I watch my nearly 16-year-old twin sons and their three- or four-hundred fellow students pour out the doors of the high school they attend. My mind goes back to my own high school days a very long time ago.
A lot is different. No backpacks back then or phones or cool sweatshirts or yoga pants or these damn masks, but much seems familiar. The laughing and flirting and cajoling and teasing; nice cars and beaters; happy kids, sullen kids. Couples holding hands, couples longing to hold hands. Kids with big instrument cases and large art portfolios and dangling lunch boxes and the like.
Sometimes, a teacher or the principal is outside wishing them well whether the students want well-wishing or not. It is one of those teachers that sends my mind back to my own school days in rural Ohio.
Mr. Funk (name changed, because, well, you know — unless I didn’t because Funk is such a great name) was our high school’s head football coach. He also taught, poorly, algebra or something. He always had an unlit cheap cigar in his mouth, using it more as a tobacco plug than something to be smoked. He was a better coach than he was a teacher. I liked him. He cussed better than anyone I’d met up until that point.
Many years after I left those halcyon halls, I attended a reunion and a few of the teachers were there. Mr. Funk and I got to talking. He recalled me quitting the varsity football team my senior year because I couldn’t be on the team and in the fall production of Our Town (in which I been cast as The Stage Manager, a choice role).
He said to me at the time, “Gimme one good goddamned reason why you want to do that the-A-ter crap and not play football for me this fall.” My answer, “There are girls there.” That pretty much shut him up. He turned away and slammed his office door.
He revealed to me at the reunion that he didn’t turn in anger. He thought my response was very funny and didn’t want to laugh in front of me. “That was the best goddamned reason you could have given me,” he admitted.
He revealed something else that evening: that he was a veteran of World War II. He’d been a gunner in a tank company that fought across Europe and was a major factor in the Battle of the Bulge. In fact, he told me, many of my teachers, both men and women, were veterans.
I was gobsmacked. It simply hadn’t occurred to me. Mrs. Smith had flown bombers to England, Mr. Sharp was a Navy gunner, and so on. I had no idea.
I asked him why we never knew that. Mr. Funk said they were just doing their job, and, importantly, that they were all just civilians now, plain ol’ citizens.
As I watch those students streaming out the double doors today, I am struck with that notion: What I am looking at are citizens. What I am seeing are almost adults “doing their job” participating in a nation, parts of a grand scheme — as we all are. I know I am looking at engineers and designers, scientists and mechanics, doctors and teachers, lawyers and cooks, military personnel and carpenters — citizens all.
I hear the word “heroes” a lot these days, to the point where it almost devalues the word. It seems everyone is a hero. You know the list: front-line health care workers, grocery clerks, delivery drivers, law enforcement men and women, parents and so many more. But here’s the thing. I believe most of those folks would echo Mr. Funk. They are just doing their job.
And that, friends, is what I see every weekday as I wait in that lot. Citizens doing their job. These young men and women, and so many like them, go to school or work from home, and they get the job — the job that we expect of them as citizens — done. All this quarantining, the masking, the canceled shows and performances, the tournaments unattended, the first-grade art show and middle-school recorder recitals gone, for now, all of these things that make a school year a bit more tolerable are currently unavailable. And yet they, if you will, soldier on.
I am, sadly, aware of the struggles many children and young adults suffer these days. I know teen suicide rates are up as are eating disorders and dropout rates. Self-mutilation is on the rise. Depression and anxiety are affecting more kids than at any other time in the past. I know parents are facing incredible difficulties as well. Frankly, the whole situation sucks. I probably could have opened with this paragraph and painted a terribly tragic picture of the state of education in this pandemic age.
But, you know what, I deal in hope, and I have plenty of it. When we do what is asked of us as a citizenry — masking, hand washing, distancing and showing compassion to others — we win wars. We solve complex social problems. We feed the hungry. And, we beat pandemics. We harbor hope.
I’ve read more than one article about our kids in schools that elevates them to the status of heroes. I guess you could say that. But most heroes don’t feel they are that. Most feel they are just doing their job.
Finally, I’ll add this. When we get through this national crisis — and we will — we are going to have a crop of hardworking, problem solving, resilient young adults ready to take on the world. Citizens all, they will be ready to help this great country move forward in hope and compassion, in duty and honor. I see them every day. They’re great kids. They are our future and our greatest hope.
About the author
Bill Peebles left a 30-year career in the restaurant business to become a stay-at-home dad to twin boys. He writes a blog, I Hope I Win a Toaster, that makes little sense. He coaches sometimes, volunteers at the schools, plays guitar, and is a damn good homemaker. He believes in hope, dreams, and love … but not computers.