When Nashville Mayor Megan Barry came back to work this week after losing her only child to a drug overdose, her first stop was school.
She handed out backpacks and hugged children as they arrived at Buena Vista Elementary School on the opening day of a new school year. She also dropped by Pearl-Cohn High School to chat with students in the hallways.
“That was really meaningful and special to me,” Barry told reporters later, “because the first day of school in our household was always a joyous occasion. Max loved school, and our ritual was always that we would take a picture every day of the first day of school.”
Barry’s first order of business was both symbolic and therapeutic for the mayor, whose 22-year-old son died July 29 in Littleton, Colorado, where he had been working in construction.
“It was really great to be with kids this morning,” she said during an emotional news conference from her office on Monday. “The last nine days has been pretty — I don’t even have words.”
She noted that “every first day of school is a new beginning.”
In Nashville, home of the state’s second largest school district, Barry doesn’t control the schools, but she’s used her bully pulpit to help reshape public education since taking office in 2015. She worked with the school board to jump-start a misfired search for the city’s next schools director, ending with the hiring last year of Shawn Joseph, a top administrator from Maryland’s Prince George’s County.
She’s also sought to put 10,000 Nashville youth to work with “paid, meaningful internships” through an initiative that she says was inspired by a conversation with her son. He had bemoaned having to use his family connections to secure an internship while he was in college.
“My goal after that conversation with Max was to open the door for all of our kids in Nashville,” recalled Barry, who has pushed to combat rising youth violence by creating more activities outside of school.
Now, she has another new mission: fighting opioid abuse, after an autopsy showed that Max died from a combination of several drugs, including opioids.
“I don’t want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died,” she said. “The reality is that Max overdosed on drugs.”
“This is not an unfamiliar community and nationwide conversation,” she said, noting that Nashville alone had 245 overdoses involving opioids last year. “It’s a national epidemic.”