One of the most powerful rituals in our society is the burial ceremony of a veteran.
At my grandfather's -- he was a World War II colonel, and at one point, in charge of a POW camp in Italy -- they brought out all the stops: the rifle salute, the bugle, the straight-edge folding of the casket flag from one Marine's hands into another's, who then clutched the flag to his chest, boot-walked it over to my 96-year-old grandmother, knelt down until he was eye-level, and then handed her the flag as he said words that made me weep.
On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation.
It was a way to confer blessing and honor upon the life of a veteran, sending the message that military service is something we value in America.
We should begin the same practice for teachers.
We should create a funeral corps that would accompany the burial ceremony of any Hamilton County teacher.
A folded flag, certainly. Maybe a solemn classroom bell, but no gunfire. Someone would recite the pledge, and then maybe Elizabeth Bentley's "On Education" or James Baldwin's praise for his Harlem teachers.
"When I could scarcely see for myself any future at all, my teachers told me that the future was mine," Baldwin wrote.
The corps would be made up of volunteers -- retired teachers and principals, current students, any public school graduate -- and its ceremony would send the message that teaching is a career of value, worthy of praise and synonymous with sacrifice. If we praise our veterans, we ought to do the same for our educators.
But we won't.
Because in our society, we don't like our teachers very much. On a macro-level, we do not honor in any meaningful way the labor and craft of teaching.
(Is it because our classroom teachers are women, and since our society still does not encourage women to hold positions of authority, we subconsciously learn to view education in lesser ways than, say, the business world with all its male CEOs?)
(Or is it because teaching is a calling, and for many of us, we ignored our own calling, which leads us to resent teachers?)
(Is it because we've allowed the pop-media-culture to dumb down society to the point that intellectualism now seems threatening?)
This much is certain: We continue to ignore the pressing issues (school starts times, classroom size, the way poverty affects learning) which sends the ho-hum attitude that education is not a pressing issue.
The latest example: health insurance.
Thursday night, the school board will vote on insurance changes for public school teachers and employees. According to Central Office emails, these changes are just the first pitch (or first nail) in a long game (or big coffin) designed to push more people off county insurance while steering those that remain into higher deductibles.
For so long, teachers got top-shelf benefits, like their own G.I. Bill.
Yet over the last several days, I've heard a grumbling, like rats scraping against one another in a barrel: Why should teachers get good benefits when I don't?
This is the consequence of a dog-eat-dog society that encourages a race to the bottom where nobody wins. It is almost a form of patricide: We're going to make suffer our most valuable elders (read: teachers) who are in charge of our most valuable people (read: kids).
We already pay them in lower-class ways. Our state government yanked many of their union rights away, while continuing to yoke them to a vampiric system of corporate-standardized testing.
Our local government remains horribly silent on these issues, just like our superintendent and half the school board. (Ever hear any of them make any formal statement about the TCAP fiasco, for example?)
It has reached these dire straits: Many teachers are telling younger folks -- students or their own children -- not to become teachers, a save-yourself mentality that says less about teachers and more about the rest of us.
Long ago, when I was teaching, I asked my students to say "thank you" at the end of class. Not just to me, but to every teacher they had.
Amazingly, it stuck. Kids made it a habit, and some kept doing it for years, even into college. More than once, I heard back from them about shocked teachers and professors, who were so moved by student gratitude.
Some said they had never been thanked before.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...