On the morning of Dec. 14, 2012 inside the walls of Sandy Hook Elementary, our school endured a tragedy beyond comprehension. 26 lives were taken far too soon, senselessly and brutally. In the midst of such unimaginable loss, loss that could have very well been the loss of my own life, I had to find meaning again. I could not continue to live the way I had, thinking I had all of the answers, because now I knew that I did not. Something had shifted inside of me. From that day forward I had to look within. To reflect back and look to the future.
In life things happen to us. The good, the bad and everything in between. But it's not the moment that defines us. It's how we choose to react to the moment that makes us who we are.
Time passed. Days, weeks ... Time is a funny thing after enduring a tragedy. It puts distance between you and it. It doesn't diminish it, change it or erase it. It's there. It's constant. All one can do is to make the most of the good that is also abundantly around us. Good and bad are both always present.
When I ask why, I hear silence in return. There's no answer that will ever be given. Sometimes we spend so long focusing on what we can't answer that we forget there are a lot of questions we actually can. For me, I had to look inward and ask: If there is no answer to "Why?" then what does that mean? Where do I go from here? What is there to do? Those were two questions I could answer; I knew which direction to go, and I knew that there was something to be done.
I needed to go forward, and I needed to create something positive for myself and my students. We could not let the destruction define us.
When I thought of my students, I knew we had to make a choice for ourselves. If after such terror and destruction we were going to choose love, kindness, compassion, empathy and hope, then I needed to find a way to teach this to my students. But at this point, I still had a large question to answer. And that was: "How?"
We returned to our new school at the beginning of January. I was filled with mixed emotions. There was such a deep sense of loss. One of the most uplifting things about being back at school was the outpouring of generosity and love from around the world. So much love came into our school and into my classroom. Letters, books, pencils, supplies, games, toys, happy meals, cupcakes, teddy bears -- the list goes on and on.
I stepped back, and I realized that while my students were beyond deserving of all of these special gifts, I needed to teach them a very important life lesson. When you get, you have to give. After all, that's what makes our world a better place.
One day I brought in a large box of recess toys to share with my class. I showed them all of the items in the box. They were so excited. Then I told my students,
"In life when someone does something nice for you, you have to do something nice for someone else. And that is what we are going to do! We are going to find a class, and we are going to make them feel the way we do right now ... happy."
Their eyes widened with excitement, and their hands started to raise with questions. They were thrilled. "Who are we going to help?" and "How are we going to help them?" they asked. These kids were equally -- if not more -- excited about the thought of helping someone else as they were about their own gifts they had just received. My question of how to teach them to care about others had been answered!
That day, I was reminded that children are able to understand the importance of helping others, of giving and making a difference -- even after such a tragic situation. Giving, in fact, always makes us feel better.
That day the idea for Classes 4 Classes, Inc. was born.
My hope is to spread our mission to as many K-8 classrooms as possible. I want every single student to experience what it's like being actively engaged in caring for others. It may seem obvious and too simple to us as adults that these lessons can be forgotten, or even get scrimped. But then again 1+1=2 and A comes before B are also very simple lessons ... but where would we each be if those were lessons we never learned? Sometimes, it is the simplest of lessons that shape us, change us and influence us.
You can plan and plan, as I always have, however you'll come to find that there's a plan outside any of our control. Whatever happens to us in life, we always have a choice. The choice in how to view things and how to react to things. Perspective is amazingly powerful, ultimately shaping our outlook on life, and Classes 4 Classes, Inc. strives to show our children that we all have the power to choose to help one another.
What will you choose?
This post is part of a series co-produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2013 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Bound by a deep sense of purpose and appetite for change, these women were chosen from thousands of applicants, and each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2014, please visit womenofworth.com.