August 19, 2018
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What hasn’t changed about school

Sarah Smiley | BDN
Sarah Smiley | BDN
Sarah Smiley
By Sarah Smiley

My youngest son, Lindell, ran into the house last week and said, “My teacher sat with me at lunch today!”

Of course, my mom radar immediately went off: Was this a case of Lindell and his buddies misbehaving, so the teacher had to sit next to them to quiet them down?

“No,” Lindell said, offended. “She just wanted to sit with us at lunch!”

It’s been a difficult week in the Bangor School Department. First, Lindell’s school lost a former classmate, Marissa Kennedy, who allegedly was beaten to death by her stepfather and mother, Julio and Sharon Carrillo. The news was inescapable, even for fourth and fifth graders. Then, the next week, there was an incident at Bangor High School that led to rampant rumors and fear. A former student had come onto the school premises after hours and was issued a no trespass order. Amidst the confusion, some parents did not want to send their kids to school the next day.

At one point last week, Lindell asked if I could throw away the newspaper before he got home from school. He was tired of seeing sad news on the front page.

Lindell is 11.

I don’t remember being aware of sad things related to school when I was 11. The saddest thing that ever happened to me in a school day was when the elastic in my tights popped loose in second grade and my tights fell around my ankles. There also was the time that I added every problem on a math test and received a zero because I was supposed to subtract. Both of those moments stand out as “bad” days for me at school.

When I was in kindergarten, my parents regularly came to eat lunch with me. There were no sign-ins or visitors’ passes. Even as recently as 2006, when we lived in Florida and my oldest son, Ford, was in kindergarten, my husband and I did the same. Although, by then, we did have to sign in and wear a pass.

Later in the week, I wrote to Lindell’s teacher and told her how much her sitting by him at lunch had meant to him. She wrote back and explained that the Parkland shooting had had a profound impact on her, and she was challenging herself and her students to do 17 kind things in the wake of the tragedy. Lindell, apparently, had signed up to high-five 17 classmates he doesn’t really know well.

“For me it’s more about the fact that students are making a choice to be positive in our own school,” Lindell’s teacher said.

We have all met teachers like this, teachers who sacrifice their own free time to make a difference in the lives of their students. Our schools are filled with them.

When I was in college, I did some work at an inner-city elementary school in a large metropolitan area (not in Maine) for my undergraduate studies. It was the first time I ever had to sign in at the front office or be ushered behind a locked front door. My shock at this was due in large part to my sheltered, suburban elementary school experience, but it 1998, the majority of elementary schools were in fact sheltered and safe.

I still remember the school. It was a large, three-story brick building originally built in the early 1900s. Like other schools from that time period, it had oversized front doors, oversized windows and tall ceilings. I was in awe on my first day. And then, before the students arrived, the supervising teacher filled me in on what I should know: some of the children are afraid to walk to school because of gun and gang violence in their neighborhoods; the school recently had a couple drive-by shootings; most of the students were behind in their academics, which was understandable given their living situations. The teacher explained all the extraordinary steps she took every single day to care for her students – not just in academics, but to make them feel safe enough to learn, too. Her day did not end when the school bell rang at 3 p.m.

When I got back to my car, I stared at the beautiful building again and thought about all the children in it. How could it be that their school experience was mixed-up with words like “drive-by shooting,” “gun violence,” and “gangs”?

It was unthinkable to me then. Today, however, even here in small town America, it is a different story.

Schools are no longer the ultimate safe places we remember from our childhoods.

But a teacher came to sit by my young son who has been sad about recent events. And he will never forget that. For all the ways schools themselves have changed, teachers, God bless them, have not.

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