MIDLAND CITY -- Jan Poland stood, surrounded by the students who rode her husband’s bus. They released balloons to honor his sacrifice. She hugged them to remember why he died.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it over and over,” she said Friday afternoon after students scattered to school buses following a Midland City Elementary ceremony to honor bus driver Charles “Chuck” Poland and student Ethan Gillman. “I’ve seen beauty come out of ashes.”
Her words echoed a scripture from the Old Testament book of Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me … to comfort all who mourn, to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness …”
She has seen it. She may have seen it in Ashley Thornton, a student who rode Mr. Poland’s bus on the day a man came demanding hostages and took Poland’s life in the process.
“He was always happy. He always said good morning when he picked us up and good afternoon at the end of the day. He was one of the best men I ever met,” she said of Mr. Poland.
She may have seen it in Tre’ Watts, a 16-year-old Dale County student on the bus that day.
“He treated me like his own,” Watts said. “He let me know there is still good in people out there. It has given me a more positive outlook on life.”
They recognized every student who rode Chuck Poland’s bus. Some want to be teachers. Others want to be football players. Watts wants to be a software producer or developer.
They get that chance because a bus driver put himself in front of a gunman.
“Each day, Mr. Poland’s memory will grow stronger in our hearts,” Dale County Superintendent of Education Donny Bynum said.
Third- and fourth-grade students sat quietly during the 40-minute ceremony in the elementary school auditorium. Teachers leaned over and gave reassuring hugs.
Poland’s bus riders faced the crowd and were awarded certificates by State Sen. Harri Anne Smith, R-Slocomb, for their actions on Tuesday, Jan. 29.
“The way Mr. Poland treated the situation led the way for the students to handle the situation — calm and under control,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, 6-year-old Ethan Gillman, held hostage for a week in an underground bunker before being rescued, sat with his friends. He fidgeted, jostled around in his chair and moved from the stage to the front row and sat in his teacher’s lap. The ceremony would be over soon and Ethan could ride four-wheelers.
Dale County bus drivers wore red T-Shirts and sat in a special section for the ceremony. First responders were also recognized with special seating.
The hugs continued. After the students had their turn, parents and teachers approached Mrs. Poland. She kneeled on a makeshift stage and hugged them all.
All the attention is a little strange for the Polands, who never wanted to be in the spotlight.
“This is not about me,” she whispered. “I know he would be so honored. What I want everyone to know is that the Lord I serve is greater than anything in this world.”
J.G. Crabbe wrote a hymn in 1889 about the scripture from Isaiah. It is still sung in some churches.
I sing the beauty of the Gospel, that scatters, not thorns, but flowers, That bids me scatter smiles and sunbeams, wherever are lonely hours. The garment of His praise it offers, for heaviness of spirit drear; It gives me sunshine for my shadow, and beauty for ashes here.
Follow Lance Griffin on Twitter @EagleLance