What happens when you combine horrific news, intense sorrow, a night of unsettling dreams, a Monday morning where everyone in the family oversleeps, and school the week before winter break?
A day where I have abso-LUTE-ly no idea what to expect.
What will the mood of the kids be? Will they have heard the news? Will they be concerned, anxious, curious? I especially think of the deeply sensitive ones, those kids who are in tune to everyone else’s feelings around them, or who feel they must carry burdens of social justice on their young shoulders.
And how about me? When I see my students, how do I handle my feelings? The anger, the confusion, and – most importantly – fear? How do I protect my kids from the intensity of my own emotions, still very much raw and visceral? What would happen if they knew how utterly afraid and vulnerable I really felt?
Then it happened.
The school bell rang.
Something magical happens when the school bell rings. You teachers out there with me will understand completely. You get swept up in a tide of routines – greeting each other, collecting homework, sharpening pencils. You move from subject to subject, from class to class. There’s no time to dwell on the hypothetical, on the existential. Your concentration lies entirely with the children who need your attention. Before you know it, the day has gone by and it’s all been pretty okay.
It’s happened to me before, on days when family issues have given me grief, or when I’m feeling particularly upset about school politics. Everything can go wrong up until 8:30 a.m. I’ve had days so frustrating I’ve cried on the way to school, or at my desk with the door closed. And then the kids come in. Those are the days we throw ourselves into learning with reckless abandon, and I remember why I got out of bed in the first place.
So what happened today? My fifth grade math students came to visit me. At first, the major news they debated was the bad officiating at the Bears-Packers game. (Priorities, I know.)
After the morning announcements, however, I had one student raise his hand and ask if we could sing the National Anthem in honor/support of the people of Newtown. Not sure how the singing would go over, I suggested that perhaps we could have a moment or two of quiet reflection, and he thought that would be a good alternative.
The kids in my room had all heard the news, had all expressed their shock and sadness. Now it was my turn. Ugh. Here goes, I thought. I told them how important each one of them is to me, and reminded them of the heroes and helpers that day, and reassured them that these situations are incredibly rare, and made sure they knew that I – and any other adult in our building – would have done exactly the same thing for them were they in that situation. That was all they needed.
Then it was off: to Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Ratio, to frequently misspelled words, to works of fiction with characters we can care about, to reading and interpreting line graphs, to creating puzzle books, to discussing the history of the Indo-European language family. Yes, the history of the Indo-European language family.
In short, everything I could possibly expect (or hope for). And tomorrow, I get to do it again.