The mother of my third grade classmate was killed on the train tracks. She was walking home on the sidewalk in the residential section of town, and apparently she didn’t hear the whistle.
I never knew the full explanation. Actually, it is not important here. Suffice it to say that the Long Island Railroad passed through our village, and I grew up with a cautious approach to the tracks.
From my eight-year old self, I’ve captured a small memory and brought it in focus.
Don’t judge the people and situation with today’s standards. There were no school crisis intervention teams for support, or social media sites spreading news rapidly. Children relied on the adults to keep them safe without giving much thought.
We had just settled in to the school day when the principal knocked on our classroom door and hurriedly took Bobby out. No one gave the class an explanation, and we didn’t assume the worst. We went on to reading and arithmetic as per usual.
Bobby was not told anything either, except to walk the three blocks home.
At supper my parents broke the news about the accident. I was devastated. I knew Bobby’s mother well from numerous visits to his home, and that she was a lot older than the other mothers. When I put my head down on the pillow at bedtime, I tossed and turned for a long time listening for the familiar sounds of my mother and father cleaning up downstairs.
During my hours of restlessness, I came up with a plan.
The next morning I put a dollar of my allowance into a tin box and took it to school. I slipped up to my teacher’s desk before the others arrived and asked if it was all right to take up a collection. She gave me a big hug, and I distinctly remember tears in her eyes. By the following day the box filled with donations from my classmates.
I went to the florist with my mother to buy the flowers for the funeral. I chose a large yellow bow with “friends” scrawled in glitter to wrap around the bouquet.
But there is way more to the story that makes it grow forever in my heart.
Bobby stayed out of school for a few days while an older aunt moved in to help with a lot of household details. When he did return, I was shocked at his disheveled appearance and overall lack of luster. The boy that used to be witty and easy going had withdrawn from our third grade. He rushed to his seat and became invisible behind his book, a prop.
In the weeks following, I waited each day in the hallway for my friend to come to school, and when he arrived at the very last minute, I tied his shoes and straightened his shirt as a matter of habit.
I don’t remember much conversation between us, if at all. I felt sad that Bobby didn't have a mother, and that he was struggling with feelings that I couldn't imagine.
I didn’t say a word to anyone for I didn’t want to bring it to attention. However, like any compassionate teacher, mine knew. Years later in talking with her, she said that she kept out of my way and never questioned me on why I was not in my seat when the bell rang. She gave me room to help in someone else’s healing process.
As we moved up in grades, we stayed friends. Sometimes I would see Bobby in the hall, and we would pass with a smile. We both knew a lot about what matters when you need a friend in a crisis.
I never gave much thought to the significance of what I had done until recently. Bobby said that he was a lost soul for many years, and he remembered how I tried to keep him afloat while he was sinking. It was pleasant to hear that sentiment and know that I had done the right thing, although I didn’t need it to feed my ego. He had become a successful Los Angeles prosecutor, and I realized during our conversation that I was standing next to a man filled with an extraordinarily kindness for humanity.
I suppose that year in third grade started me thinking about becoming a teacher like the lovely lady that held a group of eight-year olds together to mourn with their friend while reading them hopeful adventures of faraway places and possibilities.
Over my own teaching career I was faced with several unfortunate student deaths. Principals, support staff and funeral directors were essential to lean on for advice. Child-centeredness had changed radically.
Facing death is an intense responsibility for a classroom teacher when children are most vulnerable and need a comfort zone. I was part of the process in leading young ones beyond the tears and helping them find personal memories.
Children expressed themselves and made the tributes that would soothe them – a book of poems, a tree in the courtyard. Once a second grader broke out in song, “Jesus Loves Me,” in the middle of a lesson, and we all joined in to honor our deceased classmate. Whatever it took, I allowed it to happen regardless of curriculum demands. Grieving took precedence, and it was real life learning that no administrator or parent questioned.
Follow your intuition, and put yourself in the service of someone in need – that person right in your path. It’s the small things you do for others that matter.