By Dave Jolivet
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — There was a time when chalk was used by youngsters to map out a hopscotch diagram on the sidewalk; to create a strike zone on an outside school wall to play stick ball; and for the Sisters in our parochial schools to illustrate lessons on a blackboard.
Rarely has it been used to buoy the spirits of homebound students with messages of hope and love. But these are rare times, and fifth-grade teacher Ashley Medeiros at St. James-St. John’s School in New Bedford recently spent two days, encompassing more than five hours, to communicate a personal message on the sidewalk or driveway of each of her 18 students currently locked down at home.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter life as we know it, more and more examples of Christian kindness and selflessness become evident.
Like every teacher and student in all of the Diocese of Fall River’s schools, Medeiros and her students are finishing the school year joined together by Zoom and Google Classrooms — physically separated, but nothing can break the bond established during the first seven months of the school year.
Medeiros, who also teaches fourth-grade Vocabulary and Grammar Mechanics, told The Anchor, “Talk about a strong and resilient group of individuals! They have surely been prime examples of perseverance. At times, it is difficult and some days are better or worse than others. Everyone is navigating this experience differently, students and adults alike.
“We have many family members who are first-responders which adds another emotional element which affects their learning. Of all times, now is the time to practice educating the whole child. A benefit of creating true bonds with your individual students is that you learn when to challenge them, support them, guide them, and even give them a break.”
Medeiros, now in her fifth year as the fifth-grade teacher has deep SJSJ ties. She attended the New Bedford school for grades one through eight, and her mother, Christine Medeiros, is a long-time first-grade teacher at the school. “I am a proud alum,” Medeiros said. “I went on to attend Bishop Stang High School then Bridgewater State College only to return to SJSJ as a part-time employee while I completed my college classes.” All-in-all she has been with the school for a dozen years.
But the new virtual classroom wasn’t enough for Medeiros and she wanted to do something extra for this wonderful group of students. “I knew I wanted to try to do something special for my students within the social distance limits to help them kick-off April vacation,” Medeiros told The Anchor. “I missed them and I missed our classroom, so my fiancé, Alex Simon, who has provided a great deal of moral support during this time, and I set out on a road trip adventure to chalk each one of my student’s sidewalks or driveways as a surprise. I left personalized messages for each one of them, and documented each with a selfie.
“It took a span of two days, five-plus hours for 18 deserving smiles. It was well worth it! An adventure whose main mission was for me to spread positivity and smiles turned into one of the most memorable experiences of my teaching career.”
Medeiros’ not-so-random act of kindness was very quickly and powerfully paid forward by her students and their families. “It was Wednesday, April 22 and just the day before Governor [Charlie] Baker had announced that Massachusetts schools would be closed for the remainder of the year,” Medeiros said. “I was devastated. I refused to believe that this was the way our year would continue/end. I threw my hair in what I call the ‘self-pity messy bun,’ put on one of my dad’s sweaters — you know that article of clothing that just brings you comfort — and started baking a family cookie recipe as a feel-good treat.”
The news of the cancellation of the rest of the school year rocked Medeiros, as it has many others.
“I felt the wind was taken out of my sails and our year would conclude with us just kind of fading away,” Medeiros continued. “I was venting and crying to my mom whom I knew shared my disappointment being away from our students. I just had so much more to do with my students and so much more I wanted them to experience! I was concerned for my students and how they would internalize such an experience.
“In the middle of this mini emotional breakdown, I heard honking, cheering, and music playing. I went to my front door to see my entire class and parents lined down my street in a big car caravan parade for me. They made signs, drew pictures, wrote sentimental cards, made cards, photo-books, and homemade gifts, and presented me with flowers.”
Medeiros sent a thank-you email to each student and their family telling them she was at one of the lowest moments of her career, “Then you all showed up,” she wrote. “You showed up for me. When I needed you the most and you didn’t know, you showed up for me. I absolutely and unconditionally love you all. I cannot begin to explain how filled with love my heart is. Whether near or far, more than students and parents — you are my family. We will be together again and celebrate our year, whenever that may be. We will make it happen!”
Medeiros told The Anchor, “The best part about being part of this SJSJ family is that someone is always there to lift you up and that is exactly what my students and parents did for me.”
In a time of fear and doubt this wonderful example of “what goes around, comes around,” sends a comforting and hopeful message. In diocesan schools, teachers are still there for their students, and the students are there for their teachers. “Children are resilient and I think we need to give them credit for that asset,” said Medeiros about all students carrying on in these uncharted waters. “Along with trying our best to meet the curriculum’s standards, I think as teachers it is important for us to focus on experiencing this tumultuous time with them, show empathy when needed, and confirm their concerns or disappointments.
“No one has the answers as to how all this will unfold. As for the future, I trust in my students and I believe that we will come back stronger than ever with a new appreciation for the time spent together.”
When Medeiros was asked why she chose a teaching career, she told The Anchor, “I feel the better question for me is, ‘Why not choose teaching?’ As a teacher, your legacy is carried out in the success and progression of your students, and I don’t just mean academically. Every year my students and I create our own creative and safe environment — our own fifth-grade family. They start to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and play towards them, develop their own moral compass, understand the meaning of responsibility, and truly transform into independent individuals throughout the year. Sure, I would love for them to remember every grammatical trick or science lesson I have taught them, but more importantly I choose teaching because of how we make each feel and the sense of connection we create. To see 18 students, grow in so many facets or have former students come back to visit and get excited to tell you about what they have accomplished, who wouldn’t want to be part of that? It is a sense of belonging that I strive to instill in my students and undoubtedly, my students and parents give right back to me.”