Every year, Crossroads teacher Michele Zoccoli finds a new way to teach her students about Remembrance Day, and to allow them to demonstrate what it means to them, through art, music and words.
She’s been doing that for the last 25 years, first at Virgil Public School, and now at Crossroads.
It’s an emotional time for her, driven by a visit to many national memorials in Germany and France as a student — visits that made her realize, whichever side of the war soldiers were on, how many young lives were lost.
She promised herself as a young teacher she would make sure her students would understand the importance of Remembrance Day, and she is still keeping that promise.
This year at Crossroads, there was the traditional laying of wreaths by each class in remembrance, the placing of little lights at the front of the gymnasium, by students, cadets, girl guides and brownies, cubs and scouts, and moving music provided by the school choir. Piper Gary Cooper led the processional, which included dignitaries, and the Lament.
Students sang, recited poetry, strummed some music, and expressed their feelings through art.
In a tribute to veterans, through music and photos, Zoccoli referred to a “very special group of local Second World War veterans.” She calls them the “Virgil boys,” a group of men who were students at the one-room Virgil school house, went to war, and were fortunate to return. As long as they were able, they attended Remembrance Day ceremonies at Virgil and Crossroads, presenting students with real faces, names and stories to help them understand the reality of war, and repeating their message, that they hoped young students would never experience what they had to, and would strive to keep peace.
Each year, the small group of Virgil veterans dwindled, until this year, there was one, 95-year-old Cpl. Jeff Powell.
He wasn’t one of the original Virgil boys, says Zoccoli. He turned up at a Remembrance Day ceremony in 2009, and kept coming back, and was soon accepted as an “honourary member.”
The others, including Jake Froese, George Snider, Harold Clement, Don Clement, Tom Quinn and Jack Hunter, have died.
Zoccoli spoke of a wall in France where people can leave names and messages, and in the Crossroads gym, she had Grade 8 students create their own version, with a giant poppy and words such as love and peace.
Another group of students put together a little book, describing peace, through the five senses.
Peace, they said, “is beautiful in all languages,” and shared the word for peace in several others, including ‘paix,’ in French, ‘shalom’ in Hebrew and ‘solh’ in Farci.
Peace looks like a field of flowers on a warm sunny day, said students in Grade 3, it sounds like a waterfall trickling into a koi pond, and everyone’s favourite: it tastes like a homemade cinnamon bun drizzled with dark chocolate and raspberry syrup, while sipping a cup of hot chocolate with melting marshmallows.
Coun. Norm Arsenault, at his first Crossroads Remembrance Day service, took the microphone out into the audience of children, and spoke to them directly. He told them “there is never anything good about war,” that it should always be an “absolute last resort,” and that conflict should be settled by diplomacy.
He told the students that because they live in a democracy, they have the right to go to school, and the choice to be anything they want to be.
“That’s what freedom is. That’s what Cpl. Powell fought for,” he said. “I want you always to remember the sacrifice veterans made for us. We’re here today because of Cpl. Powell and others who sacrificed so much for us.”
Sgt. Brigid Panos of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment, a serving member of the military, also spoke to students, on a personal note.
Her voice breaking with emotion, she told the students that as difficult as it is to be apart from her husband and children, she feels very fortunate.
She has done one tour in Kuwait and one in Jordan, she said, “but it’s nowhere near as difficult for me as for Cpl. Powell.”
In addition to the differences in the conditions under which they served, and the great number of sacrifices made in the Second World War, she said, “I had Facetime. I had the opportunity to talk to my husband and kids. Cpl. Powell and other veterans did not.”
Zoccoli shared some words from Governor General David Johnston during a Remembrance Day speech in Ottawa: “At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, when the guns of the Great War at last fell silent, the fury of conflict was replaced by a deafening silence. In that fragile gap between the sounds of dying and the cries of relief, we were faced with all we had done, all we had lost, all we had sacrificed. In that silence, we met a truth so obvious and so terrifying, we swore we would never take up arms again.”
He spoke of communities building monuments, and placing them at the very heart of our towns and cities, “so they might stop us daily in our tracks. We collected names, wrote these names in books and carved them into walls in a constant effort to save those we failed from the faithlessness of anonymity,” he said.
“And we pledged to gather in our communities each year at this hour on this singular day of Remembrance so that we might fall silent, again and again and again.”