“It’s a fun run. We all have to do it,” Jaylin told me. “You should come.”
So I did come, not to run but to watch. Not just to watch but to help. On my arrival, they were breaking for lunch, so I set out along the course marked out, intending to pick up random discards: cups, juice pop wrappers, and other assorted trash. Wouldn’t want the kids to trip and fall.
As I walked, I also read the signs. Professionally printed on foam boards and stuck in the ground like political placards, personalized signs urged kids on in their running. Each sign had been purchased for $10 – this was a fundraising event. This elementary school, classified a Title I school, is in an impoverished neighborhood. These families didn’t have extra cash. Someone who loved these children paid for the privilege of encouraging them.
As I walked I read. As I read, I prayed. As I prayed, I shed tears. Oh, the love of these parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. I wondered about each little one’s story. I spoke thanks into the spring breeze for these teachers and administrators who had purchased signs encouraging these kids.
And then out came the next batch of kids, full of energy and enthusiasm, cheering for themselves and their classes.
“Parents,” the teacher with the microphone said, “you can spread out anywhere on the course.”
Though not a parent to these children and yet with no volunteer position assigned, I seized the opportunity to head out onto the course – ALL the way to the fence, clear across the field, to the middle of the backstretch. I was alone there. Just me, the backstop, two big trees and the soccer field beyond the fence.
Then, here came the kids!
I clapped, shouted and whooped as they came by. Some smiled, some looked away, and some pretended not to notice. Next time around, I offered high fives: “High fives! Free high fives! A little extra energy…who needs a little extra energy!”
Now really here came the kids. They would re-route to slap me five, cut off classmates, even, to swing near. A few slowed to a walk to get a “re-charge.” I learned a few of their names. Plenty complained that their stomachs were hurting, it was hot, they were exhausted. Some of the walkers began jogging when they saw me. A few stayed wide and clear of traffic to get in as many laps as possible.
Some walked and read each sign. Looking for theirs. A teacher had stopped to take Alexandra’s picture next to hers – I’m sure to be able to share with the family – but now kids were asking, “Where is MY sign?” “Can you help me find my sign?”
I had counted about 75 signs, but there were hundreds of kids.
I was their sign… “You can do it!” “Look at you go!” “Way to keep up the pace!” Way to keep going!” “Whoa, you’ve run how many laps?!””I’m so proud of you!”
Free high fives, free energy, free encouragement. That’s all I had. Nothing for sale. Everything to give. Cost me nothing. And it filled me up.
Suddenly, one little first grader came ’round the bend. I held out my high-5 hand but instead she grabbed me around the middle and held me tight, for just a second, before jogging on.
Oh my. Filled to the very brim. What had I done to deserve this plenty?
I cajoled the last three girls to complete their last lap. One jogged, one walked, one made me wait saying she didn’t want to run…and then sprinted ahead of me shouting, “I bet I can beat you!!”
And so they did. So they all did.
I watched them enjoying their juice pops and meandered by. Not a soul noticed. Not a soul cared.
I looked again at those fund-raising signs, with names of these little ones printed in colorful ink, all in a row along the course they had run. They had run and not grown weary, walked and not grown faint.
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. ~ Isaiah 40:31
What had first looked like tombstones set in a row, now looked like runways set for take-off. Even the crazy guy, Rob, who advertised “best deals on cruises” by donating 10 bucks to the cause must have known what I now know, that Alta Vista Eagles are meant to soar.
What a privilege it is to witness them take flight.
Mrs. James is my hero. She teaches the 4th grade at an elementary school near me. I am the fortunate recipient of two “pals” from her class. On Wednesdays, I get to go and play games with them for half an hour during their “lunch period.” If you can call 10:30 am a lunch period.
This week, it felt eerie walking into the building. I walked with my head down thinking about how another person, a young man, did this very same thing with a very different intent. I went to the buzzer, stood in front of it so they could see who I was, was buzzed in and then went to the main office to sign in and get a name tag.
The office computer “knows me.” My name comes up in the data base to record my volunteer hours. This so regimented, so right, so safe. And yet, today, I wonder.
How are these halls different? What do these children know of what’s happened in their world? I walk to the cafeteria past classrooms in full swing. Kids line up in the halls to move to lunch and recess and gym. They are orderly, smiling, engaged. Nothing. Nothing seems different. It is I who am different.
I am worried what I will say if my pals bring up the shooting. If they are afraid. If they are concerned. If they are sad. I will not bring it up if they don’t, but I must be prepared to answer their questions. To assure them they are safe and cared for and loved.
There is not even a hint of concern between them. We have a wonderful time. We agreed last week that this week we would be teachers, pretending to teach using the dry erase board. We all take a turn at being the teacher. The other two are classmates, sometimes one of us is a “new” student to the class. With each new “teacher” there are introductions, welcomes, and reminders to “let’s treat each other like we would like to be treated.” One time I pretend to talk while the teacher is talking and I am cautioned by a very serious 10 year old, “I don’t want to have to pull out my ‘blue’ cards.”
When our time is up I bid a farewell to my pals. “Go. Run. Play,” I tell them as they run onto the playground. And they smile and do, waving along the way.
I see Mrs. James, their teacher, out on playground duty and I walk over to her and smile. “This must be quite a week to be a teacher,” I say.
She agrees, although she tells me she was surprised the children didn’t have more questions until she asked if they had any. “Then the flood gates opened,” she said. “Mostly, they wanted to know the details of the incident, but I just wanted to be sure they felt safe.”
“I was surprised at the young teacher, Victoria, who hid her children,” I said. “What presence of mind.”
Mrs. James said, “You have to think of the children first. It’s automatic. Your top priority.” But then she went on. “Mine are too big to put in cabinets. I would put them out the window. And we usually tell them to stand quietly. But I would tell them to run as fast as you can for the neighborhoods and scream their heads off.”
She pushed back the locks of hair that threatened to cover one eye so she could look straight at me. “You have to do what works.”
She had taken in this tragedy and felt completely prepared to save her children. Now I knew why the children in her class felt so secure.
And also why my two pals have both said to me, “I wanna be a teacher.” Mrs. James is not just my hero.