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Knaak: Lesson (finally) learned


It’s one of those memories … clear as day in my mind, like it happened yesterday, not, ahem, a few decades ago.

Standing before the class, short dark hair, and a wide red-lipsticked smile, Mrs. Marriott saying in her sometimes sing-song cadence, “Students, today is the first day of the rest of your life!”

And my snarky teenage brain silently responding … “Well, duh!”

She would say it at least once a week, but usually more often. Sometimes, it would just be a random Tuesday greeting. More likely, it was when the majority of the class had tanked on a test. She would smile big and say, “But today! TODAY is the first day of the rest of your life!” as she would try to fire up a class full of surly teens to face their bad score, and try to do better. Lately, I’ve been thinking about her words a lot. On mornings when I wake up feeling already tired. Already defeated. At this point, I think everyone has had days like this. Feeling unsure of our employments. Anxious about how isolation is affecting our families, and our own mental health. Feeling less sure of the future than we ever thought possible. I thought post-9/11 was bad. And it was — it was unsettling and polarizing and forever changed air travel. But I didn’t have to wash all my groceries as I brought them home. I made sure I had my wallet with me, and my cellphone in case of some type of emergency call. But I didn’t need a mask to go, well, ANYwhere. I thought post ’08-Recession was bad. And it was — retail and real estate dropped, the stock market tanked, millions of people were negatively affected. But I didn’t have to worry about hugging a co-worker who was upset. I didn’t worry if sending my child to school was an ethical decision.

It feels futile to make plans, when it seems the rules and societal expectations can change in a flash.”

And I have to admit it doesn’t help, knowing that during quarantine, Shakespeare wrote one of his deepest, most impactful tragic plays, “King Lear,” and Taylor Swift wrote, produced and released her most recent, highly acclaimed album “Folklore.” I see stories on the news about amazingly organized and motivated people who have started food distribution programs, virtual friend sessions for lonely and isolated seniors in assisted-living, restaurants donating their services to feed front-line workers. And I’m struggling with wondering what to make my family for dinner with the random items in my pantry and freezer, because “running to the store for just a few things” isn’t really a thing anymore. Some days, the more I see other people accomplish, the less I feel able to contribute. And I can go days without showering. Weeks without exercising. My house is a wreck. The floor of the backseat of my car looks like a graveyard for plastic bottles and aluminum cans.

Nearly none of us were prepared for what COVID-19 would do to our lives. (I know there are a few doomsday preppers who have been ostensibly planning for this for some time, but I bet even some of them have been surprised.) The things we once felt were certain … aren’t. It feels futile to make plans, when it seems the rules and societal expectations can change in a flash. It seems silly to dust my bookshelves when I don’t think anyone is ever coming over to my house again. Ever. If I didn’t do it yesterday, why should I do it today? The apathy can be paralyzing.

And then I remember Mrs. Marriott. And I think, “OK, self. Yesterday … maybe wasn’t my most stellar. But that was then. Today – today is the first day of the rest of my life! Today I can do better.” And not every day is great. But, I always have the option to make “today” better than yesterday.

I know for most of us, our work lives have been negatively impacted to some extent. But few professions have faced the extreme changes and challenges that teachers have seen. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to go from a lively classroom of students, some engaged and some eating Doritos in the back, to a screen of vapid faces. To go from a bustling school, where they can watch their wards interact in the hallways, to the emptiness of their own home office. To have to re-learn how to teach, to pivot to a new format, new medium, new standard. And once in-person teaching began again this fall, to go from worrying about catching pink eye to be fearful they’ve contracted a potentially fatal illness that they might also pass onto their own family.

To all the teachers out there — you essential, front-line, wonderful workers, I thank you. I applaud you. And you may wonder if your words are getting through. If your students are learning what you’re hoping to teach them. Even in the best of years, this has to be something you ponder. Let me serve as the poster-child for “yes,” even if it might take a few years to really sink in. We might not all remember how to diagram a sentence, but we’ll remember the things you really wanted us to learn. I think about Mrs. Marriott every time I remember her words, and I’m grateful to her — for her dedication, her enthusiasm and her persistence. I don’t know how many thousands of students she impacted over her career, but I hope, like me, they smile fondly when remembering her. And I’m sure many of them can’t help but send a little prayer of thanks on dark days, when they take a deep breath, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, thinking … “Today. Today will be better.” Every day is a chance to start over, even Sunday, in the Park…

Jenny Knaak, guest columnist, is the daughter of Teri Orr, the customary author of “Sunday in The Park.”


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