In our classrooms, every lesson is important. The same is true with school events and activities. They are all important - otherwise we wouldn’t be doing them. Holding the door open on Friday mornings so that all students know that someone recognized they are there is important, just as student-led monthly advisory sessions on how to build a positive school community is important. However, there is one event that I distinguish in our student leadership program as one that must be treated with the highest level of respect: Veterans’ Day.
Veterans’ Day is a two-part event at Enumclaw Middle School. One day is our traditional Veterans’ Day assembly featuring student speakers, vocalists, performances by our band and opportunities for students to acknowledge veterans they have known in their families. It is a special time to reflect on what we have been given and the sacrifices that were made for it. It brings the school together knowing that so many know or have known a veteran who has served. It is a time for students to think about “sacrifice” - just about every student speaker uses that word at some point.
Two years ago, we determined that we would love veterans to hear our performance. Realistically, we came to understand that it is challenging for many senior veterans to attend. We decided to bring our presentation to High Point Retirement Village in Enumclaw for an afternoon performance. In attendance were fourteen veterans amongst the crowd - including several in their 90s who were remembering their service as far back as World War II. Several residents were related to the visiting students.
Students had the opportunity to demonstrate the Character Strong practical skills learned in our leadership class to help make this visit successful. We had practiced what a handshake looks like - after all, first impressions matter. We had practiced what it looks like to have a conversation by looking others in the eye and spending more time on listening to others than bragging about ourselves. We had practiced how to hold a microphone and how to keep the appropriate tone in a speech. And we had learned through Character Dares the importance of writing a personal note, inspiring students to write a letter to each veteran at High Point Village.
A gentleman named Frank was in attendance when we presented at the retirement center. Frank had a big personality - he loved to laugh. But he was also sincere. One of my favorite images from that day is of Frank wiping away a tear during a speech. Afterwards, a surprised student mentioned, “The man in the front row - he was crying during my speech.”
One of my favorite moments that brings a tear to my eye every year is creating the picture slideshow featuring veterans who are related to our students. At our assembly, when a student’s relative is shown on the screen with the background music playing, I can only imagine the sense of pride felt by students as they think about the service and sacrifice of their loved one.
We also include the veterans at High Point Village in our picture slideshow.Two years ago, we had fourteen residents in the slideshow. However, it came as a surprise to me the next year when we had just ten - I was informed that four of the residents had passed away the previous year. For these four veterans, including Frank, our presentation was the last Veterans’ Day show they probably ever saw. It is our sincere hope that these senior citizens felt appreciation, respect and love - and a feeling that their world was left in good hands to these students who had so eloquently talked about the importance of service and had taken the time to individually greet them by name. This year, there will be eight veterans who will be honored. In addition, we will be recognizing widows, parents and grandparents of those who are actively serving or who have served in the past.
Every year we have visited High Point Village, a woman named Mary has been in attendance. Mary is a veteran who has worn a red hat every time I have seen her. Whenever we visit the retirement center, Mary usually asks us, shakily, “Why are you here? Why would you want to come and see me?” And I love being able to teach students how to respond to her when she asks us that question this year:
“Ms. Mary, we are here to see you. Thank you for your service.”
John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.