With fire in their bellies

CTK teachers kick off the year with lessons in caring


by Kelly Kelley

Even though I’m entering my 17th year of teaching middle school, I still get this question all the time: “So, are you ready to go back?”

I think most people are surprised when I say that I am. I am ready to see my kids, I am ready to organize supplies, and I am one of the lucky ones who can honestly say I am ready for in-service days. For it is at the end of our in-service that our principal’s new theme will be “unveiled.”

Each year our principal establishes a theme that sets the tone for the year and inspires us to approach our work with “fire in our bellies,” as she says. This year’s theme touched our staff so deeply, moved us so dramatically, that we felt we really needed to share it.

The process started with the viewing of a video called “Johnny the Bagger,” a motivational story about providing service through caring gestures, and we were challenged to establish our own “signature” for caring this year. But the final day of our meetings has always been marked with an activity that is fun and sometimes just a little outrageous. I couldn’t imagine what our principal, Relynn Reynoso, had cooked up to go along with “Johnny’s” story.

It didn’t take long to find out. All of us were assigned to one of six teams. Each team was given $40 cash, about 90 minutes, and an assignment much like “Oprah’s Big Give”: Go out and make a difference in whatever way you choose.

Judges would then decide how we’d done.

At first the time restraints were really bogging us down. We had dozens of ideas. We focused on preparing kids for school — maybe providing shoes or school supplies — but we needed time to contact other resources for help. Finally, my team decided that we’d better make our decisions en route — to wherever — or we’d run out of time before we even got started.

Once we hit the road, the creative juices started flowing, and some suggested we buy flowers and distribute them in hopes of making some folks’ day a little brighter. One team member knew of a small care home nearby, so I called to make arrangements, while two others went to procure flowers. We were given a good price, so we decided to put a few dollars of gas in someone’s tank as well. It was harder than you would think!

Our society has been so trained to distrust that our kindness was at first met with suspicion. Finally, one gentleman graciously accepted, and we were on our way. But we were already changing; we were giddy.

The four of us were smiling so hard, we could hardly wait to reach the care home where we hoped we would take that giddy feeling and multiply it by the 54 residents we would meet.

When we arrived, we saw a gentleman sitting outside, and we stopped to talk for a moment. But we quickly realized that we’d never get back to school in time if all of us met each resident of the home, so we each pulled a few roses from the bucket and dispersed.

The workers let us know which men were veterans, so we could thank them for their service. With some folks, we were able to look at family photos and hear a few memories.

One woman thanked my colleague, saying, “Oh, I’m getting married soon, and this will be perfect!”

One gentleman couldn’t hear me, so I was able to leave our message on his white board — which, even telling it now, brings tears to my eyes because he reminded me of my grandpa. They were good tears. No, they were cathartic tears. How better could I honor my grandpa than to care for someone in his situation?

The flowers didn’t really matter. They were nothing more than a conversation starter. If we had come empty-handed, we would have been as well received.

We weren’t ready to leave, but we knew we had to. We entered our school building feeling peaceful and grateful for all that those strangers had given us in a half-hour. Then it was time to hear what the other teams had accomplished. It was so amazing to listen to all of the people who were moved by this activity — and in such a short time.

Then came the verdict from our judges — members of our school community.

“Oh no!” I thought. “Having one ‘winner’ is going to ruin it all!”

But I could tell from the look on my principal’s face that she had already thought of that, and I settled in to enjoy what followed.

Allen Towle, our school council president did the honors, and I wish I had tape-recorded what followed so I could share it word-for-word. But it went something like this:

“Team 1,” he said, “you earned the award for most spontaneous. You jumped in and went from place to place, touching people’s hearts along the way. From paying bus fares to MDA donations to providing toothbrushes for children in need, you have reminded us that kindness doesn’t have to be orchestrated in order to be appreciated.

“Team 2, you earned the award for a gift that is long lasting. You connected with one family through The Ronald McDonald House and have made plans to keep in touch and bring their story to your students, so that the caring continues. You have reminded us that the gift doesn’t have to be big to be appreciated.

“Team 3, you earned the sunshine award. You thought of a group of people who often spend a day without outside contact, and you gave them the gifts of your attention and conversation. You have reminded us that there are people out there who crave a smile and a ‘hello’ more than anything else, and that the simplest kindness is appreciated.

“Team 4, you earned the ‘aha’ award. At first your group was looking for the most needy to receive your kindness. Then you had an epiphany and said, ‘This is our lesson! Everyone needs kindness.’ You have reminded us that we don’t have to look far to make a difference in someone’s day. If we can remember that, surely we will all appreciate it.

“Team 5, you have earned the ‘outside-the-box’ award. You found ways to increase your resources, but the things people gave you didn’t really fit into your plan, so you created new plans for each of those gifts and let nothing go to waste. You have reminded us that, even if it’s not what we asked or hoped for, we need to appreciate what we are given.

“Team 6, your award is for being the most sentimental. In choosing to go to hospice, you offered your kindness to several people who were unable to show you their appreciation. Yet your giving touched you deeply, because some of your families have been through it and you know it was worthwhile. You have reminded us that much of what we give may never earn us a ‘thanks,’ but it’s not because it wasn’t appreciated.”

When he concluded the presentations, the room went quiet — at least for our crew. But it was swelling with emotion. We were ready! The fire in our bellies had been reignited and we were ready to share what we had learned with our students. I am always amazed by how much a little giving gives back to me.

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