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Perspective: Small reasons for optimism

People are worried about what the pandemic has done to our children. What I’ve seen in the school lunchroom should give us all hope

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Alex Cochran, Deseret News

It was time for the two-minute warning. I raised my hand and called out “Third graders!” Sometimes all 70-odd students in the lunchroom quiet right down, but it was a warm day at the end of May, and they were squirmy and loud, and it took longer than usual for them to settle down.

Finally they did, and a girl named Cate raised her hand.

I hurried over, pulling out my scissors, figuring she needed help opening something in her lunch. But she didn’t need my help to open the mayonnaise packet or the container of peaches. “Were we the ones who were too noisy?” She pointed out her table section. “We’re really trying to keep it down. I know this whole grade is a handful!”

There she goes again, revealing a full-grown level of perception and kindness packaged in a 9-year-old, third grade body.

Although I recently retired after three decades in secondary education, I was a newcomer to this local elementary school in downtown Salt Lake City, hired three months ago to tutor first graders and help monitor the lunchroom. There was much to like about this job at this particular school, but the absolute best part was the unexpected fun of lunchtime and the unexpected maturity and kindness of the first, second and third graders like Cate.

I guess I expected to find students who were traumatized or apathetic or far behind grade-level at this point in our pandemic-weary world.

After all, we have a multitude of reasons to be scared for our children’s futures, beginning with the academic and emotional effects of two long years of COVID-19 leading up to our renewed alarm over school shootings.

Then there are the parental stressors that permeate the homes of these kids — the price of gas and groceries, the war in Ukraine, extreme weather events, a volatile stock market, division and outrage made inescapable by our smartphones. Our children stew in our dread that modern life is unraveling. Child development experts warn of the inevitability of trouble for our kids: a tsunami of anxiety, depression, anger, cynicism and despair, thought to be the natural result of their bad fortune to have been children during these tumultuous times

I have grandchildren; I worry every day about them. Our fears are legion. But I am not despairing; I am encouraged precisely because dysfunction is not what I saw around me in my urban, diverse school. Working with these youngest citizens has actually saved me from despair.

There are, of course, challenging and troubled students who need extra support from staff, but the surprise to me was the number of delightful, mature, thoughtful young ones in every classroom.

Children are famously capable of compartmentalizing trauma and grief; an awful thing can happen and then they run off to play. So kids laughing at lunch, telling jokes and playing games could, I realize, harbor deeper, troubled feelings.

What encouraged my optimism, however, is that many of these young students show distinct signs of resilience; they are champions for fairness, empathetic to others’ difficulties, kind to the underdog, concerned about each other and even concerned about me.

I wonder how, in our current “unprecedented” time, had this happened? Did these kids just show up as “old souls”? Or do they luckily, thankfully, have skilled teachers and wise parents who created a school and family culture that even in tough times (or perhaps because of tough times) puts a premium on gratitude and kindness?

There’s second grader Mabel, for instance. Many 8-year-olds are oblivious to the variety of adult helpers they encounter at each day at school; Mabel, however, sidled up to me on my first day as I helped the last students to empty their trays.

“Are you new here?” she inquired.

“Why, yes!” I replied, pleased that she had noticed. “I took Miss Elva’s place; I was just hired.”

“Well, congratulations!” she cried, hugging me around the waist before skipping off to recess. Every day Mabel is quick to hug and helps me learn the names of all the students.

Then there is Everett, a first grader I know is a handful because every day I could hear his teacher’s exasperated voice calling yet again, “Everett! PLEASE sit down!”

But he has a good memory and has been taught good manners. Although I was introduced to his class only once by the principal on my first day, he was the first student to greet me by name.

Oliver helped me to feel useful by raising his hand every day for me to cut open his banana. Ripley and Lucas shared jokes from the milk box to make me laugh. There was Bryce, the unofficial calm and wise leader of not just his crew but his entire section of the lunchroom; Lily, careful and conscientious in her job of wiping off the tables for the next group of students; Sophia, social activist and defender of properly pronounced names; Masa and Yuma who team up like pros on the sweeping job; Abby, who befriended the brand-new Afghan refugee — the list of memorable students rolls on and on.

And then there’s Cate. Despite our half-century age difference, she’s a delightful conversationalist, whether it’s about the lunch menu (“These cheese pockets are unexpectedly good ...”), her fellow third graders (“I’ve known Grant since we were babies in the same neighborhood. He’s always made people laugh.”) or leaning in to “kid-splain” when a classmate called my Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” T-shirt “dope” (“She doesn’t mean it in a bad way; she means it’s really cool”).

I was especially touched by her unexpected thoughtfulness the day she called me over and whispered, “I’m worried about you. When do you eat lunch? I never see you eating.”

How can this girl be only 9 years old?

This small, urban school works hard to make sure students are involved, feel safe, can progress and contribute; there’s always art work in the hallways and frequent “town meetings” where classes can showcase their learning by presenting plays, music and dances. I was moved by the enthusiasm with which everyone sang the school song, which I heard for the first time on May 25, the day after the horror at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas.

School has always been one of the safest, best places for children to be. The happy scene in our auditorium while the Uvalde community was seeking answers and planning funerals was too poignant for many of our teachers and parents to bear; I was not the only one who broke down. Since studies show that more than two-thirds of school shooters reported feeling isolated or bullied at school, the inclusivity that bubbles up at this school every day and in every activity is a specific, direct remedy in our efforts to prevent future shootings.

I think of our parents; it may take a village to raise a child, but each individual home is at the heart of the village. And as a parent and grandparent, I recognize the amount of thought, planning, repetition and sheer hard work and love that is required in these homes to raise children who are kind, generous and empathetic. No parent gets everything right, but today’s parents must give themselves credit. It’s hard enough to rear children right in “normal” times; it is a miracle to do so during two years of chaos and uncertainty.

So when the news makes me anxious and hopeless, I might sign a petition, write my senator or join a protest, but you’ll most likely find me in the lunchroom of my local elementary school. More than anything else, it is these wonderful kids, well-parented and well-taught, who conquer my fear and help me trust that things will work out.

Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson is a longtime educator who now enjoys retirement in Salt Lake City — gardening, travel, volunteering, freelance writing, grandkids, pickle ball and trying to convince her husband it’s finally time to get a dog.