Monday, December 17, 2012

Back to School

Sometimes, other parts of my life creep into this blog.  Sometimes, other parts of who I am take up more space in my mind, heart and soul than the part of me who is on the journey of adoption.  Today is one such day.  Today, the teacher part of me rose above any other part of me.

This past weekend, we, as a nation, sat around our collective television screens and watched some of the most horrific news coverage that we had ever seen.  Everybody in this country, and perhaps around the world, was deeply affected by the tragic events in Connecticut on Friday.  Everybody felt the pain of the people in Newtown and everybody felt the loss of those incredibly innocent children.  As teachers, I think we felt things differently.  We didn't necessarily feel them more than anyone else, just in a different way.  It hit so close to home.  Those of us who spend our lives in elementary schools, loving elementary school children, working hard each day to protect those innocent minds that are entrusted to us each day, we felt the tragedy in a different way.

When I watched those kids walking out of that school, my heart broke in a thousand pieces.  When I heard about the children who didn't ever get to leave that school again, it was almost too much to bear.  And when I thought about those teachers who would have done anything to protect those kids but weren't always able to keep them safe, I had to look for ways to escape because the thoughts were too much for me to carry.

All weekend, I looked for ways to escape.  I looked in the face of my nephew and listened to his laugh as it became louder than the news reports.  I looked around my home filled with love and worked on projects that helped me to leave the images behind.  I looked to my schoolwork and thought that maybe if I just planned well enough for Monday and maybe if I just planned enough activities to keep my kids busy, maybe it wouldn't be that bad.

And then this morning came.

This morning, going to school felt different.  This morning I gathered with other teachers and all of us felt at a loss for words.  What was the right way to handle this? How do we make our students feel safe when we, ourselves, no longer feel safe? How do we protect our students? How do we maintain their innocence while still respecting them enough to give them a safe time and place to talk about what they have heard and what they cannot understand? We all wrestled with these questions.  We all talked about how this weekend was tough for us in ways we never imagined.  We all talked about being slightly unsure why we were so devastated and why we all found ourselves so apprehensive about coming back to school today.

My principal gathered all the teachers together this morning.  He began in such an honest and heartfelt way.  He said to us, "I have no idea how to start this meeting." His honesty became an inspiration for the rest of us as we looked for ways to talk to our students.  Teachers cried at that meeting this morning.  We love our students so much, that the mere thought of them being unsafe brings us to tears.  I think we all wrestled with knowing that no matter how much we tried, we might not be able to make our kids feel safe today.  I think we all wrestled with how we could possibly find the right words to talk to our children about incomprehensible things.

And then the bell rang.  And whether we were ready or not, our children came.  Our children came to us and looked to us to start the day.  In my classroom this morning, there was a noticeable quiet.  This is rare for a group of fifth grade students.  But there it was.  As I predicted, students came up to me right away and asked if I had heard about what had happened.  For a few moments I was paralyzed.  I didn't know what to tell those kids.  So I sent them to Spanish and I sent them to PE and when they returned, I was ready.

I sat my students down and began one of the hardest conversations I have ever had to have as a teacher.  To be honest, I had no real idea what I was going to say.  But, I started by telling them that they were safe.  That though the news makes it seem like these things happen all the time, they don't.  Schools are mostly safe places.  They are safe.  They have adults in their lives who love them so much and while I couldn't promise them that they would always be safe, I could promise them that we would all do everything in our power to make sure that they were as safe as they could be.  One of my students asked me if our windows were bullet proof so that would we be safe from guns.  I answered honestly, "No.  And I hope we never have to go to school in a place with bullet proof windows."  I told them that this is a place where we want to have windows and light and contact with the outside world.  We have other ways to keep them safe and we don't want to live our lives in fear.  I wanted them to know, that just because bad things happen in this world, we can't let those bad things stop us from enjoying the good things that we have.

The conversation wasn't long.  We moved on to writing.  Though the conversation ended, I knew there were still fears.  Before recess, a student came to me in tears and said she was afraid to go outside.  She told me she just couldn't take it.  She said she didn't want to think about it anymore and she wanted it to just go away.  This small, ten-year-old in tears managed to voice the feelings of an entire nation.  And all I could do was hug her and tell her that I understood.  I told her I felt the same way.  We should all feel the same way.

We should all feel like we can't take it anymore.  And then we should remember that we are different than children.  Children should leave it to us to figure things out and to make things better for them.  Children should expect that someone else will fix this.  We, as adults, have to realize that while children can afford to feel that way, we no longer can.  We can't just wait for someone else to come and fix our nation.  We have to find a way to do it ourselves.  We have to demand more.  We have to find a real way to make our kids feel safe again.  We have to keep talking about it and let our politicians know that it really matters, perhaps more than anything else really matters.  Only in this way, only if we don't stop talking about it when the next big news story breaks, only then will we really be honoring the memories of those kids and those teachers.

Before I left today, I wrote the parents of the kids in my classroom an email and I thanked them for having enough faith in me and in the school to send their kids to school today.  I know it must have been an unbelievably hard thing to do, but I thanked them for trusting me with their precious children. And then I promised them that I would do anything for their children.  And I meant it.  It is one of the great joys of my life to be a teacher.  And I do not take that responsibility lightly.  Today, more than any other day, I am so proud and so thankful to be a teacher.

And tomorrow I go back to school once again.  We all do.  We all fight our way through the last few days before winter break.  We hug our students, maybe a little more than usual, and we help them, and ourselves, to remember that we are here to keep them safe.


  1. Lucky for me I had to give an exam first thing. It was the same for middle school but the kids had more questions. As a certified crisis counselor I have the need to do something but I feel helpless.

  2. A really interesting read and shows just why teachers should be admired. I can't imagine ever being in the situation you were today but it sounds like you handled incredibly well! Sxo

  3. Thanks for a beautiful post, Jessica.
    Taking Henry to school yesterday was very emotional, especially as I walked past and saw all of you in that meeting. It was the first time during my maternity leave that I've really felt like I should be back at school.
    I fought tears all the way to school and back home. But, as emotional as it was to leave Henry there, I didn't feel scared...and that's because I know he's in good hands at MB. Your post just reconfirmed that for me.
    -Betsy D.

  4. Powerfully written and wonderfully sensitive! Your students are fortunate to have you as their teacher.