"Graydn was at a crossroads. We were at the point where school was forever going to be a battle, and he was going to check out. Or, he was going to turn around and decide that school was worth showing up for. Mrs. Locraft was exactly what he needed.”


Ilana Roth

“Do not let this woman see you fall apart. Do not let this woman see you fall apart.” If she repeated this to herself enough, Ilana Roth thought, maybe she could keep it together. She closed her bedroom door, opened her laptop, and logged onto the Zoom meeting with her son’s second grade teacher. 

Ilana had always been a private person, and the last thing she wanted to do in the fall of 2020 was burden an elementary school educator with even more to worry about. But the first few weeks of the virtual school year had left her 7-year-old, Graydn, not just turning off his camera every day, but sobbing in a ball on the floor, unmovable. 

It was time, Ilana knew, to let his teacher know what was going on in their lives. 

On the screen in front of her was Monika Locraft, whose brown eyes and warm smile Graydn only knew in 2D. From an empty classroom at Atholton Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland, Mrs. Locraft listened closely.

When Ilana finished telling Graydn’s story, the teacher told her, “Thank you for trusting me with this information.” She promised to stay in touch. 

As Ilana closed her laptop, she wasn’t sure if the talk would make any difference. But by the end of the school year, she knew it had. Mrs. Locraft would forever alter the path of Graydn’s life.

As the third year of the coronavirus pandemic begins, it can be difficult to keep in mind the gestures of kindness and compassion that have unfolded in these difficult times. But to Graydn and his family, the efforts of Mrs. Locraft to connect to this one second grader are the reason he transformed from a student who was anxiety-ridden and afraid to one who is enthusiastic and engaged. 

“If you’re nervous like me, you have to have someone to talk to,” Graydn says today. “She was safe to me.”

If you ask Graydn, the story begins when he was in kindergarten, and one of the most important people in his life started showing up less often. His Uncle Eli, his mom’s brother, used to come over multiple times a week to play Nerf guns or Legos. Uncle Eli came to every one of his t-ball games. He promised that when Graydn was old enough for coach-pitch baseball, he would be his coach. 

When Graydn’s mom sat him down for a talk, she explained that Uncle Eli had been diagnosed with something called cancer. It was a talk they had just had two weeks before, when Ilana’s father, Graydn’s “Poppy,” received a very similar diagnosis, a cancer of a different kind. For months, their family’s life was a series of waiting for the next treatment, the next update, the next good news that never came. 

By the time Graydn was starting the first grade, both his Poppy and his Uncle Eli would be gone. 

“I didn’t want to go to school. I didn’t want to go anywhere,” Graydn remembers. He’d understood that grandparents sometimes passed away. Dogs too. But his uncle was only 36 years old. “Why did he have to be gone?” Graydn asked.

Ilana and her husband Griffin Betz, both dealing with their own grief, hoped that with time, the pain of the losses would ease for Graydn and his younger sister Harper. 

Instead, Graydn seemed to grow more and more terrified of sickness. He had once heard Uncle Eli in the bathroom vomiting from the effects of chemotherapy. Now, any time Graydn heard about a friend getting sick or vomiting, he was terrified.

“He grew really, really panicky, and he couldn’t bring himself back,” Ilana remembered. 

Graydn became so fearful of throwing up that for months, he slept with a bucket in his bed and a blindfold over his eyes, so he wouldn’t have to see anything if he got sick. 

Ilana and Griffin knew their son had always been an old soul, wise beyond his years but with a tendency to have big worries too. But they knew this was more than a normal level of worry. 

They sought out a therapist for help, and came to better understand what was going on in Graydn’s anxious mind. They had to help him realize that just because someone got sick didn’t mean they would die. 

After weeks of appointments and conversations, Graydn began to make progress. By early 2020, even the therapist felt confident he had turned a corner. 

And then, the pandemic hit. 

Illness and death were everywhere, and so was Graydn’s fear. His panic attacks were so severe, he called them “heart attacks.”

His parents did everything they could think of to help him through. They tried to explain that while the virus was dangerous, everyone was working together to stay safe. They didn’t turn on the news. They adopted a dog. They let Graydn cut his hair into a mohawk. Anything to ease, to distract, to get through one more day. 

They made it to the end of his first grade year, and to the end of the first pandemic summer. But when Graydn realized he wasn’t going to get to go back to school in-person for second grade, and wasn’t going to see all the friends he’d left behind, he began to spiral again. 

 “It’s just another goodbye I never got to say,” he said. 

 

Graydn as a toddler with his Uncle Eli.

Mrs. Locraft’s classroom looked nothing like a classroom should. The chairs were stacked onto the desks. The books were untouched. The big blue rug for story time had no children sitting crisscross. 

Instead, she was alone at her desk, turning on her computer for another day of virtual learning. A student popped onto her screen. A boy with a mohawk.  

“Hi, Graydn!” she said, hoping this would be the day he would stick around. 

As she greeted each little face appearing in each little box, Mrs. Locraft analyzed how her second graders were feeling. Graydn wasn’t the only one who looked nervous. As a shy person herself, she remembered all the times she’d felt apprehensive about school. And that was without a pandemic.

“I could very much relate to the anxiety,” she said.   

She’d always approached teaching the same way she’d handled her first career, as a Delta Airlines flight attendant. She was calm and composed, but very structured, always ensuring her students, like her passengers, understood the directions they were expected to follow.

But during virtual learning, she’d realized flexibility was what her students needed. Instead of starting class right on time, she used the first few minutes to ask the 7-and 8-year-olds about their weekends, their pets, or whatever else they wanted to talk about. She wanted to keep them engaged. But again and again, she watched Graydn’s screen go dark.

Mrs. Locraft said she doesn’t really know what she did to change Graydn’s mindset about school. She did for him what she did for all of her students. 

But to Graydn, each little action seemed to add up.

Mrs. Locraft remembered his mom said he liked baseball, so at the beginning of class, she asked him about that. 

When Ilana thought it would be good for Graydn to see Mrs. Locraft in person, she met him outside the school in a mask.  

At the end of many weeks, Mrs. Locraft sent every student a video message, complimenting them on something they had done and encouraging them to have a great weekend. Many of the students never replied. But before long, Graydn was sending video messages back: 

“Hi Mrs. Locraft, what are you going to do over the weekend?” 

“Mrs. Locraft, I pulled out my own tooth!” 

“Mrs. Locraft, I’m glad that you’re my teacher and I like that you’re my teacher.”

Ilana, noticing that it was becoming less and less of a struggle to keep Graydn engaged in school, logged onto the online portal to see what had been happening in class. She found all the messages between Graydn and Mrs. Locraft. Her son, who had been too anxious to stay on camera, was now spending his free time making videos for his teacher. 

In one, Graydn held up a framed photograph. 

“Hi Mrs. Locraft, I want to show you my uncle,” Graydn said. “He liked playing baseball with me. And I liked when he made funny jokes. And I miss him.”

Whatever Mrs. Locraft was doing, it was working.

“Graydn was at a crossroads. We were at the point where school was forever going to be a battle, and he was going to check out. Or, he was going to turn around and decide that school was worth showing up for,” Ilana said. “She was exactly what he needed.” 

Graydn was able to finish out second grade in person, at a desk right beside Mrs. Locraft’s. And while he still had bouts of anxiety—a lesson on Hurricane Katrina had him worrying for weeks—he loved school so much he didn’t want the year to end. 

Over the summer, he wrote Mrs. Locraft letters, and she wrote back. 

“She would say ‘I am very proud of you,'” Graydn says. “And, she came to one of my baseball games.”

Today, Graydn is in third grade and Mrs. Locraft has a whole new group of second graders on her big blue rug. Though her classroom is still tightly structured, she has kept some of the flexibility that she came to appreciate during virtual learning, especially as her students have experienced the challenges of new variants and new unknowns. 

“Their resiliency is a constant reminder for me. If they can do this, what we’re asking of them, then so can I,” she said. 

And around once a week, a boy with a mohawk pops up in her doorway. 

“Hi, Graydn!” she says. She doesn’t have to do anything to convince him to stay.

Photography by Tony Powell

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