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Staff file photo by Ben Benton / David Smith, of Whitwell, Tenn.

Let's forgive David Smith.

Let's assume the best, not the worst.

Let's believe the people of Marion County, who have lined up in support of Smith — the well-known principal of Whitwell Elementary. (Literally lining up. A parade has been organized for this Sunday.)

Let's judge him by the long arc of his career — filled with compassion, humility and selflessness — rather than one social media post, however repulsive it may be.

Look, I don't know Smith. So when I heard about his recent social media post — something crude about Kamala Harris and Joe Biden — I thought: here we go again. Just one more regrettable post from some public figure.

That's not the case.

"His compassion for his students past and present is unprecedented," administrator Becky Goforth told our paper's Ben Benton.

In 2018, a Whitwell mother was dying from cancer. Her last wish: to see her child attend pre-school. Smith, unsure whether the mom would live long enough, created a pretend, imaginary First Day of School, letting the young girl attend school — picture her in the halls, classrooms, with teachers, other students — while Smith sent photos to her dying mother.

"I have known him for over 25 years and never seen anything of this nature from him," Virginia Henry said, referring to the social media post.

Years ago, Smith helped create one of the most powerful examples of educational peacemaking: the Paper Clips Project, which fosters multi-cultural, multi-faith understanding and goodwill in communities around the world. He helped put Whitwell on the moral map.

If we can't forgive him, then who can we forgive?

Our society cannot live on condemnation and judgment alone; we must reintroduce the lost art of grace into our national and local ethos.

Not just for Smith, but for all of us. The price is too high, the burden too great for us to continue to slowly starve by viewing each other in such dim ways.

"If we can't forgive him, then how do we forgive ourselves?" one friend asked.

Smith says he misunderstood the nature of the posted meme. Thought it meant one thing; turns out, it meant something far worse.

"By the time I Googled the true meaning of the meme," he wrote in a letter of apology, "it was too late."

Did he make a mistake?

Yes.

Yet as Sister Helen Prejean likes to say: we should never be defined by our mistakes, and especially not our worst acts.

We need to witness good people making mistakes so their recovery can be modeled, studied and emulated. When we approach mistakes as potential for transformation instead of ruination, then we elevate our views of others and ourselves.

To paraphrase Michelle Obama: If the culture goes low, we go high. If others see the worst, we see the best.

Or at least the potential for something better.

I'm not excusing what should never be excused nor closing my eyes to a sexist double standard that forgives men in ways women are not. Especially Black women. Last week, I wrote a column praising outspoken Black women, like Kamala Harris. I do not write this in contradiction to that.

Both are calls to remember our shared humanity.

Because mistakes can lead to wisdom.

And wisdom leads to love.

Here's an idea.

Smith's post? It involved Harris, a Black woman.

If Smith is the type of man I hear he is, how could he use this mistake to further his commitment to racial justice? And feminism?

Could he lead Whitwell — predominantly white — towards a deeper understanding of race and racism, gender and sexism?

Reportedly, he's a Christian. Could Smith become a leader in organizing Whitwell's white churches towards even more racial reflection and honesty?

Could Smith, who is deserving of second chances, advocate for criminal justice reform that gives second chances to others?

"I definitely am not a racist," he wrote.

Could he then become anti-racist?

This is not tit-for-tat. We should forgive Smith regardless of what he makes of all this.

So ... what will he make of this?

It could become something really wise, loving and transformative.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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David Cook
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