The Measure of a Hero

Last Wednesday morning, I paused for a moment in between sandwich making and wiping the face of the three-year old at the table to open my laptop on the kitchen counter. My first grader wanted to bring his basketball schedule to his teacher: she had asked him when his games were so that she could come to one of them. I think he had reminded me eleven times in twenty-four hours about the need to print the schedule. It meant the world to him that his teacher wanted to come and watch him play.

As the screen lit, my Facebook page came into focus with a startling image. It was a photo of the intersection in front of my kids’ school. And it showed men with bulletproof vests and guns next to police cruisers and SUVs, blocking traffic completely. The person posting the image did so to alert drivers that they might hit some pretty rough traffic. It took a few minutes of flying through websites and my Facebook feed to interpret the image: an armed man at my kids’ school…verbal threats against all the schools in our district…lockdown procedures in effect…a school district closed. Elijah’s teacher would not be receiving the basketball schedule that day after all.

The next day I sat in a meeting with a young man who works in before and after school care at one of our local elementary schools. He described for me the events of those early morning hours the day before: making quick decisions with spotty information; managing the range of responses from “I’m scared” to “I’m bored” to “I have to use the bathroom”. “I just kept running scenarios through my mind,” he told me. “What would I do if someone came to the door…if I heard shots…if the glass broke…”

He continued: “I had to keep my hands in my pockets the whole time because every time I took them out they would just shake…I couldn’t get them to not shake. After a while of praying ‘please not me’ I started thinking: ‘why not me? Why not let me be the one?’”

I sent an email to my kids’ three elementary school teachers Thursday morning and I ended my email with this: “Thank you for your service to our kids and our family. We recognize that being a teacher today carries with it a heavy burden of ‘what if’ in light of school shootings and the like. You walk into that ‘what if’ daily, and I know you would boldly and bravely protect my kids, so thank you.” My brother serves in the military and I have often thanked military servicemen and servicewomen for what they do. It felt unsettling, out-of-body like, to write these words to the people who teach my kids algebra and different ways to construct an egg-drop.

Thursday afternoon I arrived at yet another local elementary school in our district to help in the after-school homework club started this year by a few concerned teachers. I saw one of the fifth grade teachers I know well, and we waited until the last child had left before we spoke of Wednesday’s events. “It was really hard coming here today,” she said in a moment of quiet honesty. “If I still had kids in school, I don’t know if I would have sent them.” I hugged her and thanked her for being there. I told her I could not imagine how that must have felt.

Friday night I stayed up late baking muffins. Our church had volunteered to cook breakfast for an early morning event at the grade school down the street. Every year around Christmas, the teachers at this school take up a collection and raise enough funds to take a group of about twenty-five students on a generous shopping spree to buy new coats, a new outfit for school, and maybe some new shoes: things the kids get to pick out and “buy” for themselves.

Saturday morning, the alarm went off at the unfriendly hour of 5:30am. My daughter and I packed our muffins, and headed out on dark empty streets to a completely unlit parking lot outside of the grade school. A small light shone from a crack in the front door that was propped open by the school’s Family Advocate to allow us entrance.

We entered the cafeteria and began to set up quiches and pancakes, sausages and orange juice, and of course my daughter’s favorite muffins. Kids arrived at 6:45am and entered, some shyly, others with eager smiles spread wide over their faces. Teachers dressed in Saturday-morning casual sat sprinkled throughout the room. One teacher in particular noticed every child who entered. Without fail, if a child hesitated for even a moment at the door, she would quickly rise from her lunchroom table and rush over to greet them with a warm smile and gentle touch.

The volume rose as the room filled and laughter and smiles were contagious. I looked around at the faces of the teachers there: leaning in, listening, making jokes, eating sausages and pancakes with these wide-eyed kids. The setting was one of welcome, safety, delight. These cafeteria tables were filled with a whole other set of “what if” scenarios than those rehearsed earlier in the week. What if these kids did not have the gift of these teachers in their lives? What if…

After everyone had eaten their fill, a teacher rose and gathered the attention of the kids in the room in that clever “speak really softly to get the kids quiet” way. After bathrooms were used and bus-buddies chosen, the group lined up and walked out into the foggy morning for their shopping adventure. As we cleaned up, the principal mentioned that his wife was home preparing for his daughter’s first birthday party that would be held later that day. As a wife and mom myself, I thought of his family at home, working hard at party preparations while he was here at school, on a Saturday. It sounds small, perhaps, but I recognized the cost in his being there that day.

It can sound cliché to call classroom teachers and school staff members “heroes”. But this week in Shoreline I saw each one of them that way: from trembling hands running scenarios of sacrifice to an early Saturday morning shopping trip, to the possibility of showing up at a first-grader’s weekend basketball game. From the quiet bravery of coming to school no matter what to staying that extra forty-five minutes to offer homework help week after week.

These are the measures of a hero. And I am humbled and grateful for each and every one of them.

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