Elementary school

Sandy Hook: One Year Later

I wrote this piece last year, a few days after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. As I re-read it today, in honor of its one year mark, my emotions still feel pretty raw. Not enough has changed in our culture, but I try to be hopeful. In the end, hope is all we have.

So, it is in that spirit of hope that I ask you to visit the following site: Sandy Hook Promise . There, you will find the inspiring mission of the parents, family, and friends of Sandy Hook Elementary who refuse to just be the latest victims of gun violence and are fighting for change–real change within our country. It’s a powerful approach, as they are working towards sensible solutions, not more polarization of citizens in regard to gun control. I urge you to check it out, sign the pledge promise, and if you can, donate a few dollars. I know money may be tight, I know everyone seems to want donations from you, but we need to band together to effect real change. If you do decide to donate, perhaps choose the $26 option–one dollar for each person who lost their lives that day. Thank you for reading this.

The World’s Greatest: An AMERICAN Tragedy

I am a mountain
I am a tall tree
Oh, I am a swift wind
Sweepin’ the country
I am a river
Down in the valley
Oh, I am a vision
And I can see clearly
If anybody asks you who I am
Just stand up tall, look ’em in the face and say

[Chorus]
I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes
I can feel it, 
I’m the world’s greatest

–from  The World’s Greatest, By: R. Kelly

Tears sting my eyes, as these lyrics blare through my iPod. I am out for a run on this cold, damp Sunday morning. I begin to weep openly–the emotion becoming too much. I can’t stop thinking about those kids. The innocent victims of another horrific school shooting. This is not the kind of music that I run to, usually. The song happens to be on my iPod because I downloaded it last year for my boys, who were performing it in a talent show at school. We played it every night for about two weeks. As I run, the lyrics take me back to watching them onstage with several dozen other elementary school children, scared and nervous as they performed in the dark auditorium for beaming moms, dads, and other family members. Then, my mind immediately shifts to the school children at Sandy Hook Elementary–the ones who experienced such a different form of fear and nervousness. The ones who lost their lives. The ones who lived– who will never be the same. I cry because none of us will ever be the same.

I am bawling my eyes out as I run on the side of a very busy road, and I don’t care how I look. I am so sad. And this song is making my grief spew forth because the lyrics are so beautiful. The words remind me of a comforting poem that  is often shared at funerals, by a woman named Mary Frye: Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there; I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond glints on snow, I am the sun on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn rain… The song now comforts me in that way. I take solace in the fact that these gentle souls, and the adults who lost their lives protecting them, are now a part of a greater good, a larger entity.  Their spirits will live on in all that is beautiful and innocent, like them: a twinkling star, a majestic vista.  They cannot have died in vain.

I have been pretty emotional all weekend. I agree with many things I’ve read on Facebook about not giving this gunman the notoriety our society seems to bestow on the madman du jour. I am so fed up with all of the violence. I am embarrassed to admit that I paid little attention to one of the latest shootings at a U.S. mall. Like many, I’ve grown numb, tired. But this horror, this living nightmare, may be the wake up call this country needs. All weekend I keep staring at my sons, who are both around the victims’ ages. I feel helpless that I cannot shield them from the ugliness of our world. On Friday, as I watched them get off the school bus, wearing Santa hats no less, I was stung by the fact that 20 parents would no longer be greeting their children off the bus. They will never come home again. The Santa hats underscored my boys’ innocence. I thought how, just yesterday, I was hopeful their belief in Santa would last one more year, and now I am concerned that their belief in humanity will last one more year. How could I even begin to explain this event? They know nothing of what occurred in Connecticut–how long can that last? I feel ashamed for even thinking this way when others have no child to explain anything to anymore.

I hit repeat on my iPod. I want to hear this song again. I want to cry my eyes out for all of the victims and their families; I want to wallow in this pity I feel for all of us, for our country. I hear the echo of the singer saying “The world’s greatest…the world’s greatest.” I think about that phrase. I think how Newtown, Connecticut has witnessed the world’s greatest–the greatest examples of heroism, selflessness, and loss of innocence. I think of this land of ours, and how we are supposed to be the world’s greatest–and we are at so many things–including killing. I’m sure you’ve seen the stats by now. The magazine Mother Jones reports 61 mass shootings in the US since 1982. Fifteen out of 25 mass shootings of the last 50 years occurred in the US–the next country in the line up has two. TWO! Why are we such a violent country? Why are we so much more violent in our domestic lives than other countries. The gun control debate is raging with sound and fury now. Mental illness is also being talked about with deserved attention. One of my burning questions: Why does it seem we are more mentally ill than other countries? Why do these gunmen aim at the heart of our Nation–our innocent school children? Is this the price of freedom? How many more schools need to be ambushed before we begin meaningful dialogue and real change?

Speaking of schools, another reason I feel so emotional is because I am a teacher. I read the stories of bravery from these others in my profession, and I am humbled beyond measure. I picture myself trying to hide my students and fend off an attacker–or die trying. Could I be so brave? I pray to God, yes. Sadly, since Columbine, we’ve all become jaded. And teachers have an ever-growing fear. I know it scares me. My teaching career has spanned the spate of school shootings. As a result,  I saved my son’s hand-print from an art project in preschool in my wallet–so that if our school was ever attacked, I would have his hand to hold in the end. I have also saved special messages from the boys on my phone, so if I ever think I won’t be coming home, perhaps their sweet voices would comfort me as I prepared for whatever was in store. Why the hell would I think like that? Why? Because too many schools have been subject to such terror. I teach in a wonderful school, in a beautiful town, with the most amazing kids. Many of these tragedies have occurred in similar settings. And as the death toll in schools across the country continues to rise I pray, “Let this one will be the last.”

Just this week, I had the chance to visit my son’s second grade classroom to talk to the children about Christmas. It’s a public school, and this was part of their Social Studies unit–including all of the holidays we celebrate this time of year. My first observation when I arrived at school–one I’ve had numerous times–was the sad commentary of having to be buzzed in via intercom. A sign reads: “Please stand right here when speaking into the console so camera can see you.” Every time I’m buzzed in, I feel like I am visiting a prison. Yet, once inside  I see the joy, I hear the laughter of the children, and I notice all of the incredible work being displayed. It is a happy place. It is a place of energy and enthusiasm. I’m glad my kids can go to such a school. That afternoon, I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of the Nativity with the kids, and I told them what I say to my own students: “I love teaching in a public school because we are all so different, and we can teach each other about our differences. We are different, and yet we are the same.” They understood.

And I guess that’s why I am writing this blog entry: I want to understand. Yet, as I get older, as I seek more wisdom, I realize that there are so many things beyond my understanding. And I know that is how life works. I think of how much I’ve changed in the past decade, as a husband, as a father, as a man. I am the least religious I have ever been (16 years of Catholic school), yet I am the most spiritual, the most peaceful I’ve ever been. I don’t know if I believe in a God the way I was raised to believe in him. I hope there is a heaven. I hope that there is a place where people go where all of this makes more sense. Here is the picture that stirred my thoughts on this concept of religion yesterday. I came upon it online. The caption was in honor of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary:

“We can’t help but think this is what heaven looked like today.”

heaven

Credit: painting by John Lautermilch

If there is a heaven, then these sweet children and their protectors are certainly there. Now if only they could help those of us on Earth who are left trying to make a better way from all this. Tonight, I pray to them for strength. Strength for all of us.

I’m a Fool for Back to School

Fall is here, hear the yell 
Back to school, ring the bell 
Brand new shoes, walking blues 
Climb the fence, books and pens 
I can tell that we are going to be friends 
Yes I can tell that we are going to be friends

–“We’re Going to be Friends” by: Jack Johnson

Fall is here–almost. It certainly feels like Fall in the Northeast. Today was beautiful–68 degrees, sunny, clear blue sky. And to make it even better, it was a school day. Yes. You read right. School. I love the first week back to school. There is so much promise in the air. A new beginning. A FRESH START. I teach high school. Ninth grade. When I tell people this, they usually groan and tell me they’re sorry.

No need to apologize. I love my job. Sure, there are things I wish I could change, but overall, it is the most rewarding profession in the world. I get to surround myself with bright young minds. I am a part of helping students see their potential. I look into the eyes of the future and see its promise. There is no better reminder of this than Week One of a new school year. I did not plan on writing a post about this. Like every other parent in the land, I thought a Facebook post of the kids at the bus would suffice. But this picture changed my mind:

photo (35)

I stumbled across it Friday afternoon. I was looking for my iPod on a book shelf, trying to squeeze in a run before the boys came home on the bus,  and there I was–my kindergarten self– smiling back at me. I actually uttered “Hello.” And instantly I was transported to that driveway, the driveway of my childhood friend and neighbor, Cindy. I noted our keen fashion sense, I wished I still had my vinyl “briefcase” (so mini- Mad Men) and realized that global warming must exist today, as we are wearing sweaters and long sleeves on an early September morning.

I love this picture. It holds particular significance because my friend Cindy died our senior year of high school–her future cut tragically short by a drunk driver. But this photo is not about endings, it’s about beginnings. And that is what I love about going back to school. We are all given a fresh start, a clean slate. We are not only permitted, but encouraged to begin anew. In the first week of school, everyone is clean and well dressed, new notebooks crackle, and the smell of freshly sharpened pencils waft through the air. In the first week of school, everyone has an “A”, and all kids are equal. In the first week of school, I am not troubled by the latest rumor or round of “He-said-she-said.” Rather, the halls are filled with “hellos” and “welcome backs” and “how was your summers.” I am not being naive, I am being optimistic. As I look out at each boy or girl, they have equal footing. I’m not bogged down with all of the sadness that will creep into the year–Mary lost her mother last Winter, Dylan’s parents are getting an ugly divorce, Alan’s family is basically homeless. I will swim in a variety of letters that detract from the feeling I have now: IEPs, 504s, ACTs, SATs, PSSAs, ADD, OCD…These all matter, they inform how I teach the individual. But in Week One, we are simply “period 5.” And I look at every student and I see us unified in hope. I want them to know that I am glad they are here, I believe they can learn, and I will do my best–which is exactly what I expect from them.

I don’t like to pre-judge– to hear about my students prior to meeting them– “You’ll love Jane!” “Jake can be a handful…” I want to get to know each person organically. I want us to figure it out, to grow together, and we will. On the flip side, as a parent, I try to not pass judgement as well. It’s hard. People talk. But I live in a great school district and all the teachers are dedicated–as I believe the majority of us are wherever we lay down our red pens. Yet, a question I have heard this week, and I even caught myself asking a girl in the neighborhood, is telling: “Do you like your teacher(s)?” What are we really asking here? What message are we giving to young people by saying this? For I think it does send a message to our kids, however slight or subtle it may be.

I witnessed a similar situation from both of my sons. Our elementary school recently merged with another that was shut down due to low enrollment. The students from Tall Pines are now attending Maple Acres (not the real names). Both of my sons came home from the first day and mentioned how there were so many kids from the other school in their classes. My younger son even complained that “it didn’t even feel like Maple Acres anymore.” He’s starting second grade, for crying out loud. This sounded like something a student overheard from a parent’s conversation and parroted the message to his/her friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on. Whether it was something they heard or truly how they were feeling, I was not comfortable with their negativity. “Well, guys,” I said, “Think about the kids from Tall Pines? How do you think they feel? Their school was closed. They’re the ones coming to a strange place where they don’t know their way around. You’re lucky. Think how hard it would be to have to go to a new place and start over. And who knows, one of those new kids may end up becoming your best friend!” That seemed to quiet their contempt. But it served as a reminder to me. We are so judgmental, so quick to assume. It’s too early in the year to be negative–the negativity will creep in soon enough.

When I stared at that picture today, I felt good. In my head, I commented to my former self how “You’d never have thought you would be a teacher someday, did you?” And then I was filled with a sense of pure happiness. I get to start fresh every September, and with each new school year, my hope is restored. And it’s not just me. Every teacher, every student will begin again. I think even parents look to September to restart the clock and try again. True, the circumstances will always be different, sometimes gravely so, but each September there is excitement and promise. This could be the year. This will be the year.

It might be cool if you went back and found a picture from your school days, the younger the better. Take a good look at it. Say hello to your old friend–take stock in where you’ve been and what you’ve accomplished. It’s never too late to begin again, and it’s the perfect time to do so because “Fall is here…”

owen school picassahayden school picassa

Tonight I’ll dream in my bed
While silly thoughts run through my head
Of the bugs and alphabet
And when I wake tomorrow I’ll bet
That you and I will walk together again
Because I can tell that we are going to be friends
I can tell that we are going to be friends   —Jack Johnson