I Finally Get Veterans Day

I don’t remember anything about Veterans Day from my childhood. I don’t recall talking about it at school. Don’t remember knowing what a veteran was. Don’t come from a family of many vets. Can’t think of anytime before adulthood when I saw Veterans Day on the calendar or thought twice about it when I did.

And, to be honest, for most of my adulthood I didn’t pay it much attention. I’m sure I had to get beyond early adulthood, beyond those years of finishing college and starting my career, getting married and raising a family, to have the time and energy to focus on what was going on around the world. To weigh what life must be like in other countries compared to what it is like here. And to really appreciate that.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I talk to my students about how fortunate they are to live in America. We talk about our freedoms and our quality of life. We read about people who came to America looking for jobs and other opportunities. And, especially, we talk about the free education available to every child in America. I want my students to realize that not all children around the world get to go to school and that the reasons many of them cannot is because their families cannot afford it. Or that not every child has equal opportunity. I want them to treasure and embrace the free education that is available to them and to never, ever take it for granted.

But I don’t talk too much about the price that was paid for our freedom, for our way of life, for our country which much of the world envies. It’s complicated. It’s confusing. It can be too much for seven- and eight-year-olds.

But this year we had an event at our school that provided the opportunity to teach my second grade students about Veterans Day – what it means and why we celebrate it.

A teacher at our school – who is also a mother of a veteran just returned safely from Afghanistan – organized a veterans celebration on our campus. Students and staff invited relatives who currently are, or did, serve in the United States armed services. Students brought in photos of their vets and these were displayed on a big red, white, and blue Wall of Fame. The staff at our school cooked up an impressive breakfast for the 40 veterans who attended that day. Then, the veterans, easily distinguished by their uniforms, the staff, parents, and the entire student body gathered at the flag pole shortly after school started.

We all watched, solemn and serious, as two men in uniform raised the flag against the early morning light. The silence was broken with the singing of the national anthem. I couldn’t see the person who was performing, so I watched my students instead. As they double checked to make sure they had the correct hand across their chest. As they focused on keeping their eyes on the flag, just as we do each morning during the pledge. As they refrained from talking or wiggling or joining in on the singing. As my throat thickened and my left hand moved to cover, in that crucial motion, the emotion building on my countenance. Upon that final note, I let out a loud whoop, as I would at a baseball game or most other gatherings where the national anthem is sang, realizing a second too late my faux pas. Several of my students turned and looked at me, standing behind them, utter shock and disappointment on their faces. How disrespectful, Ms. Bergen.

A few days beforehand the students had carefully penned a Dear Veteran letter and I had them role play going up to a total stranger veteran, with their hand out, ready for shaking, and say, “Thank you for your service to our country.” This opportunity – to shake a veteran’s hand and present the letter they wrote – was what they all were really looking forward to.

As the flagpole ceremony ended, I brought my class around to where the veterans were lined up. They walked down the line, so obedient, so respectful, so in awe. And I watched each and every one of them approach a vet, hand out, letter ready.

And I knew then how important Veterans Day was to me.

As we walked back to our classroom, I heard one student say to her friend, “Man, that made me get tears in my eyes.” Back in class, we had a quick discussion about the emotion we felt during the ceremony. Most students concurred; they had almost teared up.

And I knew then how important Veterans Day was to them, too.

Veteran Letter 3

Veteran Letter 2

Veteran Letter 1

How to do Late Right

I had more than a few late second-graders today, Friday, April 25.

You see, it’s Class Picture Day. Due to the fact that seven students aren’t yet here, I can’t help but imagine the households of my students on the morning of Class Picture Day. Kids and parents scrambling, trying to find the best outfit. The best outfit–that one clothing item or one ensemble that everyone agreed was the cutest thing ever for that particular school year. Should be on a hanger or folded and in a drawer, right? If it’s the best clothing item?

Where did you wear it last? Has it been washed? Has anyone seen it?

Oh, never mind. Just find something that’s clean. Something not wrinkly.

Something without words on it. Our teacher said try not to wear a shirt with words on it.

Hurry, hurry, hurry and eat, we have to do your hair today. What should we do? Curl it? Curl it like you had in Aunt Jane’s wedding? Spike it? You want a mohawk? Okay! Hurry! Shoot, this is going to take a while. What time are your pictures? What? You don’t know? She didn’t tell you? Okay, never mind, just hurry.

What about my picture envelope?

What picture envelope?

The envelope. She said we have to bring the envelope and money if we want to order any. We don’t have to. Order any. But we’re going to, aren’t we? Can we? Can we?

Oh yeah, the envelope. Here it is. What? No cash in the envelope? Shoot. Where’s the checkbook? What? We’re out of checks?

What time are the pictures? I can’t believe she didn’t tell you. Did she at least say if they’re in the morning or the afternoon?

And so my little darlings enter, most of them on time, many of them oblivious to the fact that it’s Class Picture Day, looking like they do every other day (i.e., slightly disheveled but cute and oh so themselves).

I look around the room, which seems much less crowded than usual. Count. What? Eight kids absent on Class Picture Day? How can that be? What kind of class picture will we have with one-third of our class missing?

Well, start the day. Get going.

Knock. Oh, here comes someone. A rambunctious student rushes to answer the door and let her in.

It’s Julie. Nice ringlets. Fancy dress. I don’t ask why she’s late.

Okay, start the day. Get going.

Knock. It’s Robert. Oh, and Chance, too. The standard tardies. I doubt they know it’s picture day. No excuses, no reasons, just their standard arrival time, with typical bedheads in place.

Okay, start the day. Let’s get going.

Just kidding. Another figure moving outside the door. It’s Jazmyn. I hardly recognize her. Her hair, usually up in a pony tail, is let loose and flowing down to her waist. Wow. Beautiful.

A couple more trickle in, disrupting our first ten minutes of class. I’m glad to see them arriving though. For the most part, clean, well-dressed, well-groomed, envelopes flapping in hand.

But I’m having trouble starting the school day. The first 15 minutes are typically spent on opening–choosing a special helper for the day; doing calendar; reviewing vocabulary; practicing the spelling words; rehearsing math facts. We’re not going to get everything in today. With each knock, a smile for the late arrival but also some palpable frustration. I exchange “unbelieveable!” glances with the students who were here on time, just to connect with them, to say, “Can you believe these kids? Showing up late? How irresponsible!”

They think I am truly frustrated. Which I am. In a way. But not surprised. It’s not like it’s my first Class Picture Day, that’s for sure.

And then there is one last knock on the door. And in walks David. David, who just yesterday had a whole head of thick blonde hair, and who today has a fresh buzz cut. Super fresh. Like, this morning fresh. He’s flapping a money order in the air and cradling a bouquet of flowers.

“Sorry I’m late,” he mumbles. “We had to stop and get you flowers.”

“Kids!” I pause, making sure I have everyone’s undivided attention. “Now, if you’re going to be late, this is the way to do it. Bring your teacher flowers!”


The Lockdown

I’m supposed to be selling raffle tickets, but I’m not having any luck. I walk up and down the aisles of the high school auditorium, raffle tickets in hand, money bag tied around my waist. I stop several times and ask people if they want to buy one to support the music department. Ninety percent of them show tickets just bought. Apparently, that other mom got to them before I could.

So I leave the auditorium, skip out on my volunteer work, and go backstage into the music hallway to find my daughter and her choir girls. The halls are thick with students, not only choir students, but orchestra students and band students as well, and most of them have their instruments in tow, making it difficult for me to navigate. More