You know the school year is going to be grand when, on the very first day, a brave young student raps to the entire brand-new class.

Yep. That’s exactly what happened in my beginning journalism class. That afternoon their in-class assignment was to interview a classmate, take notes, and then introduce that person to the class. I apologized to them if it seemed similar to what they had been doing since third grade (“Tell me about your summer, kids.” “Groan.”). But I assured them that the exercise was actually introducing them to journalistic skills: interviewing, recording important information and telling a vibrant story to an audience. What journalists do every day.

After this guy’s partner introduced him, saying that he was a music producer mostly into rap and hip hop, another classmate called out, “Will you rap for us?” After just a moment’s hesitation, and after telling me that his rapping language was not always the cleanest, there he was, rapping from his computer-lab chair. When he ended the rap — with the word banana — the class broke out into spontaneous applause at his verses, and him.

And I remembered why I love teaching.

On sabbatical this past year reporting on survivors of gun violence, I was back to full-time reporting, and in touch with my love for that work. I didn’t miss the classroom because I was traveling, writing and meeting so many people. Of course, because of the subject, it was a challenging year. I talked with person after person after person who had been wounded and traumatized as a result of being shot, or whose son/daughter/father/partner/friend/you-name-it had been killed by gunfire. And then there were those who were “just” witnesses to a shooting, and they, too, were trying to move forward from the trauma.

(“Don’t say ‘moving on,’” some survivors instruct. “Say, ‘moving forward.’” The distinction being you can move forward with your life, but you will never move on from that person who was murdered, or completely move on from the shooting that took away your ambulatory abilities or your feelings of safety.)

My latest trip was to El Paso, Texas, about 10 days after a white supremacist picked a Walmart popular with Mexican and Mexican Americans to shoot up with an assault rifle Aug. 3. He killed 22 people and injured approximately two dozen more.

I spoke to one man who was in the store looking for dog food when the shots rang out, and I interviewed several people who attended memorials and funerals, often of complete strangers for whom they wanted to show support. (See my blog, “The Ripple Effect: Stories of Gun Violence Survivors,” at marytolan.com.)

Maybe that’s partly why the classroom feels like such a wonderful place to be. From young people with high hopes at the beginning of their college careers to the seniors’ wide open dreams of their future.

The day after I taught my classes for the week, I ran the Mars Hill trail loop behind Lowell Observatory. Nobody was around, aside from the construction workers at Lowell. The trail was quiet, still dry even after the week’s gully washers, and I was free to let my mind wander, maybe even empty.

But, wait. What was that? Up ahead I saw two strollers pushed to the side of the trail.

I slowed to a walk, searching the high grasses and towering ponderosa pines of the forest.

No one. I approached cautiously, half expecting a baby and a toddler sitting in their strollers, baby talking about the end of hummingbird season.

But, no. There was a water bottle, a baby blanket, and what appeared to be a small gray elephant — yes, stuffed! I figured I would soon come across two moms, or a young couple, carrying their kids. Nope. Nobody. Zip.

I finished my loop without seeing a soul. I’d better return to the spot this holiday weekend.

I want to see if the strollers are still there, the soft elephant waiting patiently, much like Puff the Magic Dragon or the Velveteen Rabbit, peeking out from underneath the blanket, wondering where her boy or girl has gone.

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