I’ve talked a lot over the past two years about Hoops For Heroes being a collective thank you to Veterans and service men and women. At its core, that’s what I’ve always hoped it would become.
For the last week, more than any other week, that’s exactly what it was. And then some.
We were invited to attend a Veterans Day assembly at Andover Elementary Middle School last Wednesday, where I spoke about HFH and was otherwise blown away at the proceedings. Every single student got involved. They sang. They read essays and poetry. They led the Pledge of Allegiance. They hosted a “Veterans Cafe.” They got a motivational pick-me-up from their old pal, Naval Officer Charlie Giles from New London, who instructed: “Don’t wait to be asked to help. Just help.” Best of all, they did it all in front of the posted colors and more than 30 local Veterans.
I participated by saying a few words about my project and then making a rather clumsy 100 foul shots with the perfectly able hands of Reilly Walsh, Ben Yusko, Elizabeth LaBrie and Alyssa Smith, and after the festivities I stuck around with their fellow students, Adrian Bolte, Logan Marcus, Keith Davis, Riley Anderson, Brandon Jackson, Bill Leber and Max Barrett, to make the last of our 1,000 for the day.
On Thursday, it was off to Kennebunk, Maine, where a good friend from high school, Erin (Crowley) Neale, is the Gifted and Talented teacher (of which she is both) at Sea Road School, and let me just say this: Wow. The fourth- and fifth-graders there were ready. It was not a Veterans Day assembly, per se, but it was all about gratitude. For the prior few weeks, they had been talking and learning about Hoops For Heroes, and they had a project of their own, “Helping Hoops For Heroes,” by which participating students picked their own talent and tried to raise a little money around it by soliciting donations from friends, family members and neighbors.
I arrived to a gym wrapped halfway around with artwork, and it was only after a little prompting that I realized that each piece of art was comprised of grids: colored-in squares, tiny squares — a million tiny, colored-in squares. Absolutely amazing.
So one group at a time, we talked about Veterans, we talked about respect, we talked about the daily reminder of service and sacrifice, and we talked about …
“THAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANK YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOU!” … which is what they helped me to scream, at the top of our lungs, each time I pointed to the American flag. And let me just tell you, these were not large groups, but I’m pretty sure they came close to blowing the roof off the joint. As well they should have.
We shot some foul shots, too — a couple hundred made per group, then finished up to 1,000 sometime in the early afternoon.
Thanks to my buddy and sixth-grade teacher Tamy Anderson and her principal Tom Sica, Rundlett Middle School in Concord came next — on Friday, Nov. 4 — and just between us friends, let me admit to you that this was the stop that had caused me the most sleepless nights in the week before.
I mean, I remember what I was like in seventh and eighth grade, and it was not pretty. Get 400 12-year-old me’s into a gymnasium, and frankly, that’s not a gathering the 44-year-old me wants to be a part of.
But once again, I was wrong. They could not have possibly been more respectful.
The message at Rundlett Middle School, as part of their recently initiated PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) program, is P.R.I.D.E., an acronym for Perseverance, Respect, Integrity, Discipline and Excellence. I was there to cheer them on for that endeavor, talk about my own thoughts on each of our “personal scoreboards” (were you a plus or a minus today?), tell them about Hoops For Heroes, and once again shoot a few foul shots.
They were loud when I prompted them to be loud (“THAAAAAAAAANK YOOOOOOOU!”), attentive when it was appropriate to be attentive, and clearly mindful of the Veterans-specific message I was there to deliver. Yet again, well over half the students raised their hands when I asked who had a Veteran or active soldier in the family.
I was a pretty lousy junior high kid. These kids were the opposite of the junior high me. On the way out, I went to Mrs. Anderson’s room to say thank you, and on the way there I went through a hallway full of sixth-graders. I think I hugged just about every one of them.
Finally, on Monday, it was time to visit my pal Dustin Rayno, who’s been filling out a million-square grid of his own for the past two years, at the school of my mom — Sutton Central — as part of its annual Veterans Day assembly.
Here was the deal at the SCS event: I followed the kids … and there was no following those kids.
As I told them, if I delivered my message 1,000 times, it would never be as poignant as theirs.
In the middle of the all-purpose room, in the middle of these students, rested a small table, set for one, symbolizing the fact that members of our armed forces are missing.
And then, the students began to move, as Nicole Densmore, the music teacher and producer of the event, orchestrated and narrated.
A white tablecloth, symbolic of the purity of their intentions to respond to their country’s call to serve. A single red rose, signifying the blood they may have shed in sacrifice, and to remind us of the family and friends of our missing comrades, who keep faith, while awaiting their return. A red ribbon on the vase, representing the red ribbons worn on the lapels of the thousands who wish for their happy return. A slice of lemon on the plate, reminding us of the bitterness of longing for the soldier. Salt, sprinkled on the plate, reminding us of the countless fallen tears of families as they wait. An inverted glass, as they cannot toast with us. A candle, representing the light of hope. And the American Flag, reminding us of their service.
Local Veterans sat and watched. It was a beautiful thing.
I said my piece. The kids and I screamed “THAAAAAAAAAANK YOOOOOOOU!” I suggested that they practice saying those words, in honor of Veterans, each and every day … just not so loudly.
It was another darned cool day.
You know, over the past two years, the HFH message has been delivered in a number of ways, with the primary vehicle for distribution being electronics. Thank goodness for Facebook and its cousins, right? As we all know, there’s no better way, today, to get communications quantity than the never-ending e-stream.
If I want quality, though, I’ll unplug for a minute. I’ll shake the hand of a Veteran in Andover and tell him thank you where he can hear it. I’ll high-five a bunch of kids in Kennebunk, and hug a hallway full of sixth-graders in Concord. I’ll borrow that red colored pencil and help Dustin Rayno fill in a few of those little squares.
I’ve always hoped this project would be about gratitude, and I believe it has held up in that way, which is good. When that gratitude comes in the form of a genuine human connection, all the better.
By that scoreboard, this past week was as better as better gets.
For more on Hoops For Heroes, with a goal of 1 million made foul shots and $1 million raised for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, visit www.hoopsforheroes.com or contact Dave Cummings at 603-554-7855.