June 25, 2018
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Honoring the teachers of Newtown

Erik Steele
By Dr. Erik Steele

The Newtown school massacre is an example of the writer’s curse; I don’t want to write about it but I cannot stop thinking about it until I do.

I think of our daughters going off to elementary school with My Little Pony lunch boxes clutched firmly in hand, confident we will see them at the end of the day. I think of grieving parents who bought and wrapped Christmas presents but lost the child who was to come downstairs next week to open them. What does one do with such presents, I wonder?

Images of dead children I have seen over the years keep flipping through my mental scrapbook like photos from a bad trip.

It is the writer’s blessing, however, to be able to search among the sentiments of rage, hope and hopelessness dancing chaotically through his head and choose which one to write about, and in doing so, find the way to move on. I choose hope, so here goes.

It is no surprise to me that the heroes of Newtown, Conn., were teachers. It does not surprise me that they were among the first to die, or that some took extraordinary risks to protect their children. They locked down rooms, barricaded doors, huddled children into bathrooms so crammed that some had to stand on toilets, told wide-eyed kids everything would be OK so fear might not be the last thing they felt, and much more.

Most of all, they stayed with their children.

The stories of what they did to protect their students from harm are the candle I found to hold up against the swallowing darkness of my despair. Had I lost my child last Friday to that bastard with his Bushmaster assault rifle, I would have thought of those teachers and thanked them with the collective fragments of my broken heart.

That thought — of my child, at the end, in the care of someone who would have sacrificed everything to protect him — would give me a small measure of solace. If he could not have been with me at such a moment, who better to be with than the person to whom I entrusted him each school day? Who better than someone who hugged him almost as often as I did?

As a parent and as a student, I have known countless grade school teachers over my years. I can see many of their faces, hear many of their voices, and imagine every one standing up to a flak-jacketed gunman in a school hall, or standing resolutely between the lethal end of an assault rifle and a room full of children. Every one. Among the few other unarmed professionals I can see standing that way between those they care for and such a threat are nurses.

Why is it that the sacrifices of those teachers were no surprise to me? Why would the teachers in a threatened school be the last ones I would expect to protect themselves first? Why is it that, in a crowd threatened by harm, I believe they would be among the first adults to stand in the face of danger in order to protect the children present?

Because that kind of sacrifice is not simply what they do, but is really who they are. The teachers I have known and loved have always placed their students first, and make sacrifices for their students all of the time. They sacrifice more lucrative careers, personal time, their own money for supplies and much more. They do it so frequently that we take it for granted, and do it so quietly that most of us may not even notice.

It has become something of a national pastime in America to bash teachers for a whole range of failures. Sure, they are not perfect, but many of those failures are primarily ours. In the course of six hours a day, we expect them to make up for all of the social ills that assault our children, and often blame them when they cannot. We pay them dirt for wages and expect them to turn out gold for students.

Next time we have the option to stand up for teachers, we should remember the teachers of Newtown and Columbine, and all the other times our teachers have stood up for our children.

Erik Steele, a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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