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Image by Stacey Kennedy from Pixabay

Graduation is a big milestone that can come with grief for some communities.

It's been nearly 12 years since a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, with an AR-15. rifle and two handguns and opened fire, killing 20 first graders and six faculty members before turning the gun on himself.

Survivors of the Sandy Hook shooting—kids who watched their friends and teachers being murdered in their classrooms—are now graduating from high school, and they have complicated feelings about the milestone and the 20 classmates who aren't joining them.

A private graduation ceremony was held at Newtown High School on June 12, 2024, with 335 graduates including around 60 Sandy Hook survivors. Some of them shared their thoughts with journalists in the days leading up to graduation.


“I think we’re all super excited for the day,” Lilly Wasilnak, 17, shared with the AP. "But I think we can’t forget ... that there is a whole chunk of our class missing. And so going into graduation, we all have very mixed emotions — trying to be excited for ourselves and this accomplishment that we’ve worked so hard for, but also those who aren’t able to share it with us, who should have been able to.”

"The shooter actually came into my classroom," Emma Ehrens, 17, told CBS News. "So I had to, like, watch all my friends and teachers get killed, and I had to run for my life at six years old."

According to the AP, Ehrens was one of 11 kids who survived from Classroom 10. She was able to escape with a group of students when the shooter paused to reload his gun. Five students and both teachers in the room were killed.

“I am definitely going be feeling a lot of mixed emotions,” Ehrens said. “I’m super excited to be, like, done with high school and moving on to the next chapter of my life. But I’m also so ... mournful, I guess, to have to be walking across that stage alone. … I like to think that they’ll be there with us and walking across that stage with us.”

The survivors who are graduating this year are dealing with both the exciting what ifs of their futures and the tragic what ifs of their past as they remember their slain classmates.

"Just growing up with having the fear, and the what ifs of what could have happened if I stayed? Because I was, like, I was going to be next," Ehrens told CBS News.

"So even going to prom, you think, well, what if they were my prom date? Or, you know, what if they were my significant other? What if they were able to walk the stage with me," survivor Ella Seaver added.

“As much as we’ve tried to have that normal, like, childhood and normal high school experience, it wasn’t totally normal,” Grace Fischer, 18, told CBS. “But even though we are missing ... such a big chunk of our class, like Lilly said, we are still graduating. ... We want to be those regular teenagers who walk across the stage that day and feel that, like, celebratory feeling in ourselves, knowing that we’ve come this far.”

That desire for normalcy conflicting with their not normal childhood is part of what makes graduation such a bittersweet experience for these young people. They had so much taken from them at such a young age, and that trauma doesn't just disappear. Some of the students expressed that they are looking forward to moving away from Newtown and building a life in which the school shooting doesn't define them.

Sandy Hook was unique in that the victims were so young and there were so many of them, but the survivors aren't alone in their experience. In the years since the Sandy Hook massacre, the U.S. has seen dozens more school shootings, and there are thousands of school shooting survivors dealing with related traumas. Many of those survivors have become outspoken anti-gun-violence advocates, pressuring officials to enact stronger laws to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

But for now, the Sandy Hook graduates are celebrating a big life milestone, just as they—and their 20 missing classmates—should be.

Watch six of the Sandy Hook survivors share their stories on Good Morning America:


Arnold Ford shares a birthday—and birthday joy—with one of his students.

When Arnold Ford went to work on his birthday in February of 2024, he knew he was in for a treat. One of his students, a girl named Cali, has the same birthday as he does, and Ford was ready.

As soon as he saw Cali come bounding down the hallway with her arms spread wide, the assistant principal tossed his backpack aside, swooped the girl up and spun her around in joyful celebration. Then the two raced down the hallway, arm in arm, so Cali could give him a balloon and a cupcake she had saved for him.

All of this was captured on the security cameras at west Philadelphia's Mastery Charter School, Mann Elementary, and the footage has people cheering for amazing educators.


"I’m so grateful to God for allowing me to see another year," Ford wrote when he shared the video on his Instagram page. "I’m even more grateful that LOVE continues to be the centerpiece of my entire life."

"And… as you can see… I’m also grateful that I get to share a birthday with one of my favorite students," he continued. "And yes… she brought me a balloon and a cupcake, and in exchange, I told her she could dress down today. Fair trade if you ask me!

Watch:

People are gushing over the exchange in the comments.

"Do y'all teach 25th grade!? I need an elementary school experience do-over!" wrote one person.

"Bro my own parents never been that happy to see me 😭," wrote another.

"Can you imagine marinating in that love on a daily basis? What a gift this man is!" shared another.

Several people pointed out that no one else in the video so much as blinked, which is a testament to the fact that this wasn't out of the ordinary. Clearly, Mr. Ford brings this energy to work every day.

"I think it’s important for us to celebrate WITH our students and families," Ford tells Upworthy. "[Cali's] birthday is a big deal to her, and so is mine. We talk about it ALL year. So when that day came, what you saw was just a natural, genuine reaction that we both had. She was excited to be celebrating me, and I was excited to be celebrating her."

Educators like Ford can make such an enormous difference in children's lives, transforming a school into a place filled with positive interactions where kids know people genuinely care about and enjoy being around them. That's what Ford loves about his job as well.

"It really is the reciprocal nature of the work," he tells Upworthy. "We get so much more than we ever put out. Love. Joy. Laughter. The more we sow those things, we see them return exponentially in this work. That’s why when I often say 'Love is the curriculum,' it’s because I recognize how blessed I am to be able to put positivity and joy at the center of my experience with them. It’s humbling."

"In other words, I love that I don’t have to wait until Fridays to get paid." he adds.

Here's to Mr. Ford and all of the dedicated, incredible educators out there who pour their love into helping children learn and grow and thrive. They really do deserve all the balloons and cupcakes—and all the pay raises as well.

You can follow Arnold Ford on Instagram.

Photo from Facebook page.

A clever message written on her T-shirt.

A Lawton, Oklahoma, student who goes by the Facebook user name Rose Lynn had the last laugh after being sent home from school for wearing an outfit deemed "distracting." Rose Lynn believes her outfit attracted the attention of school officials because of her figure.

She proved it by posting a photo on Facebook of her modest outfit, which consisted of black leggings, a t-shirt, long cardigan, and boots. In her post, she wrote that she was sent home "because I'm developed farther than the average girl my age," and because she's a "CURVY woman." Rose Lynn also thinks the appropriate response shouldn't have been to tell her to cover up, but to teach boys to "to respect the boundaries of young ladies."


Her father, Lance Miles, agrees with her. "If she was built like a board or as round as a ball she wouldn't have been sent home but [since] she has a figure she was told she had to change," he said in the comments of her Facebook post.

"This is 100 percent on [Lawton Public Schools] because they have left the rule up to interpretation. She has been taught that if you believe in something, do what you must and be prepared for the consequences. She has done that," he continued.

Rose Lynn's post:

"So today I was sent home from class, after being in school for two hours, for my outfit. Because I'm developed farther than the average girl my age, I am required to go home and change... Because I look like a CURVY woman and may distract young boys, I have to miss class and change my outfit.

So once again, society has failed to advocate young ladies, by confining them in a box, where they are stripped from their sense of self respect and self expression, rather than teaching young men to respect the boundaries of young ladies. My response: #Feminism #YoullDistractTheBoys #SocietyIsFailing"
school policy, sexism, women, Oklahoma

The before and after images for following a dress code.

Photo from Facebook page.


On the day Rose Lynn was sent home, she was due to take a 20-minute algebra exam. She asked school officials if she could take the test before changing her outfit, but her request was denied. So the next day, she got her revenge.

Rose Lynn returned to school wearing an oversize t-shirt. On the front she scribbled a quote from school officials in black Sharpie, "It doesn't cover your crotch"; on the back, "You'll distract the boys." That day, Rose Lynn was called to the office and sent home again. This time it wasn't for her outfit but for not wearing her student I.D., which she had left in the classroom after being called to the office.


This article originally appeared on 05.17.19

Education

A dad's hilarious letter to school asks them to explain why they're living in 1968

"I look forward to this being rectified and my daughter and other girls at the school being returned to this millennium."

Earlier in the week, Stephen Callaghan's daughter Ruby came home from school. When he asked her how her day was, her answer made him raise an eyebrow.

Ruby, who's in the sixth grade at her school in Australia, told her dad that the boys would soon be taken on a field trip to Bunnings (a hardware chain in the area) to learn about construction.

The girls, on the other hand? While the boys were out learning, they would be sent to the library to have their hair and makeup done.


Ruby's reply made Callaghan do a double take. What year was it, again?

Callaghan decided to write a letter to the school sharing his disappointment — but his wasn't your typical "outraged parent" letter.


"Dear Principal," he began. "I must draw your attention to a serious incident which occurred yesterday at your school where my daughter is a Year 6 student."

"When Ruby left for school yesterday it was 2017," Callaghan continued. "But when she returned home in the afternoon she was from 1968."

The letter goes on to suggest that perhaps the school is harboring secret time-travel technology or perhaps has fallen victim to a rift in the "space-time continuum," keeping his daughter in an era where women were relegated to domestic life by default.

"I look forward to this being rectified and my daughter and other girls at the school being returned to this millennium where school activities are not sharply divided along gender lines," he concluded.



Dear Principal
I must draw your attention to a serious incident which occurred yesterday at your school where my daughter Ruby is a Year 6 student.
When Ruby left for school yesterday it was 2017 but when she returned home in the afternoon she was from 1968.
I know this to be the case as Ruby informed me that the "girls" in Year 6 would be attending the school library to get their hair and make-up done on Monday afternoon while the "boys" are going to Bunnings.
Are you able to search the school buildings for a rip in the space-time continuum? Perhaps there is a faulty Flux Capacitor hidden away in the girls toilet block.
I look forward to this being rectified and my daughter and other girls at the school being returned to this millennium where school activities are not sharply divided along gender lines.
Yours respectfully
Stephen Callaghan

When Callaghan posted the letter to Twitter, it quickly went viral and inspired hundreds of supportive responses.

Though most people who saw his response to the school's egregiously outdated activities applauded him, not everyone was on board.

One commenter wrote, "Sometimes it is just ok for girls to do girl things."

But Callaghan was ready for that. "Never said it wasn't," he replied. "But you've missed the point. Why 'girl things' or 'boy things'... Why not just 'things anyone can do?'"

He later commented that he didn't think the school's plan was malicious, but noted the incident was a powerful example of "everyday sexism" at work.

Callaghan says the school hasn't responded to his letter. (Yes, he really sent it.) At least, not directly to him.

Some media outlets have reported that the school claims students are free to opt in and out of the different activities. But, as Callaghan says, gendering activities like this in the first place sends the completely wrong message.

In response to the outpouring of support, Callaghan again took to Twitter.

"At 12 years of age my daughter is starting to notice there are plenty of people prepared to tell her what she can and can't do based solely on the fact she is female," he wrote.

"She would like this to change. So would I."


This article originally appeared on 12.08.17.