Wednesday morning Aina was in the office, ready to greet me as I arrived at school. His first words were, "Mr. Landry, do you know why today is a special day?" It was Valentine's Day, so that's how I responded. But that didn't work, there was something today for Aina that was way more special than Valentine's Day. After trying to get me to guess more reasons, he said, "Today's my mom's birthday!"
I'd been thinking a lot about Aina since he told me his mom had died last spring, but this was still one of those comments that you're not quite sure how to respond to. I tried to match his excitement and asked him what he was going to do for his mom's birthday. He said he and his dad were going to her grave that afternoon to bring flowers.
As I walked to my classroom, he tagged along, and when we got inside he asked me if I'd sing Happy Birthday to his mom with him. Man, I haven't had any child psychology classes, so I wasn't sure what the protocol for this was. I tried to shake him by saying that I wasn't sure if I wanted to because I didn't know his mom. His counter-argument was, "Of course you know my mom! She's my mom!" Still not knowing what to do, I left the question hanging ambiguously (which usually works with 4th graders) by saying, "Maybe later."
That seemed to placate him, so he went outside to play before the bell rang. When he came back into class, I noticed a forlorn look on his face. He immediately put his head down on his desk. I asked him if he didn't feel like doing his morning assignment, and he said, "Not really." I stooped down, put my hand on his back and asked what was the matter. After trying to fight back tears, the dam broke and he responded in between sobs that, "Nobody wants to tell my mom happy birthday."
The lump in my throat was so huge that I thought my own dam was about to break, so I asked him to step outside with me. When we got outside I asked him, in between my own tears, if he would feel better if as a class we told his mom happy birthday. He said that would make him feel a lot better. So I gave him a hug and we went back into the classroom.
After correcting our morning assignment, I asked the class why this was a special day. They responded in unison, "It's Valentine's Day!" I affirmed, "Yes, this is Valentine's Day. It's also a very special day for Aina. As some of you know, his mom passed away last spring. Well, today is Aina's mom's birthday, and it would mean a whole lot to him if we sang happy birthday to his mom."
My students didn't quite know how to react to this - both singing happy birthday to his mom, and the fact that I was so choked up, but they're wonderful kids, and we all sang together. Aina was much happier after that. He even came to my class at lunch to say, "Mr. Landry, thank you for singing happy birthday. It really meant a lot to me, and I know it meant a lot to my mom too."