The day that I took my husband to the hospital for surgery, we walked our children to school together. I mean, we didn’t really walk, since Shawn couldn’t do that anymore. We drove the car to the school parking lot and then we slowly made our way to the drop off point for the kids. Tommy was still in preschool, so I carried him as we took Austin to his first grade line and then Claire to her third grade line. The night before I had emailed the kids’ teachers and told them that Shawn had stage 4 cancer.
“We told our children tonight,” I wrote, “and Austin didn’t seem to truly understand, but Claire is very upset.”
As we walked Claire to her line, I saw her teacher turn towards us. I’d always liked Claire’s teacher – she had grandkids Claire’s age and had been teaching forever. She knew how to lead and love a group of kids with firmness and warmth. Claire was reading books on social justice and kindness in her class. But still, I worried about how this day was going to go.
I didn’t need to worry. I watched Claire’s teacher wrap her arms around Claire and move her to the front of the line. I can’t remember what she said exactly, but it was something comforting and clear. It made me feel better, whatever it was.
After a few minutes, all of the kids entered the school in their lines. Shawn and I stood with Tommy and I watched my 8-year-old daughter walk into her school with her teacher’s arms wrapped around her.
It is one of the lasting images I have of that time period. I was especially worried about Claire since she was the only one of my children who seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. But throughout that winter, throughout chemo and more surgeries and Shawn’s death, I’d think about that teacher and feel comforted. I’d think: she’s wrapping her arms around Claire. My daughter is going to be okay.
I’ve thought a lot lately about the dedication I’ve witnessed from teachers over the past few months. I see it from my children’s teachers and I see it from my colleagues. I see it from Claire’s teachers, the ones who make extra time to meet with her individually. I see it from Austin’s teacher, the one who texts me about Austin but also asks me about my dad. I see it from Tommy’s teacher, the one who puts up with Tommy repetitively hanging up on her, telling me that we’ll work on it, but that it’s age appropriate.
Because what my kids’ teachers are doing now, and what my colleagues are doing now, and what thousands of teachers across America are doing right now is really, really hard. Sometimes it can feel impossible.
But teachers are doing it. They are facing the odds and doing it.
I think one of the reasons that teachers are surviving – and thriving – through this pandemic is that they’ve lived through terrible things before. Yes, distance learning is awful. But for many teachers, they’ve had to face something with a student that’s far, far worse. They’ve had to hold a screaming preschooler who doesn’t understand why mommy or daddy isn’t coming home. They’ve had to talk to a third grader who got into a fist fight, because that’s how he’s learned to deal with problems at home. They’ve had to counsel a middle-schooler about why drugs and alcohol will hurt a young body. They’ve had to face a high-schooler whose parent is in prison and say: “you will not end up there, too.” They’ve had to believe those words, even when the odds were stacked against that kid.
I know, because I’ve heard these kinds of stories from teachers throughout my years as a public and private school teacher. I know because I’ve faced some of these impossible circumstances.
That morning when I watched Claire walk into school with her teacher, I could see what love looked like in the classroom. It looked like the teacher who wrapped her arms around my child and told her she was safe.
Claire learned lots of things in third grade, but really, that’s not why I will forever love her 3rd grade teacher. I mean, I teach all sorts of things to my students, but when the Senior class made a thank-you video for their teachers last week, they didn’t mention the key concepts of American politics or AP Spanish or calculus. Instead, they talked about how we made them feel a sense of belonging, a real engagement with each other and an increased interest in the world. They talked about how we made them feel loved.
Content matters. But it’s not really why we appreciate teachers, is it?
We appreciate teachers, today and always, because they do the most important thing: they love our children. Today and always.