There is nothing unusual about there being a few tears shed within the confines of a primary school building on any given day. Southern Boone’s primary school is no exception. Scraped knees, hurt feelings, and academic frustration all cause the pitiful displays of waterworks common to kids in kindergarten, first, and second grades.
There is another contributing factor in the appearance of tears at the primary school, one that even the adults are not immune to: Love.
I, for one, have been brought to tears three times in as many weeks while subbing at the school.
The first of these emotional moments came three weeks ago, after talking with a student who has been struggling with behavior issues for a long time. The child had recently been sent to the “safe seat” and “buddy room” several times, and despite the strong bond I felt with the child, I found myself feeling increasingly frustrated with our lack of progress, in terms of behavior management, over the years.
The student and I had a frank discussion about the causes of the child’s behavior, and it became apparent that the real issue was rooted in a deep-seated self-hatred. After assuring the child that he/she was not a bad a person, and that I believed in him/her, the child broke down in relieved, remorseful sobs. It was heartbreaking to see a child so genuinely sad, but it felt like a real breakthrough in our relationship. After relaying the conversation to the child’s teacher—with tears welling in my eyes—I went home that day feeling that it might just be possible for a substitute teacher to make a real difference in the life of a child.
I became teary again just a week later when I was discussing intruder protocol in a second grade classroom. In the years since the Sandy Hook tragedy unfolded, I have participated in the primary school’s intruder training several times. I have always managed to discuss the steps students and teachers can take to keep themselves safe in a calm and reassuring manner. As any teacher will tell you, it is extremely difficult to discuss life and death with such young children. Special care must be taken to not upset the students, while simultaneously conveying the seriousness of the subject.
I discussed the acronym A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate), doing my best to teach the children how to protect themselves against someone bent on harming them, while trying to reassure them that such a scenario was highly unlikely to ever occur. At one point, I asked the students what a teacher’s most important job is. I was delighted to hear most of them say, “Keeping us safe.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Keeping you safe is even more important than teaching you how to read or write or add or subtract.” Later when a child started becoming noticeably worried, I said, “Don’t worry. Remember, your teachers and I will do whatever it takes to keep you safe.”
Towards the end of our discussion, I gave the kids a chance to ask questions. Everything was going as well as could be expected until one child raised his hand and asked with a very serious tone, “Mr. Naughton, when you said you would do anything to keep us safe, did you mean that you would even die for us?”
The room fell completely silent. It was obvious that every single child there had been wondering the same thing. Nineteen sets of innocent eyes were fixed directly on me, anxiously awaiting my answer.
I could not speak.
It seemed like an eternity passed before I was able to summon the strength to respond. “Yes,” was all I could say.
“Mr. Naughton, are you crying?” a concerned child asked.
Another long, silent pause.
“Yes,” I said again as I unsuccessfully fought back the tears.
“Why?” the children asked.
“Because I love each and every one of you,” I said. “It makes me sad to have to talk about these things with you,” I continued. “But yes, if I had to, I would die to keep you safe, and so would every grown-up in this building.”
Every. Single. One.
The third time I cried in school was when long-time primary school secretary Missy Kirmse worked her last day in the building. At the school’s September awards assembly, a video produced by assistant principal Lucas Karr featuring memories of Miss Missy (as she is more commonly called by those who know and love her) played for the students, staff, and parents in attendance. Several teachers were featured in the video praising Missy for her dedication to the hundreds of students who have attended the primary school over the last eleven years. Principal Brandy Clark was too emotional to speak, as was Miss Missy, and as I looked across the gymnasium, countless students and teachers (including myself) had tears streaming down their faces.
It is impossible to quantify the impact Miss Missy has had on the Southern Boone family. While she will be dearly missed in the primary school, she will be a valuable addition to the district’s central office.
It is also impossible to quantify the impact working at the primary school over the last seven years has had on me. I’m a far better man today than I was before I began teaching. Despite all the tears, I absolutely love my job.