A few weeks ago, I was kind of a big deal. For 30 minutes, I was a “special person” at my 7-year-old niece’s elementary school for “Special Person’s Day.”
I entered my elementary alma mater, Floral Park-Bellerose School, through the single-entry point, passed security checks, and sat in the same creaky chairs in the same echoey auditorium as I’d sat in during the 1970s, until called to her class with all the other special people.
My niece, Julianna, is not one for small emotions, so I got “Hi, Aunt Allison, I missed you!” (though I’d seen her a week earlier), a bright-eyed smile, and a cuddly hug upon my entrance. If you’re ever feeling bad about yourself, visit a 7-year-old in her classroom. It’s a rush.
Juji’s name was laminated on her desk, same last name as mine, and as I oriented myself, I realized I was in my own first-grade classroom.
I watched, delighted, as all those little fingers cut out wobbly tracings of their special person’s hands. These kids concentrated and worked hard. They laughed and chatted, making the room sound full of bubbles.
I’m a teacher too, but since 2001, I’ve only taught people 18 and older at Nassau Community College in my freshman composition and critical reading classes. So while I share the profession, the day-to-day of what I do differs vastly from what happens in an elementary classroom, and when I see great early-childhood teachers in action, I’m awed.
I remember visiting my kids’ kindergarten classes at John Lewis Childs School, the other Floral Park K-6. Yes, little ones are adorable, but they also never stop talking and moving and being really, really excited or really, really sad, and yet their teachers kept everything organized, orderly, happy, and full of learning without even raising their voices. What sorcery is this?
Juji’s teachers, all three, were equally remarkable. The classroom ran like a fine Rolex and they made it feel safe, untroubled, joyful. I could tell this atmosphere wasn’t just because there were special people in the room. That’s the classroom every day.
And I don’t know how they do it.
I was only in the room for 30 minutes, and even immersed in all that happiness and nostalgia, a subtle yet deep sense of grief hovered near me, showing up, unwelcome, as momentary prickles under my skin or pressure behind my eyes: The kids in Uvalde, Texas also chatted and worked hard at their tasks. Their teachers loved them and ran tight, cheerful classrooms. It was impossible not to imagine them all.
Keeping those hovering clouds of grief from settling in children’s classrooms is a new teaching requirement, and I imagine it is utterly exhausting.
All teachers, but especially elementary teachers, have to face reality while shielding their students from it. Yet they still show up. They love their students. They teach them well. They make them feel safe.
I hope Juji’s teachers, and all teachers, enjoy Long Island’s luxuries this summer — the beaches, the wineries, live music. My niece and every other much-loved child will be back, still bright-eyed, determined, and ready to go come September. I’m a grateful aunt who’s depending on these teachers to keep being their best for Juji, and a grateful teacher looking forward, in a decade or so, to greeting those well-cared-for students into my classroom.
Reader Allison Bressmer lives in Floral Park.