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Texas teacher’s legacy of kindness lives on after her death

  • In this March 2021 photo, Brian Aikens holds up a heart-shaped "kindness rock" memorializing Texas teacher Zelene Blancas, who died of COVID-19 in December 2020, outside Upper Province Elementary School in Royersford, Pa. (Brian Aikens via AP)

DALLAS — Searching for a way to honor Texas teacher Zelene Blancas after her death late last year from COVID-19, a fellow educator over 2,000 miles away relied on the kindness of others to get a painted, heart-shaped rock to her school.

After almost five months on the road, being transported by a handful of people, the rock arrived as school started this month at El Paso’s Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary, where Blancas taught and was remembered by her principal as someone who “embodied kindness.”

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“The legacy that she’s leaving of being kind to others, making everybody feel special, taking the time to get to know someone and letting them know you’re special,” principal Cristina Sanchez-Chavira said, “that was her.”

It was a fitting tribute to the 35-year-old whose video of her bilingual class of first graders in El Paso charmed Twitter users in 2018. The clip showed students hugging each other as they streamed out of the classroom — a ritual they carried out to start and end each day.

“She wanted them to know that they were loved when they arrived, there was somebody waiting for them,” Sanchez-Chavira said. “And then as they left: This is your place, we love you here.”

After the video went viral, Pinksocks Life, a nonprofit that works to promote human connections, reached out. Through that initiative she linked up on Twitter with Brian Aikens, a third and fourth grade special education teacher in Royersford, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia.

In early 2020, before the pandemic upended life in the U.S., Blancas and Aikens introduced their students virtually, with Aikens’ students reading to hers.

After Blancas’ death on Dec. 28, Aikens said he talked with his students about what they could do in her memory.

During the pandemic shutdown, he had begun delivering painted rocks to his students at home to help them still feel connected. Now he thought of a heart-shaped stone, big enough to fill an adult’s open hand, that had been gracing his front porch since his young son found it on a hike. On it he had painted the words “love more fear less” — a Pinksocks slogan.

“When Zelene passed I just felt like, you know what, this is the time to pass this rock on, this is where it needs to go,” Aikens said.

The rock began its journey in March, when the daughter of Aikens’ assistant had a hockey tournament in North Carolina.

Pete Metzgar, who is active with Pinksocks, had also agreed to take it, and a colleague from Raleigh picked it up and got it to him weeks later when they met up for work in Alabama. From there it went back to North Carolina when Metzgar took it to his home in Charlotte.

Metzgar, who travels frequently for his work in telemedicine, started posting online to find someone to take it West, but finally when he traveled to Phoenix in June, he arranged to leave it with a friend.

The stone’s journey stalled there, and it looked like it wasn’t going to make it out of Arizona in time for the start of school in El Paso. So Monica Aguilera, whose job at Shook Elementary is to help connect students with outside resources, made a weekend road trip to retrieve it. She had dinner in Phoenix with Metzgar’s friend and returned with the rock — seeing “rainbows everywhere” on the drive home.

As Aikens’ students followed the rock’s journey online, they met virtually with Shook Elementary teacher Lindsay Taylor’s first grade class and learned about each other’s cities.

Taylor said the exchange was a ray of hope in a trying year that inspired her students to come up with their own gestures of kindness.

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“It kind of gave them this, ‘Oh, we can make the best out of a bad situation,’” Taylor said.

The kindness rock will visit each classroom before being placed in a case alongside a picture of Blancas and a plaque.

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