Montclair Elementary School is nestled on a dead end street in a tree-lined residential neighborhood just a few blocks from the border between Portland and Beaverton. There are churches and parks with rolling hills just a stone's throw of the one-level brick school. Whether by design or happenstance, it's a place that feels safe.
And when rookies Damian Lillard and Will Barton arrived with Blaze The Trail Cat at Montclair Elementary's gymnasium for a Kia "Read To Achieve" assembly, they were greeted by a legion of kids whose only care in the world seemed to be getting the attention of an NBA player. It was hard to tell if any of the students were aware of the horrific events that took place in Newtown, but if they did, none showed it. They were too excited at the prospect of getting a high-5 from Lillard and Barton while screaming out answers to Trail Cat Trivia at the top of their lungs.
"I can remember, when I was in elementary school, it would have meant a lot to have an NBA player come and be around, read with me and have fun with me," said Lillard. "I'm glad that I can come back and do that for the kids."
But while the students of Montclair Elementary might have been overstimulated with thoughts of meeting a player who hit the game-winning shot against the Hornets less than 24 hours prior, the thoughts of the teachers and staff and the players surely turned at some point to the safety of the boys and girls in attendance, and how how those concerns should not weigh upon the minds of the young.
"The main thing is for them to be comfortable," said Lillard. "They're too young to have to worry about their safety and what they see on the news. I can't remember even having to think about that stuff at all. I just went to school and didn't have no worries, so there's no reason why kids should have to think about what's going to happen or what happened at another school."
Both Lillard and Barton come from areas where gun violence is all too common, so they know firsthand that innocence is a luxury of youth, one that is inevitably replaced by what is often times a very grim reality.
"I've always been big on giving back, talking to kids, reading, anything with kids," said Barton. "And there's things going on in the world right now that make it even more important. Kids are our future, they need someone to look up to. I think that's why you have kids that go certain ways, because they don't have any role models. I know, growing up in my school, we didn't really have anyone to talk to, come and read to us. To have two NBA players, that's pretty big. Any time you can do something like this it's special because you always want to see kids grow up to be successful and do positive things.
"Me and Dame coming here, these kids probably want to be like us, but hopefully we encouraged them to listen to their parents, do good in school, read in school and do positive things instead of going down that bad route. People don't really think about it but it starts at a young age. Kid are very impressionable. i know I was when I was a kid."
The day will come, if it hasn't already, in which the children of Montclair Elementary will have to wrestle with the questions of why some people do the awful things that they do. But Monday was not that day. Monday was for celebrating their diligence when it comes to reading, for having some fun at school before winter break and for feeling safe and loved in the presence of their friends and teachers.
"At that age, they see that type of story on the news and it can scare them, coming to school, not feeling safe," said Lillard. "They know who we are and for us to come to their school and spend time with them and stress how important reading is, I think it's big for them. It probably made them more comfortable being here. They enjoyed themselves. When I was younger I wish there was have been an NBA player that would have came to my school and spent time and made me feel, hopefully, how we made them feel. It was all about them.
"So us being here, I think it makes them more comfortable to see people they see on TV, professional athletes, people whose jersey they have right in front of them. I think there's a comfort level that it probably brings, knowing that there's a lot of people here, there's adults around the room, there's professional athletes. If anything it takes their minds off everything else. I don't know how kinds can think about some of the stuff that's going on. I don't even know how to think about it."
And for at least an hour on Monday at Montclair Elementary, no one had to.
(Click here for more photos from the Montclair Elementary Kia Read To Achieve Assembly