On Wednesday, Aug. 29, teachers and staff at Wilton Public Schools returned to their first day back at work after summer break. As they do every year, they began with an all faculty and staff convocation, usually gathering in the Clune Auditorium for a presentation led by Superintendent Kevin Smith.
The mood was upbeat as colleagues greeted one another and took their seats. As Smith addressed them, starting the year with his thoughts on approaching the new school year, he told them about their fellow staff member, Juan Carvajal, head custodian at Wilton’s Miller-Driscoll Elementary School.
Carvajal had been diagnosed earlier in 2018 with a grade IV glioblastoma. He had surgery to remove 90% of the tumor and spent much of the summer receiving chemotherapy and radiation, and working with physical therapists after his surgery.
“Through all of it, Juan has been cheerful, optimistic and unbelievably, overwhelmingly positive,” Smith said. He described Carvajal embracing his treatment with “the same kind of zeal with which he lives the rest of his life,” and doing five-times more than the therapist asked him.
Smith told the several hundred teachers in the crowd that Carvajal has been motivated to fight by the “overwhelming” outpouring of support he’d received from the Wilton School family. And then he had a surprise for them.
“Because Juan is who he is, and he’s a fighter, he wanted to come say, ‘Thank you!’ himself,” Smith announced as gasps and applause filled the auditorium. The teachers rose to give Carvajal a standing ovation that lasted several minutes as he came onstage in a wheelchair accompanied by his wife, son and daughter.
Carvajal’s son, Edwin, read a letter of thanks for his father, who at times was overcome with emotion.
Today I come with such joy to give each and every one of you. Thanks for what you have done for me and my family.
Thanks to all the schools for the gift cards. Thank you to Cider Mill for all the support you have shown to my son, Edwin.
Special thanks to [M-D principal] Kathy Coon, who always represented the school, and the banners the teachers made with all the students–those banners now live in my living room, to always put a smile on my face.
Thank you as well to the department of custodians and maintenance, for taking the time to make adjustments to my house to make my life more comfortable and easier.
The words ‘Thank you’ can never be enough to express how grateful I feel to all of you for what you have done for us.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you to all those who visited us at the hospital. I know some of you dedicated all your weekends to come to us in the hospital, thank you to all of you who sent the beautiful cards. I have received hundreds of cards, and from some of you I have received cards on a daily basis. I have enjoyed every moment reading the cards, they lift my spirit whenever I read them, especially those sent by the sweet students of Miller-Driscoll.
Thank you for the flowers, the calls, the emails, and the text messages. They show us that you keep us in your thoughts and prayers. They have helped us a lot in this trying time. I am so deeply touched by the generosity demonstrated by all of you, and some of you who even had your own families helping my family, which I will forever be amazed by.
You have shown us your love in a spectacular way.
My final message to you today is do what you do with love and compassion because you never know when life is going to change in an instant. Life changes but you’ve got to live day to day to the fullest.
Many blessings to all of you and with a lot of love. Thank you very much.
Smith’s next surprise was one for Carvajal, as he called onstage the high school acapella singers. They performed a poignant rendition of “Stand by Me,” as the crowd listened, many with tears in their eyes. For the last verse, the audience was encouraged to add their voices and sing along in beautiful support.
Smith also presented Carvajal with a 212-Degree Award, the award given by the school district recognizing those who go above and beyond.
“You’re a fighter. You go above and beyond at work, You go above and beyond in your relationships with your family and all of us at work, You go above and beyond in your self-care, so get better. Thank you, keep fighting,” the superintendent told him.
Carvajal hugged Smith in thanks and told him something, which Smith then shared with the crowd. “This Friday is Juan’s 26th anniversary with the Wilton Public Schools. And you have 26 more to go!”
The surprise was a perfect kickoff for the presentation that immediately followed, a talk by Dr. Marc Brackett, a Yale researcher and director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. He shared some of his expertise on the role of emotions and emotional intelligence in the school environment for both children and adults. His presentation reflected the focus Smith and administrators plan to put on emotional and social learning and well-being in the schools for the 2018-2019 school year.