December 29, 2012

Maine Voices: All we need to know about human decency, we learned at Newtown

Those tragic events make it clear that elementary educators bring both head and heart to their work.

By CAROLINE COLLINS SIECKE

Do you know about elementary school teachers?

In their teacher preparation courses, elementary teachers are the ones sitting in the front row of the lecture hall, with extra pens and paper and pencils at the ready and their highlighters set out in ROY G BIV order, like a rainbow.

They raise their hands and wait their turn and take thorough notes, because this is important and someday they might need to know this. They actually use those pre-printed "To Do" lists and calendars and Post-it notes, which they fill out in ink color-coordinated to various tasks and subjects.

They are world experts in knock-knock jokes and cootie catchers and cat's cradle and Uno. They listen closely to lots of stories about people they'll never meet and places they've been to a zillion times. They listen to stories about first plane rides and first puppy dogs and first lost teeth and the first time someone met a new sibling.

They understand Stanford-Binet results and Weschler scores and Iowas and CATs. They can talk knowledgeably about social-emotional development and numeracy and literacy and affect. They know when these things matter and when a little person really needs a hug and a drink of water and a few minutes of downtime.

They make exciting bulletin board displays that they change regularly, unlike mine, which got half-done last August until someone rolled the Smart Board in front of it and I just gave up.

They remember birthdays and Presidents Day and the first day of spring. They wear apple sweaters in September and snowflake sweaters in January and blossoming flower shirts in April and beach shirts in June. They wear PJs on PJ Day and crazy hats on Crazy Hat Day and a smile no matter what.

They wipe faces and messes and the slate clean after a hard day so everyone gets a fresh start the next morning. They perch in little chairs or kneel by little desks or sit criss-cross-applesauce on the floor so they can look their little charges right in the eye and see them, I mean really see them, while they're working together.

If they're art teachers like my friend Laura, they introduce kids to a world crazy with colors and textures and vibrance. If they're music teachers like my friend Sue, they introduce kids to a world of song and harmony and melody. If they're like both of those teachers, they introduce kids to how much beauty the world has to offer.

They deal with kids who are going bonkers because it's almost their birthday, or almost their weekend with Daddy, or almost vacation or almost any reason at all. They have cafeteria voices, eyes in the backs of their heads and a sixth sense for when trouble is about to go down.

They know who has to go to the bathroom, who comes to school hungry and who's sneaking candy into the lunchroom. They remember who has PT and who has OT and who's in Reading Recovery, and they treat everyone the same regardless. They handle hypervigilant parents and irate parents and parents who aren't speaking to one another without losing their cool.

They own a gross of ornaments and mugs and plaques and desk pen sets that say "#1 teacher" or "2 teach is 2 touch a life 4 ever" or "I Heart My Students," and every year they receive a couple dozen more with genuine pleasure.

What I find most astounding, they spend all day in the same room with the same kids, teaching them reading and writing and arithmetic, and also history and geography and science and penmanship, and on top of that how to tie shoes, get along with other people, make friends, say "no thank you" politely and generally how to be a decent human being, all without going stark raving nuts by lunchtime.

The other thing they do, six of them, is put themselves between a raving killer and the little people in their charge. In an act of selflessness I can't even begin to imagine myself capable of doing, they stood in the path of certain death, hoping it might make the difference for the 20 tiny lives they, collectively, put ahead of their own. When I think of the courage those women must have had to take that step, I can't even catch my breath. Imagine that. Imagine someone else loving your child so much, so freely, that she would be willing to take a bullet rather than save herself.

I can only hope that the last cognizant realization those little souls had before the darkness enveloped them was the sight of someone standing up for them, between their frail bodies and the evil about to strike. I hope their last impression of life on this earth was of the concern and caring these women embodied. I hope the final emotion that overcame their little psyches wasn't fear or sorrow or grief but love, love, love, love.

I hope we never forget the value of those who spend their careers caring for the smallest, wiggliest, goofiest, neediest and most vulnerable members of our society. I hope the Newtown teachers' sacrifice leaves a lasting impression on the world they left behind.

Caroline Collins Siecke is a former social studies teacher at Windham High School who now lives and teaches middle school students in Exeter, N.H.

 

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