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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Cafeteria workers, teachers and other staff wait to pass out meals at East Brainerd Elementary School on Friday, March 20, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Hamilton County Schools have provided different options, including helping to prepare and deliver student meals, to ensure their classified and hourly staff continue to get paid while schools are closed amid the coronavirus crisis.

Years ago, a friend was teaching elementary school in North Georgia. Many nights, she'd stay late, well past dark, 9 p.m. even, getting her classroom ready for the next day. Often, dinner was Sonic drive-thru on the way home.

One night, a noise at her window.

Tap, tap, tap.

It was the mother of one of her students. She lived nearby, had probably seen the lights on. In her hands, a paper plate, an extra helping of dinner — chicken, green beans, chocolate brownies.

This is for you, she said, handing it through the open window.

She did this again and again and again.

"I have never felt more appreciated or valued. This mother acknowledged my sacrifice," she said. "She did not let me go home hungry. My heart and belly were always full."

The school year has been perhaps the most difficult of any school year in Hamilton County history. It has been a year of many dark nights.

What are we feeding our teachers?

Last year, through the open window, 2020 brought chronic stress, illness, anxiety, fear of death, anger, grief, loss and confusion.

Educators were and are starving. Depleted. Burnt out, worn down.

"How often I've wanted to walk away this year," said Kendra Young, beloved science teacher at East Hamilton. "I've dreamed about walking away this year."

This week, it gets worse.

Standardized testing begins Monday in Hamilton County schools, but I'm not sure why. Whatever measurements come from such tests must be viewed in a vacuum, the tainted fruits of the most bitter of years.

How will we use these test scores? What is our comparison? Test scores from the Spanish Flu?

Teachers just successfully taught a year of school during a pandemic.

Isn't that enough?

Me? I'm still spinning. The pandemic may be winding down, but the centrifugal force of 2020 has my nervous system jarred, hungover, jet-lagged.

Every day in the classroom felt like three.

I don't want to move on. Don't want to talk about normal. I want to figure out how the hell to process what's happened.

"We need to sit shiva," one friend said.

Or wear black. Or burn fires each night. Or a month of silence.

Somebody please talk to us about what we've been through.

"We tried hard to meet the same academic rigor as in 'normal' years, even though there was a constant tug of war between student mental and emotional health and teacher mental-emotional health and everyone's physical health. It was defeating in so many ways," Young said.

Hamilton County teachers need to hear one thing above all else.

You did enough.

You were good enough.

You held your classroom together with kindness, rigor, a bit of humor and a straight face despite, on the inside, everything falling apart.

It ... was ... enough.

"Teachers have given so much ... more than ever," Young said.

All while facing more challenges than ever.

"The lack of support, training and resources. Equitable pay. A reasonable work day. Support with curriculum and interventions. Not to mention child hunger, emotional and psychological supports. And then, the struggle to close learning gap. I've said it for years. I don't mind to sweep the floor. But don't demand that I sweep then refuse to give me a broom," she said.

Parents? Grandparents?

You need to hear these same words.

You, too, did enough.

Yes, our kids and grandkids lost out on so, so much. We have cried, worried, waited at 3 a.m. for the dawn.

But who was their rock? Their refuge?

You. Us.

We did it. We survived.

No, we endured.

In "Boundless Heart," Christina Feldman writes of a painting of a mother on the shore, crying in despair as her child falls into the rushing waters.

"In the painting, the mother has no arms," Feldman writes.

Is this not the helplessness of life?

And yet, all around us, other arms appeared, reaching in the waters to save, comfort and love our children for us.

We are not alone.

Tap, tap, tap.

I save my final words for students.

This past year? It was like an extra class on your schedule. Suffering 101, taught by COVID-19.

I know this is not the school year you wanted. You missed out on so, so much.

But you kept breathing, moving forward, enduring.

You have become strong in ways you don't yet know. Yours, a great generation.

Life will bring many things to your window. Some easy to swallow, but others? They will bring you to your knees.

But don't you see?

The test has already happened.

And you passed.

Oh, how you passed.

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

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