What lessons matter the most?
As a high school English teacher, this question has certainly been at the forefront of my career since I first set foot in the classroom. Most years, I use this question to analyze exactly how much Shakespeare to teach, which grammar concepts matter the most, and what poems I’ll present to the students. In 2020, however, the question of what lessons mattered the most became an essential topic for more than just classroom educators. For as the pandemic raged and the education system was rocked at its core, the whole world started to battle with this question in an epic way.
What lessons matter the most? And what lessons matter the most during a pandemic?
I, like so many of us, don’t have the perfect answer. We’ve never had to think about education in a time like 2020 in our lifetime. However, the more I see parents, teachers, politicians, and students debating the matter, the more one word keeps coming to mind.
In a world that is so hard and so confusing, I think the most important lesson we can teach isn’t in a Shakespearean play (although one could argue the topic crops up in numerous works, but that’s a different discussion), a science textbook, or in a math equation. I think that in a world that is so bone-crushingly hard, the best we can do for our children is to teach them how to stand back up when they get knocked down, how to keep playing when all they want to do is quit.
Because as an adult, I’ve come to appreciate that life is hard. So. Damn. Hard.
And in 2020, as a collective whole, most of us realized this lesson first-hand. We lost jobs, we lost loved ones, we lost our sense of security and normalcy. We arguably lost some freedoms, and we lost the predictability we’d grown accustomed to. Many of us got knocked down, and then got knocked down again.
But here’s the thing—even before 2020, life was hard. So. Damn. Hard.
Because for all of us, at some point in life, we face events that knock us down. We lose jobs or loved ones. We lose our sense of purpose. We lose our sense of peace in a world that often feels like an endless to-do list. We suffer from failures and disappointments. We are betrayed by others. We fail ourselves. In short, we all wake up at some point in our lives and just don’t feel like getting back up.
Yet, if we want to keep chasing our dreams, our destinies, our joy, we do get back up. We drag ourselves off the ground and we find a way to shake it off, to keep going. We keep fighting and chasing our ideas. Because somewhere along the line, we learned that concept so crucial in the adult world: a sense of resiliency.
For me, the lesson came from my father. When life got hard or a challenge presented itself that was impossible, he taught me to face it head on. He taught me not to wallow in pity or sadness. He taught me that crying didn’t solve any problems. With his somewhat tough-love mentality, he taught me to be strong even when I wanted to be weak. He taught me that those who want to succeed keep going even when they don’t want to or even think they can.
I’m not saying resiliency is a magic potion that can solve everything. I’m not even saying it should. There are very real problems we all face, and our youth in 2020 have certainly had to face their share. Mental health, trauma, loss—these are all topics that truly do deserve care, attention, and a helping hand. Children need to know that there are sometimes that “Suck it up, Buttercup,” is not an appropriate way to handle an issue. Sometimes, we all need to lean on someone. Sometimes, it is a helping hand that picks us up off the floor.
As teachers, parents, and mentors, though, that’s part of our job—we have to know how to balance the tightrope of giving nurture and of challenging children to rise to the occasion. It’s not an easy skill to hone, but it’s one that comes with time, experience, and our own share of setbacks. Because as adults, we come to learn that there won’t always be a hand reaching for you to help you back up. You have to find that helping hand within. You have to know how to motivate yourself, how to get yourself back on your feet sometimes.
To reference Taylor Swift’s Song “Peace,” we need to know when to push our children to “swing for the fences” and when to “sit with them in the trenches.”
I keep hearing so many talk about what a hard year it’s been and how we need to show grace and love during these times, especially to our children. I certainly can agree with that sentiment. However, in these trying times, I also think one of the gifts we can give the future generation is a sense of resiliency. In a trying time, how do you stand back up? How do you reclaim your dreams and guide your own future? How do you find the courage, the strength, the determination to keep getting back up even when it feels like the whole world has fallen apart? How do you find the motivation to keep on a path to your goals even when it feels like the whole world is at a standstill?
There is no perfect answer to this crisis. However, I think if we can at least use these trying times as a chance to show future generations exactly how strong the human spirit is and how strong our fight to achieve greatness is, perhaps at least we can come out of these times a little stronger as a society.
The truth is that every generation, every age has faced their own kind of hard. Life has always been hard. So damn hard. It will be hard again.
The best lesson, thus, we can teach our children, is how to keep going. How to face challenges with tenacity. How to say that yes, things are hard, but I’m going to keep trying anyway.
In five, ten, fifteen years, when we look back on 2020 with awe, disdain, and perhaps still anxiety, do we want to say we just survived? Or do we want to say that we found the resolve needed to stand back up and carry on with our destiny? Yes, we may have cried. We may have had days when we wanted to quit.
But we didn’t. We didn’t quit. We didn’t stop.
Instead, when life got tough, we found a way to be tougher, fiercer, than any setback hurled our way.
And that, perhaps, is a lesson our children can carry on long after the memory of 2020 has faded, a lesson the English teacher within me will begrudgingly admit is way more crucial than a quote from the bard himself.
In the end, I believe our children will be okay because they will hopefully see us, the adults in their lives, carrying on, keeping on, and fighting our way to the future we truly want and deserve.