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.
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