularly as an adult if weren’t for a back issue. When she isn’t coaching, or managing Tennis4Futures, she is chief of environmental management at Kirtland AFB. She started
Tennis4Futures in 2014 to open another door for middle school students who might want to continue with tennis beyond the fall season.
The net result: A whole lot of tennis
That summer, Tommy attended the Lobo Tennis Camp for a week. Instantly he became a Lobo devotee. Someday, he told his parents, he would play for the UNM men’s team. In the meantime, he started taking semi-private lessons from Brian Renvall, a freelance pro who works out of the Jerry Cline courts. Tennis, tennis, tennis and more tennis. For Christmas 2016, Mary gave her Fedfan son a ball cap with “RF” on the front.
In his increasing fervor for the sport, schoolwork did not get pushed aside. Tommy was an excellent student. “But he’d get stressed out,” said his mother. “I worried, though he always came through.” His latest report card showed five A’s and a B¬ .in, of all things, health.
“I kind of got on him about that B,” Mike Barber, Tommy’s father, said. “Looking back, I wish I hadn’t done that.”
Mary and Mike Barber, both 56, met at the Downs of Albuquerque. Mike is a race horse trainer and has been most of his life. Mary worked in the Horsemen’s Bookkeeper office. They married in 1998.
The couple settled in the far South Valley, where they kept horses. Life was good. The only thing missing was children. They had about given up on that wish when Mary, at age 43, suddenly found herself pregnant. On December 14, 2003, she gave birth to Thomas Raymond Barber. He would forever be called “Tommy.”
Life was now better than good for the Barbers. Mary and Mike took Tommy riding and he proved to be a natural on horseback. In time he had his own horse, Red Ryan, a chestnut. He took a liking to semi-rural New Mexico. For a long time Mary drove him to Inez Elementary School and back each day on her way to her new job, with the New Mexico Horsebreeders Association. Then, like an unexpected kick from a horse, Mary learned she had colon cancer.
“Tommy stepped right up and did everything for me,” Mary said. “He made my breakfast and did chores for me. A real loving boy.” With Tommy around to help out, Mary survived.
A Grant eagle begins to soar
The Barbers eventually decided to move to Albuquerque’s West Side. They had trouble finding a middle school that was best for Tommy. They finally settled on Grant, in the Northeast Heights, near Moon and Constitution. This was a far commute, but Mary and Mike sensed it was the right place for Tommy.
By his second season of middle-school tennis, Tommy was entering USTA-sanctioned Level 6 tournaments, the lowest level. You can earn ranking points in such tournaments. However, the climb there is steep, especially for those starting out. On his way back home from his first tournament, Tommy told his mother, “I got slaughtered.” He had, in fact, reached the semifinals of the consolation draw.
Tireless, Tommy played two seasons of the Lucky 7 Series, sponsored by the USTA’s Northern New Mexico Tennis Association. You can’t earn ranking points in these tournaments, but participation is especially encouraged for new young players. In March 2015, Tommy and Alyssa Sandoval, a Grant teammate, gained a doubles win in the consolation draw. Tommy continued with the Lucky 7 Series in November and December 2016.
In January 2017, he took second place in singles in the main draw. In early February of this year he won the consolation draw. His game was definitely on the upswing.
“Tommy wasn’t particularly athletic,” said Sylvia Trujillo, an assistant coach for Grant, “but he put his heart and soul into tennis.”
He worked harder and he got better. Jack Seus was the No. 1 player on the Grant team and Tommy challenged him. Jack in turn challenged Tommy. Together they made a fine doubles tandem.
“They were definitely competitive,” Heather Seus, Jack’s mother, told me.
How tennis-crazy was Tommy getting? This much: He liked to watch adults play at the Sierra Vista Tennis Center. He would sit off to the side of a court and give call out advice to men and women who had been around the sport all their lives. To these strangers he’d deliver such admonitions as “Go to net now!” and “Get your first serve in!”
Heaven knows what those people thought of this kid.
At the start of his second year at Grant, Tommy took under his wing sixth graders who had gone out for the tennis team. He especially liked to work with them on their serves. I did three tours as a middle school coach. Beginners, which many new middle schoolers are, I learned, have trouble serving a tennis ball. In fact, it can be a challenge, like eating brussel sprouts or correctly spelling separate. Some youngsters want to serve underhand. Some don’t want to serve at all. It’s not uncommon to see a mid-schooler’s serve wind up behind the server.
Tommy, who had a solid, left-handed serve, encouraged newbies to go slow, to toss the ball out in front, to get the ball into the service box.
The darkest night
On February 15, a day after Valentine’s Day, Heather Seus, picked up her son Jack and Tommy after school and took them to Jerry Cline courts for a lesson with Brian Renvall. “Those two were really passionate about tennis,” Renvall said. Tommy came to that lesson, Renvall remembered, carrying a white, stuffed toy bear. Renvall wondered if the bear was a Valentine’s Day present.
When the lesson ended at 5:30 p.m., Mary Barber was at Jerry Cline to get Tommy. For the next hour and a half, Mary ran errands—grocery shopping, stopping at the post office. Tommy chatted happily with his mother for most of that outing. Then suddenly he became agitated; he had been texting someone. When Mary arrived back home, it was after 7 p.m.
Just as she pulled into the garage, her phone rang. It was a friend. As Mary talked, Tommy got out of the car and went into the house.
It’s likely that sometime before that evening, possibly the day before, Tommy had gone to his father’s gun collection in the house and then to the spot where his father kept bullets. Tommy knew where separate keys to both of those places were because his father on occasion took him target shooting.
Tommy had probably taken the gun and a bullet to his upstairs bedroom and put them away. Just as he knew where to find the gun, he had no trouble now loading it. Mary, still sitting in the car and talking, with the garage door down, did not hear the sound.
When Mary finished on the phone she brought grocery bags into the kitchen. As she did, she noticed a smell as if someone had lit a match in the house. She called to Tommy, but did not get a response. As she climbed the stairs to the second floor, the burnt smell grew stronger with each step. She went to his bedroom. Even now, Mary has trouble recalling that next few moments.
Looking for answers, finding none
A month after Tommy’s death I sat on a couch in the Barbers’ living room, a couch Tommy surely spent many hours on while watching tennis on television. Seated nearby, Mary Barber, open and friendly, is much like her son had been. Periodically, sorrow finds its way into her voice. Mike Barber is there too.
A large man, he is sturdy and quiet. Physically, he seems unmovable. To discuss what happened to
Tommy brings a stricken look to his broad face. His big frame seems to shrink.
“Tommy went from the being the happiest kid to no kid in the space of two hours,” he said. “This was all on me. I will have to live with this forever. ”
Tommy’s decision to end his life at age 13 was much more than merely squeezing the trigger of a loaded gun. His choice could have been rooted in middle school, those years when feelings and emotions can turn on a dime. The turmoil of growing up, of trying to understand your role in life, of attempting to figure out people, can become immensely difficult to handle. As bright and as vibrant as
Tommy was, he was vulnerable to something or to someone. Whatever that might be, it was, Tommy believed, far too complicated to tell his parents.
“We just never saw this coming. Not at all,” Mike Barber said. Many parents don’t.
Mary Barber said it could have been an accumulation of things. “It was so tragic. He was doing so well in school.”
When Albuquerque Police Department officers arrived at the Barbers’ house that night they questioned Tommy’s parents at length. When the policemen left, they took Tommy’s cellphone with them. It’s conceivable that answers might be found in that phone. Not that any of those answers, the Barbers know, will bring back the loving boy who so-loved tennis.
As one means to gain some closure, the Barbers have asked that memorials go to a fund that in Tommy’s name that would benefit Tennis4Futures.
Donations can be made to: gofundme.com/Tennis4Futures or checks to Tennis4Futures sent to 4508 Ponderosa Ave NE 87110
The following morning, news of Tommy’s death blew like a cold wind through the halls of Grant Middle School. What happened? How did it happen? Tears fell everywhere for the teen who talked to everyone.
There are more than 600 students at Grant. Paul Roney, the school’s principal for the last eight years knew Tommy, though not well. “He had this incredible smile,” Roney told me. “He was always visiting with someone.”
Roney summoned an Albuquerque Public Schools crisis team, who made counseling available to students and staff. “We rally around things at Grant,” Roney said. “We take care of one another.” A no-nonsense administrator, Roney himself was in disbelief and shock. He had never had such a thing happen in his 28 years as an educator. “Why?” he said later. “What could we have done?”
Albuquerque policemen showed up at Grant Middle School on February 16, to also talk to the staff there and perhaps gain additional information.
For the students, especially for those on the Grant tennis team, Tommy’s sudden passing was much too hard to wrap a young head around. “It was,” said Melissa Clark, “ just so very, very sad.”
Everyone at Grant searched for clues, but nothing seemed obvious. Several people wondered if it was bullying that caused Tommy to die. Was Tommy being cyberbullied? That’s not unusual in middle school.
“Social media is dangerous,” Paul Roney admitted. “Kids text hurtful messages to one another, even to students they barely know. They Instagram, they Facebook, they send photos.”
Roney reached into his pocket and pulled out his smartphone and showed it to me. “This is a weapon,” he said.
The funeral service for Tommy was held February 22, at French’s on Lomas NE. More than 300 kids came, many with their parents, from Grant and even some from Inez Elementary, where Tommy had started. Adults from the horse-racing community arrived, as did friends from ranches as far away as El Paso. Every room in the mortuary overflowed. Many people stood.
Brian Renvall was among the mourners. He had received a text from Melissa Clark on February 16. The message had left him stunned. “I’ve never known anybody in my life to do that, particularly a little boy.”
A special teammate is remembered
On March 3, Melissa Clark held a tennis practice at the Los Altos Park courts, the home courts for the Grant Eagles. This wasn’t a school-scheduled event. Rather, it was a way to honor Tommy’s memory. Clark, who invited me, brought a big batch of cookies, each topped with icing of a yellow tennis ball.
Isabel Spotz, one of Tommy’s teammates, told me about the day that Tommy appeared on these same tennis courts in a too-large, blinding-yellow jacket.
“You look like a happy banana,” Spotz had said. “Tommy thought that was hilarious.”
“How good at tennis was Tommy?” I asked Ellie White, another Grant teammate.
“He was better than anyone,” she said.
It was still burdensome that sunny early March afternoon for some Grant students to talk of Tommy. A horrible wound needs time to heal. I asked Jack Seus, Tommy’s closest friend on the team, his doubles buddy, what Tommy was like. Jack paused, as if searching for the best way to describe someone he would never see again.
“He had a kind of build-you-up personality,” Jack said finally. “He might say during a doubles match, ‘You should have had that ball; you’re the better tennis player.’ ”
Jack was in three classes at Grant with Tommy. Social Studies, Language Arts and Science. The two sat next to each other in those classes. “He was the better student,” Jack offered. “He worked a little harder than me.”
Did he miss Tommy? Jack had trouble answering. Then, in a voice only slightly more than a whisper, he said, “I miss him a lot.”
As do many others. A chain-link fence in front of Grant Middle School remains decorated with faded tributes and remembrance messages of the boy with the crooked smile. The candles that once flickered on the ground at the base of the fence, have long since burned out.
If you are a parent concerned with your teen’s behavior, the New Mexico Crisis Access Line, is 24/7 and is staff by trained mental health professionals. The number is 1-855-622-7474.
Toby Smith, a member of the board of directors of the Northern New Mexico Tennis Association, can be reached at email@example.com