82: Straight from the Heart

82: Straight from the Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Straight from the Heart

Encourage, lift and strengthen one another. For the positive energy spread to one will be felt by us all.

~Deborah Day

I came back into my classroom after our usual Wednesday afternoon staff meeting and dropped a stack of handouts on my desk. I was tired, but looking forward to our Valentine’s party the next day.

Valentine’s Day was one of my favorite holidays at school. It was a nice break from the routine of a long New Hampshire winter, and the theme of love came at a time when my fourth graders were most susceptible to its influences. Sure, love from parents and adults was still important. But somewhere around the month of February, the increasing need for peer acceptance and a burgeoning awareness of the opposite sex developed, creating the perfect setting for embarrassed giggles and demure thank-yous as syrupy love notes and prefabricated Valentine puns were torn from their envelopes.

I imagined the students sorting their cards into categories and popping the attached red lollipops into their mouths, feigning indifference to the faded white “Be Mine” messages stamped on them. I knew they would secretly reread the cards and the names on the backs, hoping that at least one of the love notes stamped on the store-bought cards were real sentiments meant specifically for them.

Thinking of this, I smiled and looked around the classroom. Our bulletin boards and walls were decorated with white streamers and pink and red hearts. Heart folders were taped to the fronts of everyone’s desk, ready for tomorrow’s “mail.” Even the digital clock was decorated with paper hearts.

With a start, I noticed the time. My son would be waiting for me at daycare. Time to go. As I picked up my briefcase, I remembered that I had Valentine pencils for everyone in my desk drawer. Things would be hectic tomorrow. Might as well put them in the folders tonight. Tearing off the cardboard seal, I quickly placed one in each person’s folder. Finally, I flicked the light switch and locked the door. Little did I know that Valentine’s Day would have a whole different meaning in the morning.

I got the call sometime after midnight. I listened to my brother’s voice and tried to clear the fog of sleep from my brain. My sister had been in a terrible car accident. She had been going too fast and slammed her car into a highway sign. A passing EMT worker had stopped to help and, noticing that she had a faint pulse, called an ambulance. But the internal bleeding and blow to her head were too much. She died shortly after her arrival at the hospital. My sister, who was only thirty-eight years old — a year younger than me — was gone.

A couple of days later, when the funeral arrangements had been made and reality had penetrated the shock, an assistant with whom I worked closely brought me papers to look through. Among the papers was the Valentine’s Day folder I had made for myself. It was filled with cards and small gifts from my students. The simple innocence of the children and their paper cards brought me comfort. Among the Valentine’s cards were notes and sympathy cards from the children expressing their feelings about my sister’s death. One note touched my heart in particular:

Mrs. Arnault,

I am sorry about what happened to your sister. We are all sad for you. I hope you will get happier soon, but it is okay to cry and be sad. I know I would cry forever if my sister had died.

I hope you will be okay when you are teaching. If you start to cry in school, we will not mind.

I wish life was not so difficult. Maybe you will see your sister in heaven some day long from now. I really hope she is okay, and I hope you are okay. I am sure you and your family are very sad. I wish she could have lived until Valentine’s Day, but at least you still have family.

I wish you were here on Valentine’s Day at school so we could spend time with you, but I understand how you feel. I hope you had a good Valentine’s Day even though it is difficult to go through. I care for you a lot, and I feel so hurt for you. Deep down this is coming from my own heart. I wish I could make you happy, but there is nothing I can do except comfort you. When Mrs. M. told me, my mouth fell down to the ground. Happy Valentine’s Day, Mrs. Arnault!

Love, Lauren

I cried when I read this note because it brought back the innocence of my own childhood, a time when I wanted the adults I cared for to be happy. I cried because this one nine-year-old’s sincere compassion erased some of my pain. I cried because Lauren’s note connected my soul to hers and changed the nature of our relationship.

Lauren was the teacher, and I was the student that Valentine’s Day. Her note, typed on a small piece of paper, taught me that love truly can heal all wounds. She taught me the importance of carrying on because there were people in my life who cared for me and depended on me. And every Valentine’s Day after that, through fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade, and eighth, until Lauren went on to high school, I sought her out to thank her for making paper cards and heart-shaped treats meaningful to me again.

Fourteen years later, her sweet words still reside in a cherished scrapbook dedicated to my sister.

~Catherine J. Arnault

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