Brian Sullivan: The most elementary of memories



Tomorrow will be one week since the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, and while my intention is not to squeeze yet another teardrop from your emotional tissue, I do wish to use this space today to tell a related story and perhaps wrap some personal closure around this unforeseen and disastrous event.

More than a decade ago, I concluded a time-of-my-life six-year tenure as a volunteer at Allendale Elementary School. It mirrored my daughter's equally fun and successful years through the halls that were also mine during a previous time. I had the best of all volunteer jobs - recess, three of them in back-to-back-to-back fashion - and I could do it because I worked nights at The Eagle.

It was perfect, you might say. Yeah, one sandbox to another. The playground to the newsroom never seemed to be much of a leap and the separation in those days between the behavior of my young recess friends and journalism cohorts was, shall we say, negligible. It was all good.

The kindergarten kids would come out first and have their own recess. Then, it was the first- and second-graders and finally the third- through fifth-graders. No matter the season, it was usually a workout. I lifted little kids onto playground equipment, hit fungos, shot baskets and in the winter would have to pull some tiny tots out of waist-deep snow when the bell rang to signal the end of another recess.

My interaction with the kids - there were days when I think I was having the most fun - sometimes made the principal roll her eyes (sorry, Ann) but my instincts as an adult parent were keen. The Allendale playground is expansive and the children playing on the far east side of the tract where Virginia and California avenues collide were an area code away from the kids near lower Delaware Avenue.

I watched for bullying before it became a national concern, refereed small altercations, wiped noses, did a lot of listening and worked - with staff - to try and keep the peace. I watched for any non-school pedestrian traffic. Sometimes there might be a jogger or someone using the back of the school as a shortcut or once in a while someone walking their dog. But, it was rare.

I would buzz in, sign in, get an ID badge and be outside and ready for the onslaught of fearless and youthful energy. The school did all any school could do to protect its students. Within reason, of course.

That initial group of kindergarten students were high school graduates from Taconic and Pittsfield High in 2009. Many of those students will be finishing up four years of college in June. Some have already started families. I see them here and there; some I recognize right away and some it takes a minute. That they recognize and remember me is what validates those days when I truly thought that they would never grow up nor ever grow old.

I thought they would live in that timeless recess bubble forever. I was wrong.

You haven't lived until you've been on the receiving end of an open school door and watched 50 first- and second-graders come bounding outside with a fury and enthusiasm that only those of that age can muster. And the faces, you couldn't beat the joy in their faces. It was infectious.

I can't tell you what many of them look like now. But I freezeframed those faces many years ago and keep them in my mental file. I did that because while that age of innocence is brief, it is equally profound.

Their immediate future and concern when I saw them went no further than that 20-minute recess. And why would it? Why should it? They were safe and happy. They didn't know how to push the envelope and could not imagine someone turning their own lives upside down.

When I began to see the snapshots of the faces of the young Sandy Hook victims, I recalled those young Allendale faces I had filed away. I could easily imagine at least 20 and treasured the fact that my first group of kindergartners remains intact and among the living.

A week ago Friday night, a Framingham State University senior named Colleen Kelly was struck and killed by a vehicle while attempting to cross Route 9 on her way back to the campus. She was a good friend of my daughter's, also a senior at FSU. The funeral was in Melrose on Wednesday.

I Googled the news story and found her picture. I've freeze-framed that image in my mind, too. And the Sandy Hook kids? They are somewhere over the rainbow now and I wish them all an eternal recess.

We learned a painful lesson this past week. The future, it seems, arrives on time regardless of circumstance. We need then to do a better job embracing the moments that we're in. What we learned was just how precious those moments really are.


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