For Dani Tyler: The Beauty That Existed In a Very Cold World

Ka'ren Murchie

From your art teacher, Ms. Ka’ren Murchie.

It was the start of a new semester. I had a whole new group of students that would be starting classes with me in the art room. About a week before the semester starts a group of us will typically gather in my room and talk about the students on our list. We’ll find out a few important facts about the students we’re getting and share stories about the ones we’ve said goodbye to.

When I saw Dani’s name on my roster I paused and held my breath. You see, I had only heard Dani up until this point; she had a reputation of being heard in the hallways when she was having a bad day and that’s all I knew about her. I wondered how interesting this was going to be in the art room, especially with such sharp objects that are readily available that could be thrown around if she got angry. But, I’d never actually met Dani so I committed myself to work with her a day at a time and not to pre-judge her, especially since I had never actually personally met her.

When class started that first week of the new semester, Dani came into my room with her favorite red plushy blanket wrapped around her shoulders. As she walked into the art room, I was immediately struck by how tiny she was. Her little five foot something, maybe ninety pounds soaking wet frame seemed so fragile to me. How is it, I wondered, that this little lady had created such a bad-ass reputation for herself in this school?  As she walked into the room, she turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and with a quiet, soft voice said, “I get angry if I’m cold or hungry so I’m keeping my blanket and I might need some noodles. Oh, and I love art. Where do you want me to sit?” “Okay,” I said, “Hello Dani. Keep your blanket for now and sit anywhere you’d like. We’ll see about getting some noodles for you after we’ve started class.”

Dani kept her blanket with her that first day, but every day after that she’d come into the art room, fold up her blanket, lay it at the front of the room, put her big, baggy sweatshirt on, and head to her seat. Some days her routine was often followed by a bowl of ramen or a cup of hot chocolate. Her seat in the art room quickly became ‘her’ seat and everyone knew it and respected it. Occasionally, we’d get a new student as is typical for our school and all of the students would be sure to keep Dani’s seat open for her. If for some reason someone did accidently end up in her seat, she would very calmly walk over to them and stand right next to them, almost on top of the person and stare at them until they moved. It worked every time!

Dani described making art as a way to calm herself down and breath. She said it reminded her of the beauty that can exist in a very cruel world. When Dani was working on a painting or drawing she would completely lose herself in her work. She’d escape into the world she was creating. She was meticulous about her art, paying attention to every mark on the paper and every spot of paint. If, more like when, there was too much noise in the room and she needed some quiet to plan or do her work, she’d put down her pencil or paint brush, look at me with those intense eyes and say in a low quiet rumble, “M-U-R-C-H…”. I’d look at her, look at her art, look back at her, and respond, “Walk away Dani, walk away from it.” She’d keep her eyes locked on mine and slowly walk towards the door and make her way out into the hallway.

Once she was in the hallway I would go out and chat with her about what was happening. Sometimes it was the actual artwork that was making her angry, something she couldn’t get quite right, and sometimes it would be thoughts, issues, people that were invading her temporary creative sanctuary that was making her angry. Whatever it was, she knew and I knew that if she didn’t remove herself from the moment she’d not be able to control her anger. It became a way of communicating without having to say a word. Once she’d gathered herself together she’d return to where she’d left off and carry on with her project as if nothing had happened.

Dani had a gentle smile and a heart made of gold. Yes, a tough exterior that was sometimes like a coat of armor and a tough reputation, but she was truly a gentle and beautiful soul who was simply searching for peace. There were so many times we’d all be sitting around the art table talking and drawing and if anyone was being critical of their own work Dani would speak up with encouraging words like, “don’t give up,” “take a break from it and work on something else,” “let Murch help you,” or “you can do it”. It was a joy to watch her grow and gain confidence in her work, in her process, and in herself.

The day Dani decided to go to Career and Tech to learn videography was such a proud moment for all of us at Gateway. She shared her vision for herself as becoming a successful videographer for special events, music videos and commercials. I believe that dream would have come true for you, Dani. You had an incredibly fierce determination to succeed and you worked so incredibly hard to achieve your goals.

Dani was a fighter! Her strength, courage, and pure conviction to be a better person will forever live on with us. Thank you for being in my life, Dani. You taught me that when life seems so unbearably difficult and impossible to endure, never to give up but to stand and fight! Fight with all I’ve got! You taught me to overcome my fears and in spite of the darkness, to face the truth and walk in light.

I am wrapping you in your red blanket, Dani. I know that you are safe and at peace. This time neither I nor anyone else can tell you to “walk away” because you’re already walking in light and love.

You may have called us your teachers but you taught us all how to be stronger and to never give up on anyone ever! Dani Tyler, you may be gone but you will never ever be forgotten. Be at peace dear one.

Love, Murch

By the way, I wanted to include some of Dani’s art work in this essay but when I went to the art room after she died to see if I could find any of it, I could hear her saying, as if she were right next to me, “Murch, I took all of my work home. I always take my work home or give it to the person I made it for. You know that.” She was right. Everything she made went home, or to someone. So, if you’re lucky enough to be one of those people who has an original Dani Tyler, treasure it always.

On March 13, 2020, Maryland schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On April, 6, 2020, Dani was reported missing. On May, 13, 2020, the FBI discovered Dani had been murdered somewhere in West Virginia.