Other classrooms were boisterous and children laughed uproariously, interacting playfully with the soldiers and the story.
The third-graders in Ashelyn Thomas’ class were a little bit of both as Sgt. Jeremiah Cumbee read The Polar Express, asking questions, reading and teasing the children by turns.
“Is it nougats, or noggits?” he asked them, sparking a lively debate over the pronunciation of a word within the story. Cumbee settled on calling it “nougats-slash-noggits” and continued reading.
“You can tell they’re extremely excited,” Thomas said as she watched her class respond to the soldier.
Cumbee, one of 36 soldiers who came to read to the children, was the principal organizer of the event. The soldiers are assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion, which helps wounded soldiers transition back into military service or civilian life, depending on the severity of their injuries.
Cumbee sustained a traumatic brain injury in a vehicle accident while serving in Iraq. He was assigned to the Warriors in Transition Battalion in December 2010.
“When I first came to Fort Gordon, I was really down on myself,” he said.
The battalion encourages its soldiers to do something positive, such as attend college or volunteer, and fully supported Cumbee’s idea to organize a group of soldiers to read to school children.
In the wake of the October shooting death of Deputy James D. Paugh by Army Spc. Christopher Michael Hodges, Cumbee invited the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to join the Army in a show of solidarity Friday. He wants the community to understand that the Army and the sheriff’s officers are partners, and that soldiers like Hodges are the exception rather than the norm.
“When that tragedy happened, it really wounded the whole military because (he) was one of our own,” he said.
Deputies did not read to the pupils, but they did participate in a ceremony that took place in front of the school.
DARE officer Willie Pleasant said pupils are familiar with sheriff’s deputies like him, and he wanted to give the children the opportunity to hear from the soldiers.
But as a retired soldier, Pleasant did appreciate the show of solidarity.
“We are all protecting our community. They go overseas and protect our country, and we stay here and protect our community,” he said.
As soldiers in each of the classes finished reading, they passed out stuffed animals clutching bags of candy to the children and stockings filled with treats to the teachers.
Megan Lee, 8, got a purple teddy bear from Cumbee and said she liked having him read to her class.
“It’s fun,” she said.
Before he left, the class showed its appreciation by swallowing Cumbee in a group hug and handing him homemade cards and ornaments.
“It turned out to be beautiful today,” he said, walking down the hall clutching the stack of construction paper thank-you cards.
He paused over one that read, “Thank you for coming and saving our country.”
Thomas, the third-grade teacher, said the children received as much of a reward as the soldiers did Friday, though they may not realize it is less tangible than a purple teddy bear.
“We don’t have a lot of male role models in the school system. Most of us teachers are female. It means a lot to see a man come in just to spend that time (with them),” she said.