Teacher Marie McCarron and her fourth-grade class the lead the event each year with help from the school community. See more photos here.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Brayton Elementary School pupils got a lesson in sacrifice and honor during the school's annual Memorial Day observance on Friday.
Guest speaker James Canavan, a Coast Guard and Navy veteran, reminded the assembly in the school's cafetorium that some 37,000 Massachusetts residents had given their lives over the years "so that we can do things like we're doing here today."
It was a commemoration, he said, a matter of remembering together the sacrifices made by the men and women who had heeded the call of duty.
But some of the children didn't need much educating on the subject because when he asked what a sacrifice was, the hands went up.
"A sacrifice would be like someone goes to war," explained Ben Wentz. "That would be saying that they gave their lives for something and that something would be the United States of America."
Led by Marie McCarron's fourth-grade class, this was the third year the event has been held at Brayton since the closure of Sullivan School, which had done the yearly observance.
Marine Lt. Col. Bennett Walsh, superintendent of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, who also spoke last year, said the school and its students understood what the observance was about.
"What you're all doing here today is the meaning of Memorial Day," he said. "You're taking the time, even though you might not have a family member in the military."
The fourth-graders took turns in introducing guests, reciting poems and President Lincoln's letter to Mrs. Bixby, leading the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence, and explaining the history and the meaning behind Memorial Day. There were also choral and band performances, and a color guard from the Richard A. Ruether American Legion Post 152.
A number of dignitaries were invited, including Mayor Thomas Bernard, school administration, police officers, veterans and veterans groups representatives and McCarron's husband, Sgt. 1st Class Michael McCarron.
Canavan, who recently moved back to Massachusetts with his wife, former Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President Mary Grant, told the children that sacrifices come in all sizes.
The president had written to Mrs. Bixby because she had lost five sons to the Union cause, a heartbreaking sacrifice. But their teachers, and the police officers, and firefighters and emergency medical services also make sacrifices to serve their communities, he said.
"We've got talked about sacrifices, it's giving something up, something that you value, something that you want to keep ... for the greater good," he said.
While the federal holiday dates to 1971, and the first general order on decorating graves was in 1868, Canavan pointed to one of the first instances of commemoration when newly freed slaves in Charleston, S.C., properly reburied more than 250 Union soldiers who had died in a prisoner of war camp. Thousands turned out for the cemetery dedication to honor the men who to free them.
"This Memorial Day really has its roots among regular people," Canavan said. "The government didn't have to tell them to do this, they wanted to do this on their own."
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Zustra Jr., commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 996, encouraged the children to learn about their own families military history.
"Over our country's long history, every generation has been called to service for one war or another," he said. "These families literally lost husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and children in the defense of freedom not only for our country but also for the defense of other countries whose sovereignty, freedom and way of life were threatened."
Remembering that is a solemn duty that now falls on their shoulders, Zustra said. "We need to take the time to tell the stories of our families' military history ... you may be surprised at the outcome of such a conversation."
He, like Canavan, encouraged the children to attend the Memorial Day parade and to understand what the day is about. "Rendering honors is never wrong but it is important not to do so blindly," he said.
Bernard spoke of North Adams' more recent losses in Army Spc. Michael DeMarsico II, killed in Afghanistan in 2012, and Army Sgt. Peter W. Foote, killed in 1968 in Vietnam.
Their names are at the Armory and the skating rink, but the mayor wanted to impress upon the children they were real people, with real friends and families who love and miss them.
"Each one of us has a responsibility to understand the sacrifices made to keep us free and to live up to the example of those who made those sacrifices," Bernard said.
Superintendent of School Barbara Malkas, whose daughter is in the Coast Guard, said she understands the waiting and worrying that families go through when their loved ones might be in danger. On Memorial Day, we should be also thinking of them, as well, for their sacrifice, she said.
She also pointed to the Latin mottos of the armed services — faithful, courageous, strong and defending against oppression.
"Think about that as leaders: I will be courageous, I will be strong, I will be ready, and I will defend those who cannot defend themselves," Malkas said. "That is a charge that all of us can do in honor of those who lost their lives so we may live in freedom."
Participating fourth-graders were Rommel Alvarez, Ariana Barton, Faith Brazeau, Alex Cable, Brayden Canales, Lillyonna Crawford, Kaylee DiSanti, London DiSanti, Dylan Dunn, David Gregory, Lucas Hamilton, Bradley Karmazyn, Jordyn Lloyd, Keira Martin, Traivon Moore, Mercedes Ritcher, Cole Schadler and Lila Stanley.
Marines: Semper fidelis (always faithful); Navy: Semper Fortis (always strong, brave); Coast Guard: Semper paratus (always prepared); Army Special Forces: De oppresso liber (free the oppressed). Army: This We'll Defend; Air Force: Aim High.
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The national political picture in these challenging times are characterized by embattled partisans filled with vitriol and empty rhetoric losing their voices in the echo chamber of social media and 24-hour news cycles. It is in this climate that gives me pause to reflect on the notion that late speaker of the House, Massachusetts' own Tip O'Neil, stated: "all politics is local." I appreciate the fact that North Adams has a mayor who epitomizes civility, level-headedness, and competency.
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