Like the rest of the world my mind has been locked on December 14, 2012, Newtown, Conn. Every time I go for a walk, get tired, pray, see a happy child, a child crying, a school bus, watch a teacher’s eyes light up when her students learn a new word or understand long division, or for no reason at all, my mind flashes back to the tragedy of 20 elementary students shot — and the brave teachers and school staff who gave their lives attempting to save the lives of their students. The stories of heroic actions by teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary made me think of the impact teachers have had in my life and the lives of other students I know.
I grew up in a coal-mining community on a one-lane road in the mountains of West Virginia. Our school and church were the center of our lives. Religious activities took place in church; all other community activities were held at our school, including club meetings, dances and voting. Teachers were the leaders of our community.
I remember my first days of school. My mom helped me onto the big yellow bus. The bus driver, Mr. O’Dell, was the husband of my teacher, Mrs. O’Dell. He seated all of the little kids up front so he could keep an eye on them. I was scared and nervous being away from my mommy for the first time. During the first weeks, I cried and each time I cried my teacher, Mrs. O’Dell sat me on her lap and hugged me and told me I would be just fine. She always made me feel better and soon I didn’t miss my mommy so much. In the days and weeks ahead, Mrs. O’Dell became my mommy at school and my mommy and my teacher became inner changeable. Soon I was calling Mrs. O’Dell “mommy” and calling “mommy” Mrs. O’Dell. That is how important a teacher became to me.
And the more time I reflect on the role teachers have had on my life and the lives of others since this tragedy, the more I realize the impact teachers have on our lives, our communities, and our world. And so, I was not surprised by the stories of sacrifice and bravery at Sandy Hook. Teachers and their students are truly family to each other; it is because of each other that they stand hand-in-hand even in the face of the unspeakable.
Because of Teachers
Because of Teachers: I went to college
Because of Teachers: I learned to read, write and love books
Because of Teachers: I learned to do math
Because of Teachers: I learned the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag of the United States and the importance of the Constitution
Because of Teachers: I became a member of Clubs like 4-H and became a State Public Speaker Champion
Because of Teachers: I was involved in sports and made my body strong
Because of Teachers: I had a ride to church
Because of Teachers: I learned French and German
Because of Teachers: I had a nutritious breakfast and lunch, even in the summer
Because of Teachers: I received toys at Christmas
Because of Teachers: I had a warm jacket for winter
Because of Teachers: I got a hug when I needed it
Because of Teachers: I’m alive
— Betty Dotson-Lewis
Because of Students
Because of students: I found a purpose in life
Because of students: I answer to “Teacher” morning, noon and night
Because of students: I smile at eager faces when I’m tired at the end of a long day AND bus duty
Because of students: I cry at their graduations and rejoice when they come back to see me
Because of students: I stay young at heart
Because of students: I see myself through their eyes and I am stronger and better Because of students: I strive to learn more so that I can teach them more
Because of students: I remember myself at their age and I relate to remembered dreams and aspirations
Because of students: I run to them when they fall and need help getting up
Because of students: I found extra money in my pocket because one of you needed a cheerleading uniform
Because of students: I learned the meaning of blind faith
Because of students: I tell their stories and I learn from them
Because of students: I willingly put my life on the line
— Kathleen Colley Slusher
Betty Dotson-Lewis of Summerville, W.Va., and Kathleen Colley Slusher of Crab Orchard, Ky., are co-authors of “The Girl From Stretchneck Holler, Inside Appalachia” (2012).