It was the first week of school, late August.  My new students were loud, rough and tough. They teased each other and argued a lot. It was only the first week of school and they should have been on their best behavior.  I assumed it would be a long and dreadful year.

I began the morning by writing the date on the board: Aug. 29, 2002 and asked, “Do you know what today is?”  And a 7 year old ‘know-it-all’ answered: “Yea, it’s Thursday.”

I announced, “It’s much more than Thursday.  It’s the 80th Birthday of Ray Hicks.”  And suddenly my 2nd grade classroom was shockingly silent. But it didn’t last long. They began shouting out questions:

“Is Ray having a party in his cabin?”

“Is Rosa baking a cake?”

“Will Ted light 80 candles?”

You see, these children knew Ray Hicks.  They never met him.  But they had heard stories about Ray, Rosa and Ted from Connie Regan-Blake who had been visiting my school for a number of years.  Ray had been part of their lives since they were ‘young,’ in kindergarten and 1st grade.

It was Hana who dreamed up the project that I will remember for the rest of my life: “Let’s make Ray a card!”

Louie: “It’s gotta be a big birthday card.  Remember, Ray is tall, like a giant mountain.”

There was a roll of bulletin board paper out in the hall.  I unrolled the paper. Louie insisted I measure exactly 6 ft. 7 inches, Ray’s height. We spread the paper on the floor and the children began to drawing Ray Hicks. A life-size birthday card; from his old floppy hat to the bib overalls, down to the shoes on his feet.

And while the children were imagining Ray Hicks, they actually began to talk and listen to each other with kindness and patience. Two girls, who had been bickering with each other moments before, were working together, designing Ray’s checkered shirt. 

One boy complimented a girl. “That’s a good nose. Noses are hard to draw.” 

Dori asked, “Should Ray’s hands be up in the air or holding his harmonica?”

Their last decision: how to draw Ray’s mouth. A lovely conversation unfolded. “Should Ray be smiling?”  “No. Maybe he’s sad because he’s thinking about how hungry Jack was?”  “Maybe Ray’s mouth should be wide open like he is telling a story?”   For a man who could talk and talk and talk, it was really something to hear this discussion about the mouth of Ray Hicks. 

These children who seemed so combative from the first day of school, revealed their true sweetness and beauty. What a joyful and healing presence Ray Hicks had in my classroom, 1000 miles from Beech Mountain! 

They finished the card, rolled it up, tied a ribbon around it and mailed it to Old Mountain Road.  Ray’s daughter Dorothy Jean said that it was the biggest birthday card they ever saw.

Nancy Shapiro-Pikelny, Teacher, Skokie, IL