As I fled Sandy Hook Elementary on the morning of December 14, 2012, clutching two of my student’s hands tightly, I thought, “thank you, thank you.” From that moment on I realized it is not the moment that defines you, it is how you react to the moment that defines you.
As I reflected in the days following, I knew we had to make a choice for ourselves, our students, our nation, and our world. If we were going to choose love, kindness, compassion, empathy, and hope after such terror and destruction, then we needed to teach this to our students. But at this point, I still had a large question to answer. How?
We returned to our new school at the beginning of January. One of the most uplifting aspects of being back at school—next to the joy in seeing my students’ smiling faces—faces that at one point I didn’t know if I’d ever see smile again—was the outpouring of generosity from around the world. So much love came into our school and my classroom in the form of letters, books, pencils, supplies, games, toys, happy meals, cupcakes, teddy bears, and the list goes on and on.
I stepped back and I realized that while my students were beyond deserving of all these special gifts, I needed to teach them a very important lesson.
I brought a large box a friend had mailed to my class and placed it in front of the room. “This box is filled with things for us to use during recess.” I told my students. As I pulled out puzzles, games, coloring books, and markers their eyes grew wide.
I paused and asked, “Do you know why someone sent this to us?” Their hands shot up. “Because they wanted us to be happy.” Or: “They wanted to be nice.” Or: “They wanted us to have fun at recess,” they replied.
“You’re all exactly right!” I told them. “Someone did this for us for all of those reasons. In life, when someone does something nice for you, you have to do something nice for someone else, and that is what we are going to do! We are going to find a class somewhere in the United States and we are going to make them feel the way we do right now: Happy.”
“Who are we going to help?” the asked. “How are we going to help them?” They were equally—if not more—excited at the thought of helping someone else, as they were for the gifts they had just received.
Children are able to understand the importance of helping others, of giving, and of making a difference. As their teachers, we need to provide them with the opportunity to do so. That is how the idea to create a nonprofit, Classes 4 Classes, Inc., was born.
The mission of Classes 4 Classes is to teach every child in our nation that our lives are not separate and that everyone has the power to take action and create positive change. We do that by giving every K-5 classroom in America the opportunity to help another class, to care for another class, to be kind to another class, and to learn empathy by thinking of another class.
Students in one K-5 classroom give a gift that fulfills a need or educational objective to another K-5 class, anywhere in the country. The receiving classroom is able to accept their gift onlyafter they’ve selected yet another classroom to give to, thus teaching children to “pay it 4ward.”
When doing something for someone else, we come to understand that it truly is a far better gift to give than to receive. The platform provided by our website actively engages students in learning a social curriculum, not by talking about kindness and empathy, but by living it. This encourages the development of emotional intellect, which is the key to forming healthy relationships.
If, after such a horrific event, we are going to choose love, caring, consideration, compassion, empathy, and hope—which I so believe we should—then we need to teach that to our students. We need the students in our nation to have the opportunity to be a part of something that exhibits all of these things, a part of something bigger than themselves, bigger than all of us.
There will never be words to explain that tragic day. There will never be answers to all of the whys. All we can do is to make sure that we teach every child in our nation to care for one another by caring for others. When we teach kindness, compassion, love, and empathy, there is no room for hate.