This One is for You, Mrs Gallagher!

One reason Jim became a sixth grade teacher is because of his sixth grade teacher.

If Will Sheehan becomes a fifth grade teacher, I won’t be surprised.

When Will started fifth grade, the only book he would voluntarily crack was a sports almanac. When asked to read a chapter book for an assignment, he would find the shortest book with the largest lettering and suffer through it, before returning to his statistics.

One oft remembered highlight of brother Ben’s career in middle school was his fifth grade project on black holes. This “major research project” was started the night before it was due and consisted of a paper mache ball painted black. Ben managed to graduate from high school and college, so I didn’t really pay too much attention to brother William’s decided reluctance to engage in any academic subject beyond Red Sox batting averages.

But lo and behold, fifth grade dawned and Will caught the reading bug. First he read all twelve of the Series of Unfortunate Events books. Then he took his beloved beanie baby collection off the shelf over his bed and filled it with chapter books read and chapter books yet to read. Next he tackled the Chronicles of Narnia series. He is just wrapping up the fifth one in that series. These days, he often goes to bed of his own accord, with a book and a cat. And he reads long after I have fallen asleep.

Then there is math class. Right now, he is working on a strictly optional problem set. Using only the numbers 1,4, 8, and 9 Will is building 100 math problems. Using those four numbers, problem #1 has to have the answer 1. Problem #2 has to have the answer 2 etc. He has done all but four problems. Everyone he knows is involved in thinking about problem #38. Saying “It’s like problem #38.” has now gone into the family lexicon as indicating a knotty situation.

So, it is an understatement to say that his fifth grade teacher has lit a fire about learning in William. And no wonder. Mrs. Gallagher is a teacher with an infectious joy for life. You can’t spend five minutes with her before you realize she is the rare soul who loves each of the students in her charge with profound tenderness, humor, zest, and energy. And let’s face it, energy is important with a group of eleven year olds. Willy can sometimes be sort of monosyllabic about life at school, but no matter what small tidbit is being shared, this year he shares it with a grin. He is loving learning and loving his life!

This is all pretty amazing considering what Mrs. Gallagher and her students have experienced this year. In December, a classmate died with his family in a house fire. Ours is a very small town with a very small school. The kids in Mrs. Gallagher’s classroom had known Ben Putnam since he was in kindergarten, if not preschool. This family’s death was a profound experience for everyone in the town and particularly complicated for Ben’s friends and Ben’s teacher.

So Mrs. Gallagher, new to the town, new to the United States actually, because she is from Canada, found herself experiencing her own grief while also being the container to help her whole class live with Ben’s disappearance from their lives. I don’t honestly know what a teacher would have done when I was in fifth grade if a classmate had died, but I very much doubt anyone would have handled it with the same kind of honesty, grace, and genuineness of Mrs. Gallagher.

Just one example. One day, she had the whole class open Ben’s locker and sort through his stuff. They all got to try on his baseball caps, pull on his extra pair of pants, and handle all his stuff. Life is so much a physical experience and eleven year olds still know and live this. Their life with Ben in the classroom was one big rumble. In so many of the photos that surfaced after Ben’s death, Ben and his classmates are in a big pile on top of each other. And so Mrs. Gallagher had then all physically engage with Ben’s stuff. Physically process his death. This was a profound act of courage on her part to break down the distance, dismiss taboos about a dead person’s stuff, let them feel all they were feeling, and find their own sense of Ben as they fingered parts of his life On that day as with every day since Ben’s death, she helped them be present to the biggest event in their lives and helped them know if was okay to feel everything they felt.

In her tender tangible concern for how each child is living with this unexpected tragedy and in her willingness to stay present to an ongoing experience of loss and grief shared by everyone in the classroom and reflected in various ways, Mrs. Gallagher is giving each child a template for life. There are so many mysteries about why this happened and why each of these children is going through this intense experience at such a young age, but I am heartened in the sweetness of life that gave them Mrs. Gallagher as their teacher for this journey. She is helping each child in her classroom learn, by her example, how to hold both sorrow and joy at the same time. Could you ever learn anything more important?

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