CLINTON — As the 40-vehicle caravan snaked its way through the old mill town, a police officer — his cruiser’s lights flashing — led the way and the teachers dutifully followed.
Up steep hills.
Past the old, red-brick factories.
Into the middle-class neighborhoods.
And, everywhere, there were teary smiles and grateful waves. Some stood on snowy sidewalks and patted the left side of their chests.
It was the unmistakable symbol for what was so clear in this old mill town on Tuesday morning.
We love you, those silent chest taps said.
The teachers said it to the kids whose desks now sit empty in their classrooms.
The kids, a sea of young and fresh faces, said it right back to their teachers.
In a season when learning is decidedly on hold, what happened here on Tuesday morning was a life lesson that those who witnessed it will never forget.
“It feels like a family,’’ Annmarie Sargent, principal of the Clinton Middle School, told me from behind the wheel of the first car behind the cruiser.
“I’m overwhelmed. This is such a great community. Truly a family that has come together during these difficult times.’’
We’re all leaning on one another now. Friends are dropping off groceries on front steps down the street. Neighbors are chatting across backyard bushes. Quiet, reassuring words. We’ll be OK. We need to stick together.
And on Tuesday morning in Clinton — my hometown, where my parents somehow raised nine children on blue-collar wages — teachers without classrooms climbed into Chevy vans and Honda sedans, Volkswagens and Jeeps, and delivered a lesson on what it means to be a community.
“I miss being here with my kids,’’ said Lori Richard of Leominster, who helps kids with special needs fully integrate into the school community. “I can tell that they’re lonely. They’re craving social contact. They’re making comments like, ‘Oh my gosh! I never thought I would miss school.’ ’’
Except now they do.
And so do their teachers, professionals who poured into the Clinton Middle School parking lot early Tuesday morning, their cars bedecked with words of cheer, their wide smiles a sure sign of hope for themselves and for the kids who look to them for direction.
This is the home of the Gaels, the land of the green and the gold, and those were the colors of the balloons that bounced in a chilly wind as the parade took shape.
I waved to people I recognized from my youth. My old guidance counselor smiled from a sidewalk. Another old friend held a hand-scrawled sign that read: “Teachers are cool.’’
“Aw,’’ Annmarie Sargent said. “That was nice.’’
The principal’s window was fully down despite the outside chill so her words of encouragement to her students along the impromptu parade’s route would not be muffled.
“Hi! How are you?” she said to two little kids. “Stay safe.’’
The eyes of a little girl, carrying a pink, heart-shaped pillow, lit up when the principal’s car came into view.
“We miss you,’’ the fifth-grader told her principal.
“We miss you, too,’’ Annmarie Sargent replied.
We drove by the old courthouse, where the father of a friend once presided. We passed the beautiful park — the municipal common — that serves as our town hall’s front lawn. The old hardware store was open, the lights inside so common just last week, now fluorescent rays of hope.
The whole thing was organized seemingly in an instant. A suggestion became a plan. A plan became a parade. Five hours from start to finish.
“Everybody just jumped on this,’’ said Julia Hagermoser of Lancaster, a teacher now for 20 years. “We miss the kids so much. How can you call yourself a teacher when you don’t have the students in front of you?
“I’ve talked to parents and they’ve been so appreciative about how we’ve been reaching out to their kids. It’s also teaching teachers — like moi — to do things that are more technology related.’’
In normal times, Hagermoser would have been in third period when we spoke on Tuesday morning.
Kids would be learning in small groups. She would have been pulling some students aside to read from Paul Fleischman’s novel “Seedfolks.’’ It’s a story told by a wide cast of characters from different ethnic backgrounds who live in Cleveland.
“It’s lovely,’’ she said. “It’s about a community garden. It’s about a community coming together. I guess that that is kind of apropos right now.’’
Tuesday was her birthday. She’s 59. And, instead of celebrating, she was feeling rudderless. Yet determined.
“We don’t have a choice,’’ she said. “We will get through this.’’
Colleen Gallagher from Holden teaches seventh-grade language arts. That’s what we used to call English.
But she’s a 23-year classroom veteran so she misses the profession she has come to love, and the kids who now reach out to her electronically.
“We’ve been doing a lot of e-mailing back and forth,’’ she told me. “I was excited today. I know a lot of students really miss being in school. It sounds unusual. But I know that’s the case.’’
And, because this is middle school we’re talking about, some things are ever thus.
Things like this:
“A lot of us are starting this Google classroom,’’ she said. “Constantly e-mailing. In fact, I told one of my students, ‘Contact me if you have any question.’ And he said, ‘I have a question.’
“And I knew it was going to be a little sassy because he is. And I said, ‘Oh yeah. What?’ And he said, ‘Can I go to the bathroom?’ ’’
And, just like that, in a familiar scene we all can see playing out in our mind’s eye, middle school was back in normal session again.
But instead there were teachers in the parking lot, not classrooms. There was a cruiser at the front of a caravan.
And the officer was in no hurry.
And neither were the teachers who followed him.
It was like they didn’t want this moment to pass. Because, once again, they were where they love to be: together.
Together, if briefly and at an unusual distance, with the children who love them.
School kids who now know — as if there were any doubt about it — that the feeling is mutual.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at email@example.com.