Sad Stories & Tears on the Read Aloud Rug

A MiddleWeb Blog

The other week, I found myself unexpectedly welling up and starting to cry. It was one of those cries that come without warning, the kind of cry you don’t even realize is happening until the moment your throat starts to close up.

I’ve experienced many of these cries throughout the years. I just haven’t experienced very many of them inside of the classroom. Yet, there I was, with 25 kids gazing up at me, deep looks of concern in their eyes, and I was having trouble gaining my composure.

This was not in my lesson plans.

Usually, after lunch, I get an opportunity to pause for a moment to take it all in. I watch them scramble into the room, funnel into the “IN” door of our closet and burst through the “OUT” door, heading straight to the rug, to jockey for prime real estate and one of our coveted beanbag chairs or pillows that lie waiting.

This day was different. This morning, I had attended a funeral.

The kids knew where I was. They didn’t know many specifics, but they knew the service had been for the mother of a former student.

We were reading Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, a treasured novel I’d been introduced to a few years ago. I didn’t realize, until I took my place with them on the rug, that we were at the part of the story where one of our favorite characters dies. “Oh Geez,” I thought, taking a deep breath and resolving to handle it like a grown-up.

That was the moment my throat closed.

Birdie, sitting directly in front of me, met my eyes. “Are you okay?” she asked.

I wasn’t.

Ivan’s story, told in first-gorilla perspective, has led us to some heavy topics over the past few weeks. Ivan gives us a close-up look at animal cruelty, human failings, and the loss of a loved one. The story also teaches us about friendship, loyalty, and having the courage to do what’s right.

Through Ivan, my readers have been making connections to things they see going on in their world. They see some rough terrain, and they share these thoughts with no filter. It’s pure honesty. Raw innocence. Curiosity unleashed.

At times, their questions and comments stun me. Our discussions also offer some insight into what each student is experiencing outside of our classroom. Some of them have a lot of tough stuff going on in their lives right now. And I know a lot of the specifics.

Captivating and powerful read alouds like The One and Only Ivan help us approach that nebulous line between preserving the beauty of their childhood innocence and honestly exploring the real world. They give us lessons in the civics of humanity, an integral part of any curriculum.

But where, exactly, do we draw that line?….especially when that childhood innocence we are trying to preserve asks so many tough questions? My sudden tears and throat-closing were encroaching uncomfortably on that unidentifiable boundary.

“Guys, can you give me a minute, please?” I managed to choke out, before getting out of my chair and crossing the room to the closest tissue box.

The internal dialogue continued. “Mary, get it together. You can NOT lose it in front of twenty-five 10-year olds,” I reprimanded myself.

I dabbed my eyes, taking a deep breath before heading back over to them. They were sitting in a strange, echoing silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I had to say something. I was the teacher, for crying out loud…literally and figuratively!

“I’m sorry, guys. I’m just incredibly sad right now.”

Nods of understanding rippled across the carpet. “You know that I was at a funeral this morning.” The nodding continued. “I’m just really sad about that. It will be okay,” I reassured them, “Let’s try this again, shall we?”

We dove back in, feeling sad together, as we bid good-bye to our beloved friend, each in our own way, Jakob hopping up before we resumed the book, to retrieve the tissue box. He placed it on the shelf next to my chair, giving me a quick smile before taking his place back on the rug.


Hours later, settling into my couch at home, the moment came back. With it came that pesky self-doubt. “Did I just horrify a group of small children today?” it asked me.

Then, I remembered how they’d comforted each other during our time of loss, passing tissues and snuggling in just a little bit closer together. We had gotten through our sad time about the elderly elephant Stella. We had gotten through it together. We were now looking forward with hope, for newcomer Ruby, a baby elephant.

My friend Trish was only 55 years old. Her loss was real-life tragic. My tears on the rug were for Stella, but they were also for Trish and her family. I knew this. And I knew that each child in front of me was making personal connections, too. They didn’t need to know all the details of my sad. They were identifying with the feelings. That much was obvious.

So did I horrify a large group of small people, or did I do something of value, without even intending to?

I found the answer to this question later that evening, popping around Twitter, looking for inspiration…and maybe a little reassurance.

I found some in an article written by Matt de la Pena. “Twice this past fall I was left speechless by a child,” De la Pena admitted. I can relate.

One young girl asked, “If you had the chance to meet an author you admire, what would you ask?”

Upon reflection, de la Pena realized, “A thoughtful question like that deserved a more thoughtful response.” He claimed a “do over” and gave her one.

“If I had the chance to ask Kate DiCamillo anything it would be this: ‘How honest can an author be with an auditorium full of elementary school kids? How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?’”

That’s a powerful question.

De la Pena’s article led me to DiCamillo’s response, bringing me back to my own days as a student, sitting on another rug, crying over the loss of Charlotte, in E.B. White’s classic tale. Charlotte’s Web still connects that young girl to the teacher I am today…and to the students who sit in front of me, four decades later.

My search for inspiration helped me see that I hadn’t caused irreparable damage with my sudden moment of intense vulnerability. In fact, my readers may even have benefited from the tears that were shed by their teacher…mostly because we’d felt them together.

De la Pena’s article also introduced me to his latest endeavor, a picture book entitled LOVE, illustrated by Loren Long. The New York Times Book Review called LOVE a “reassuring and refreshingly honest picture book.” I was on a roll, so I ordered it on-line, receiving it two days later.

Long’s thought-provoking artwork blends beautifully with De La Pena’s prose to support and acknowledge that, as the Times reviewer put it, “We find love even in places that hurt.” I can’t wait to share it with my crew.

Our tissue box has a new home by the rocking chair, thanks to Jakob. We’re ready, because we’re learning that it is our stories that connect us.

Related Resources

Matt de la Pena:

One Thing Leads to Another: An Interview with Matt de la Peña

What Matt de la Peña and Loren Long Talk About When They Talk About ‘Love’

Matt de la Peña: Reading (and Writing) on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

Ivan Links:

“The One and Only Ivan” | 60second Book Review… adorable book review clip by another blubbering educator J   (share youtube video: )

One and Only Ivan, Global PBL

The One and Only Ivan Teaching Guide

One and Only Ivan novel study

One and Only Ivan… study guide with flash cards (Quizlet resources I have yet to figure out how to use)

Tough topics and Social Justice:

Navigating and Teaching Tough Topics

Core SEL Competencies… a wheel graphic…home, school, community

21 Simple Ways to Integrate Social-Emotional Learning Throughout the Day… WOO HOO!!!!!!! Mini-lessons galore!!!!!

Teaching Young Children About Bias, Diversity, and Social Justice

Investigation Inspires Action… Crawling Out of the Classroom blog post, social justice groups

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and visit her personal blog (launched in 2021) Behind the Doors of the Teacher's Room for some adult conversation.

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