My husband was the inadvertent poster child for perseverance that night. He piloted us through three hours safely. Throughout the drive I could hear my granddaughter shouting at me, “Perseverance is not my best virtue!” During the summer I’d urged her to summon that excellence and keep swimming towards me across what to her seemed an impossibly long stretch of bay. She made it. A short swim. Like our short drive.
But now the real work of perseverance begins for so many. Starting from scratch. Rebuilding. Summoning reserves of resolve, diligence, and hope. Staying focused for the long haul as we work to restore homes, businesses, and lives. It’s hard to persevere when life has become a mucky slog, rather than a terrifying adventure.
For many, it’s about waiting an hour in their overheated cars in ninety degree weather as they queue up for food. Yesterday, in one part of Naples, Our Daily Bread, Al’s Pals, and the Salvation Army gave out more than 300 free meals, bags of food, and grocery store gift certificates for families ranging from two to ten people. Families who’d lost their homes, their livelihoods. Many of them had English as their second language. The lines stretched out the high school parking lot and moved at a snail’s pace. But people waited and received with gratitude and good grace.
I have had stellar examples of perseverance in my life. My mother was a prisoner of war during World War II, and for three years endured captivity, disease, cruelty, and starvation in a Japanese internment camp in Manila. She was full of stories about enduring and outwitting hunger (she kept a recipe book) and boredom (though study and shows), surviving diphtheria and beriberi, and occasionally outwitting their captors. She weighed ninety pounds when liberated and stood 5’4.
In 2015 I attended a seventieth anniversary event for the liberation of the camp, and a high school student asked one of the surviving internees (then in her late 80s) whether she or others had been tempted to suicide in the face of such a struggle. The girl admitted that she herself sometimes had suicidal thoughts and had endured no such tragedy. Mrs. Bennett looked surprised at the question. “No, no, we didn’t,” she said. “I don’t know anyone who thought of suicide. We had each other and we never lost hope. We knew, we just knew our boys would come and liberate us.” And they did.
Perseverance is not a flashy virtue. It's about putting one foot in front of the other again and again -- hour after hour, day after day, and sometimes year after year. But, as Joan Bennett reminded us, perseverance is closely related to hope. And friends along the way. Barry had the hope of finding his family and the companionship of Cruz. Internees had the hope of freedom and the unfailing support of each other. The Hispanic and Haitian-born Naples needy have the perennial hope of the American dream, a better life in this new country they’ve adopted, and they’ve got the help of each other, along with volunteers and organizations who roll up their sleeves and say “we’re all in this together.” So, to quote a sage, “let us persevere in running the race that lies before us.”
Mary Beth Klee
To contribute to Florida disaster relief, your help is needed at https://www.volunteerflorida.org/donatefdf/
At this point teachers and children are fully immersed in their academic labors, but it’s hard, isn’t it? The golden light of summer still surrounds us. Weekends permit last, longed-for visits to the beach. Sunsets come earlier and evenings are cooler, but our hearts still leap as those orange, purple, and amber rays tint the water’s edge.
Every September I marvel at the wisdom of our “Labor Day” holiday as the first Monday of September. In Europe and most other parts of the world, the holiday is celebrated on May 1, a time when the world’s working population is getting ready to frolic. Spring is in the air; summer will soon arrive and vacation allow them respite. In the U.S. alone, we place that holiday with its cookouts and picnics just before we start to labor in earnest: September.
Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor who lobbied for the establishment of the federal holiday reminded us that “it differs essentially from some of the other holidays of the year in that it glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man,” but instead, celebrates hard work and human dignity, promotes “a nobler manhood, womanhood, and childhood, which may look forward to the day of deliverance from absurd economic conditions and cruel burdens.”
In the century since the holiday’s inception, Americans have broadened the significance of Labor Day to include not simply organized labor but the dignity of all labor. September itself, as any teacher can tell you, is hard work. It is the daily demand of the alarm clock, the lesson plans prepared, the notebooks and schoolbooks ready to go, the lunch packed before you walk out the door. It is eight hours of leading a charge, confronting the expected and unexpected. It is busy and buzzing concentration in class, exuberant shouts, strides, and races on the playground. It is meeting fretful parents in the parking lot. It is exhausting… It is exhilarating. It is labor.
Established in 1894 by Grover Cleveland’s administration, Labor Day came at a time when working conditions in steel factories, coal mines, and railyards were abysmal. Yet Gompers declared “our labor movement has no system to crush. It has nothing to overturn. It purposes to build up, to develop, to rejuvenate humanity.” (NY Times, Sep 4, 1910) He envisioned that progress through the work of unions, which advocated for an eight hour day, restrictions on child labor, wage security, safer working conditions and much more.
How does it build us up – develop and rejuvenate our humanity? In this post-pandemic September, I suspect that most teachers have their answer right in front of them. The children are thrilled to be back to in person learning, so excited to be together, with their new and old friends, with their teachers, with real people and real purpose all around them. There is still anxiety: are we past this Covid thing? But there is no question that our labors are contributing to student wellbeing, growth and recently rediscovered social humanity. We are back to rejuvenating humanity.
And as for the children, it is worth letting them know that their labors are honored and important—that their efforts contribute to building a better world. Because they certainly do labor: September is remembering to do homework, having mom wake them up way too early, packing the homework as well as schoolbooks, recalling the lunch, getting to the bus stop on time, and then re-immersing themselves in all those class demands and rules – among them respect for their classmates and responsibility for the shared experience of school community life. Respect, responsibility, friendship – the great labors of September.
We’re standing on a new shore. Hopefully, rested from our leisure and fortified by one last trip to the beach, we’re ready to dive right in.
Mary Beth Klee
NB: Our Core Virtues website features many books on the Labor Day tab that speak to the dignity of labor – and especially how children have helped to build our country.
To the extent that children themselves want to become helpers, encourage responsible ways to assist. Children in one school in Maryland are writing letters to children in a sister school in the western Ukraine, electronic letters of support, assuring them of their friendship and sympathy, telling them about their days, sending their thoughts and prayers. They are offering a branch of compassion and friendship and normalcy in a time of chaos.
Point out to kids that acts of great evil, cruelty, and harm, often elicit the best from others: new depths of compassion and mercy. One thinks of the American experience of 9-11, and all those who raced to assist. (See our September 9-11 Heroes.) Right now, Poland has opened its borders to nearly 800,000 refugees, and not passively. Tens of thousands of volunteers from around that country and the world – people who did not know each other before March 1-- have come to that border to assist. And they can use our assistance.
If a school wishes to raise funds to help the 400,000 endangered children, international relief efforts are mobilizing. Doctors Without Borders already has medical teams on the ground. The UN World Food Program has organized for Ukrainian Emergency relief. Caritas Ukraine, which is supported by Catholic Relief Services, and Save the Children are also on site already with medical supplies, food, water, and refugee support. The appropriately named “Mercy Chefs” are sending food relief to Romanian and Polish border camps.
All these efforts will be make-shift and provisional, as we hope and pray for a miracle that saves the weaker nation from the stronger. The international community is ultimately on the hook. “Faithfulness is standing by those we love, those we serve, and what we believe.” Will we?
Mary Beth Klee
Since this blog was posted two weeks ago, more than three million refugees have fled Ukraine during an unabated Russian attack.
“I think America has come further in giving opportunity to the best that’s in human nature than any other country ever in history, and we seem to be holding on for over 200 years already. We’ve greatly improved the inequalities and the shortcomings of our way of life as we’ve moved forward.” He didn’t end there. “One of the things I feel is that we are a country of good people. We are a country of well-meaning, hard-working, conscientious people — 90% of us. And we are blessed with progress in a number of fields today, the likes of which no people on Earth have ever enjoyed in all of history.” He pointed to progress in medicine, in the opportunity for education, and in the quest for equality itself. America is a can-do nation, and as long as we educate our children in the nation’s stories, “I am optimistic,” said he.
The key is to educate our children in the nation’s stories. Martin Luther King Jr. knew them and loved them, and it made him a powerful agent for change. “History is an antidote to the hubris of the present. History should be a lesson that produces immense gratitude for all those who went before us." When McCullough points out that “there are still more public libraries in this country than Starbucks,” he affirms his fundamental optimism about the American experiment.
We still have lots to be optimistic about. In the past three weeks my husband and I have been traveling by car up and down the east coast – “all come to look for America.” If you travel from Anne Hutchinson’s Portsmouth, Rhode Island to the Founders’ Philadelphia to the Wright Brothers’ Kitty Hawk, then on to guess who’s Jacksonville, and come back through George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, you’ll be mightily impressed too. Of course, you’ll be impressed by the stories of all those titans of the American past, but not incidentally by the people you meet working in each location in each city each day.
Americans of all races, genders, and ethnicities are ploughing ahead (like Washington at Mount Vernon) with pretty good humor. They’re keeping their heads down as we close out this pandemic, and they’re fed up with restrictions. But everywhere you go, one meets hard-working, conscientious, decent, and fundamentally positive people, who truly live out the ideals of liberty and justice for all.
The African American manager at the Hampton Inn in Alexandria, Virginia—when I told him I was from Rhode Island—pointed out to my delight that we were practically family because his aunt was from Rhode Island too, and wasn’t it great that Viola Davis got her start there? I practically hugged him. (But then again, there was an acrylic placard between us.) Still, our nation’s Home Away from Home (the Hampton Inn in Asheville NC), neatly sums up the national creed on the placard in its halls: “Today is going to be amazing!” Ya gotta love it.
Go ahead and teach the kids: love your country. Do something for your country.
Mary Beth Klee
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.