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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Schools Human Resources Director Penny Murray greets families inside the pavilion. Hamilton County Schools kicked off the 2020-2021 school year, on Saturday August 8, 2020, with the district’s third annual Back to School Bash at the First Horizon Pavilion. This year’s event was a safe, no-contact drive-thru for families to receive a free backpack with school supplies. The 2020 event is made possible through the generous partnership of the Nehemiah Project, BlueCare Tennessee, State Farm, and United Way.

For M. G. —

This week, Hamilton County returned to school.

Really, we never left.

Since March, we have all been students in a most unwelcome yet effective classroom. We are students of this coronavirus, which has upended, disrupted and challenged all of us, no exceptions. If teachers are measured by the degree to which their students change, then COVID-19 is the 2020 Teacher of the Year.

Isn't that what true education looks like?

Not always feel-good and pleasant, but always transformative?

This week, students and teachers returned to the classroom — physically or virtually. We return — yes, I'm a teacher — with all sorts of baggage and emotions: troubled, scared, hopeful, distraught, pensive, confused, confident, angry, grieving and grateful.

Know what that means?

Right now is the best time to be a teacher.

Here's why: teachers advise, instruct, listen, console, redirect, inspire, encourage, discipline, love, rebuke, challenge, question, envision and cherish. At least, we try. To do this well under the best of circumstances is an art.

To do it during a pandemic is, well, nobody yet knows.

How does a teacher teach while trying to make sure two dozen third graders keep masks on?

While back-of-her-mind worrying she doesn't get sick, or bring the virus home to her family?

How does a principal lead while those around him are anxious, vulnerable and confused?

How does a student learn while wearing a mask? While afraid? While 6 feet apart from best friends?

How do parents and grandparents and coaches and counselors

Exactly.

This is why it is the best time to be a teacher.

To teach during a pandemic is to teach the essentials of life. It is to teach within a gap, a crucible, a fissure in history when the world is upside down. It is to teach in days that will never be forgotten.

Teachers have the bravest and richest of opportunities to face and confront what America often ignores: the ache of our own vulnerability.

How do we live when things fall apart?

How do we live in uncertain times?

We can frame our year around lessons that address what we all are feeling.

The confusion.

The groundlessness.

The suffering.

What can I control in my life when things are falling apart?

We can use our classrooms as laboratories for practicing gratitude and generosity, for developing eyesight that sees goodness in the most troubling of times.

What is my mind telling me? How do my thoughts affect my experience?

We can remind our students that throughout history, women and men have always faced trials. Now, it's our turn.

How can I be brave? And just? And honest?

This coronavirus does not let us hide. It has exposed in plain sight not only our mortality, but our vast inequalities. For many, the ground has been shaking long before COVID-19. Consider that some return to school simply so they can eat. Consider that some schools — there is an estimated $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance needs — may not have proper ventilation.

What is our responsibility to others in uncertain times?

Are we our sisters' and brothers' keeper?

Will anyone save me? Must I save myself?

This is our underground curriculum: to teach life and how to live it. It does not matter the class or material. World History. Chemistry. Welding. All can be in service to the greater lesson.

In the midst of desperate times, teachers have the most serious of jobs: to remind students of their immeasurable value and worth. To encourage, hearten and embolden. To, as Galway Kinnell writes, "reteach a thing its loveliness."

Now, more than ever.

"You can remind them that the only certainty is uncertainty," a friend told me recently.

The Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah said there are two kinds of suffering.

The suffering that leads to more suffering.

And the suffering that leads to wisdom.

This spring, there has been suffering.

Upon suffering.

Upon suffering.

As teachers, we can help our students find the most precious gift: the wisdom of how to respond.

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

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David Cook
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