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Heros Never Die

My youngest son’s first grade teacher, Mr. M., passed away today. It was a life cut short by cancer. For many of these kids it is the first time they have had to face losing a loved one. And he was loved by these kids and by all the other kids whose lives he touched.

Some kids look forward to the first day of school – it’s a chance to reconnect with old friends and an excuse to buy new clothes. My youngest child did not this year. Faced with a crowd of still mostly older kids in the lunch room, his trepidation was very evident, and he clung to my hand. The principal approached, and, even though he knows and loves her, he still would not let go of me.

But she was ready for this. She bent down a little.

“Have you met Mr. M?” she asked. My son responded by turning his face to my stomach. “Come on over and meet him,” she said. She led us over to a tall man who was surrounded by at least dozen adoring, older children. “Mr. M,” she said, “This is one of your new students.”

Mr. M instantly turned his full attention to my son. He bent down a little to try and make eye contact. Then he spoke to both of us, and something about his thick New England accent got my boy’s attention. Mr. M. knew all the right questions to ask a five-year-old boy. They were more than ‘How was your summer?’ questions. They were questions that told the kids that there was still a very healthy kid inside this towering teacher.

He made a few more jokes, and my shy little boy quickly let go of my hand. The rest of the first grade soon arrived, and I watched him joke and comfort and make each of them feel as though they were the most special kid in the class.

He was not a pushover – rules were to be followed, and he believed in consequences. But during the brief month or so that he was running that First Grade classroom, I rarely had to rouse my son out of bed. Every morning I heard the same refrain: “I can’t wait to go see Mr. M.” And every night, I saw the results of Mr. M’s firm, loving presence as my youngest child began finding the joy in learning for its own sake. It is a gift he will take with him for the rest of his life.

Tonight I cry for what our community has lost and for what these children are feeling right now, but I know that even his youngest students have a sense of how much better it is to have had him in their lives, if only for a short time. The word hero is overused, but I don’t know what other word better describes someone who spends their last months on earth lifting people up and giving them their futures. And I do know that when the sadness subsides, he will live on in the kids who were lucky enough to have known him.