Halfway through November, the leftover Halloween candy in the school office still tempted the staff as the realization set in that the holidays were approaching. Thoughts of report cards and running records, defrosting turkeys and holiday shopping ran through our minds simultaneously. Was it really time to plan for the last days of school before Thanksgiving break? How could it be? Didn’t the school year just begin?
Every morning, teachers hit the “go” button, jumping into the usual rush to
write the morning message
run one more copy
check out a library book
track down the tech guy
grade writing pieces
plug in the iPads
drop off papers with teammates
grab the mail
rehearse the day’s minilessons…
But on that Monday morning, our rush came to a stop.
That Monday morning, we arrived at school to learn that one of our middle school students had passed away over the weekend.
He had taken his own life.
Blank space. Because there are no words to adequately fill it.
We stopped. We listened to the news. We stood with our mouths agape, our eyes pooling with tears. He was a young man none of the elementary teachers knew, as he was new to the district this year. According to his mother, he had experienced bullying from a young age, but this loss was a shock to everyone.
As we absorbed the news and struggled to comprehend this horrific reality, there were only questions to fill the heavy silence.
How could this happen?
What will his teachers think?
How will his classmates handle the news?
What else could have been done?
That evening, on a group text with my third grade teammates, we asked each other those very questions. Desperately wanting to dissolve our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, we asked ourselves a new question:
What can we do now?
Like dry kindling to a newly lit fire, ideas began to spark, bouncing back and forth, until we had a plan. Our response. Our refusal to let this tragedy be unanswered.
Grand scale change always starts with a small act, a kind word, a good idea. “This is what kindness does…Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world,” the teacher in Jacqueline Woodson’s book Each Kindness tells her students. How many people have their day changed for the better by a smile, a compliment, a thoughtful word?
This got us thinking…how often our children are told to be grateful for things, yet how rare it is for them to hear that others, especially adults, are grateful for their existence.
Our big plan would be, in practice, a small gesture. A little kindness that we hoped would reverberate within each of our students, perhaps becoming infinitely meaningful to some. We wanted to let each of our children know that we are grateful for their existence.
The last day of school before Thanksgiving break, before the children arrived, my team printed out a template that read: “I am THANKFUL for you because…” and wrote a personal note to each of our students. We admired their talents, highlighted their unique personalities, and encouraged them to shine. Like secret kindness ninjas, we hung each note on their lockers and waited for the buses to arrive.
One by one, our 8 and 9 year olds strolled down the hallway, catching glimpses of the notes, and rushing down to their own lockers to see what treasure awaited them.
One by one, they discovered their notes, and stood reading, backpacks dangling from their arms. What followed were
second and third reads
“Thank you Mrs. Werner!”
ripples of kindness.
At the end of the day, each student carefully peeled his or her note off the locker and took it home with them. I figured some of the notes would be waved excitedly in parents’ faces at home, others silently cherished and saved, and others soon to be lost or forgotten. But what mattered most was that each child got to experience a moment reading words that let them know that we, their teachers, are grateful for each and every one of them.
Back to work Monday morning after a restful break, I leapt into the usual rush once again. Checking my email, I noticed a parent had written one over our break. It read:
“Thank you for your kind words that you wrote on A’s locker. He showed me the note and we proudly displayed it on our fridge.”
In the rush of preparing for a full, busy week, I took a moment to stop and be grateful that my words had a ripple effect on this student. Thanksgiving may have passed, but it is never too late to tell your students directly and sincerely how thankful you are for them. You can never know how deeply that may affect them. It just might send ripples straight through their hearts.