Volunteering at Jennings was just what Mr. Mike needed

New London — OK. So nobody told me they were going to cry. On the last day of school? Come on. Elementary school kids are supposed to be clicking their heels and singing "it's the most wonderful time of the year," right?

But noooooo. This was Friday at Jennings School, which I like to call my new family. The last day. And so, all the administrators, teachers, staff (and me, the two-day-a-week cafeteria boy) are all out there waving to the buses as the kids embark on summer vacation.

And there were tears. They were sad to leave. All these new little buddies I made with forlorn looks sent old Mr. Mike back into the building a few times just so he wouldn't be a blubbering puddle.

Now you know how I spent some of my free time for the last nine months. Cleaning trays, bussing and cleaning tables, filling water jugs — but mostly clowning, needling, refereeing and laughing with almost 600 kids.

Volunteering at Jennings is among the best decisions I ever made.

I'd like to share a few things about it.

A friend of mine a few years ago suggested that my column would be more widely read if I used sports and their tentacles in a broader sense. Hence, I've tried to write sports through different prisms. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't.

Sports, as we know, are useful at both revealing and defining character. It's ugly sometimes, so a frequent theme of mine, given the rhythms of such prevalent negativity, is the necessity of helping people and volunteerism. It's not what you say. It's what you do.

Suddenly, I had a moment that recalled the classic line from "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," when Monsignor Ryan tells Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy), "It's amusing to see an old phony liberal come face-to-face with his principles."

I thought: You write about helping people and volunteerism ... but are you doing any, you phony?

This was right around the time last fall there was a postgame fight after a New London High football game. I got plenty preachy in print. Except that it's one thing to write about helping New London kids. It's another to actually do it.

I needed to do it.

I went to Jennings because of its high concentration of New London kids, more than other city schools that draw out-of-district students. They put me to work in the cafeteria Tuesdays and Fridays, 11-2, all five lunch waves.

It was probably a good thing a teacher or someone else came down to yell at the kids occasionally. Otherwise, you'd get the idea that all we did was have fun.

I made dozens and dozens of new friends I wouldn't otherwise know. And I got to interact with all the kids. I can't tell you the number of times I ran outside laughing. By the end of the year, we had inside jokes between many of us that we'll have forever.

Highlight of the year: The first-graders were eating at their table one day, imitating things their parents say. One little guy stood up, deepened his voice as best he could and in his best dad inflection, yelled "Close the (gosh darn) refrigerator door!"

I fell over.

I heard that in my house once a week, easy, growing up.

Another time, the lunch offering featured hummus. I chuckled because my longtime friend Judy Deeb, the softball coach at East Lyme High, is of Syrian descent and has unique pronunciations of Mediterranean foods. She calls hummus (or at least I think she does) "HAH-moose."

It took about 10 minutes to have 100 second-graders yelling "HAH-moose" at the top of their lungs. We couldn't stop laughing. Even Friday, the last day, my little friend Ellie came up to me and said "HAH-moose!" for no apparent reason. This is the same little kid who called me "Mikey" out of the blue one day, too. That still makes me smile.

Anyhoo, I'm telling you all this for a reason. If you have some time in your day, volunteerism is utterly worth it. Doesn't need to be in a school. Could be anywhere. There's nothing more valuable than your presence and your time.

I know we're all busy. But you never know who you'll help. Or the significance of it.

I'll miss my Jennings kids over the summer. Can't wait to go back.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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