At the bus stop this morning, beads of ice formed on kids’ eyelashes. As my children boarded the bus, I sent a silent wish for warmth — for shelter from the cold weather and the thawing out of frozen extremities, but also for warm connections at lunch tables and in hallways, and most importantly, in their classrooms. Everything is more tolerable with a little warmth.

At our house, cold bodies seek The Thing in winter — a large sack of beans wrapped in heavy-duty maroon fabric, dubbed by our kids for lack of a better name. As tired feet traverse hardwood floors and climb into chilly beds, the kindest gesture a parent can present a child is The Thing. When heated for three minutes in the microwave and wrapped around shoulders, it is an exquisite pleasure in a Minnesota winter. The treasured sack travels around our house like a favored cat, heating laps and feet and sheets.

Minnesotans turn into heat-seeking missiles in winter, scanning the environment for anything warm: coffee, fireplaces, thick knit scarves, casseroles and fuzzy slippers. Health clubs offer thermal sanctuaries: hot tubs, saunas and steam rooms. All heat frigid bodies. Yet the kind of warmth that matters most does not reside in beans or bubbling water, but in the hearts of warm people.

You know the type: warm on first contact, eyes alight with interest. Warmth is what we seek in our true friends. It is the essence of a well-liked baby sitter, the spirit of a capable nurse. And warmheartedness is magic mojo for learning.

At the start of each school year, I hope my kids’ teachers are warm. It is a quality I rank equal to “academically rigorous” or “expert at using instructional technology” in parent surveys, so I add it to the comments section. Looking back over the past 14 years of our kids’ education, from preschool to high school, our children remember most fondly their warmhearted teachers. In these sacred spaces, a real sense of community fosters learning.

My mom was the warmest person I have ever met, and to the good fortune of many students of the Milwaukee public schools, she was a great middle-school reading teacher.

Fierce, funny, tough as nails, but so warm that even the stodgiest soul would soften around her, she smiled and made eye contact with everyone, hugged, laughed and danced frequently. She was an expert yodeler, willing to yodel on demand and teach anyone her secret (just say “little old lady who” over and over again).

Her warmth melted social barriers. When my brother was a teen, his friends wore army jackets, reeked of smoke and cranked up Pink Floyd as they waited in our driveway. Some parents would keep their distance. My mom invited them in to play Ping-Pong. She beat them all and won them over, as the rest of us kids roller-skated around them in our concrete-floor basement.

At work, she took on what we now call the “achievement gap,” drawing on her expertise and experience to help inner-city kids become stronger readers. She loved her students and accepted them exactly as they were. She shared stories of their triumphs at our dinner table. More than her master’s degree, I think her warmth was the key ingredient that led to their success. My mother made true connections and inspired her students to work hard, overcome barriers and persist, even when life was hard.

So as the cold settles on us and we turn into our houses, grab a mug of hot cocoa and find a Thing to wrap around your loved ones’ shoulders. But also draw near to the warm people in your life, and thank teachers for being sparks to their young charges.

While The Thing and other creature comforts will warm our bodies, it is warmth of spirit that will settle in deep and get us through the winter.


Maggie Shea, of Minnetonka, is a teacher and writer.