As we begin this week, the season of Advent, followed quickly on its heels by the Christmas season, I am reminded that these are to be times of peace. “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” as the evangelist wrote. We need that always, of course, but especially just now.
One of the jobs of a school superintendent is to keep the peace in a school community. Not in the way that law enforcement does and certainly not at the expense of more important jobs like student well-being and student achievement but the goal is important nonetheless. Finding the compromises that keep all aspects of a community together in the pursuit of the education of its children is necessary and vital.
Which is why I have found so painful the recent (can something be both recent and seemingly never-ending?) controversy over mask mandates and other school measures designed to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In my career, I have superintended over school building closures, school district closures, school reorganizations, bond issues, opt-outs, employee terminations, and any number of other controversies. During such times, tempers flare, nerves rise to the surface, patience vanishes, and the bonds of decades-old relationships shatter.
The resulting collateral damage makes any school administrator think long and hard before pursuing such measures even when they are so important to the future success of the school district and the children it serves. Nobody wants a Pyrrhic victory or, even worse, a Pyrrhic loss.
But during all those past pitched battles, I have never seen the kind of negative reactions and hard feelings on both sides as I have seen with the requirement to wear masks and take some of the other measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
I want to say we have done so completely out of proportion to the stakes involved but that probably isn’t, or least might not be, true. Those advocating for and passing mask mandates have done so because they literally believe it will save lives. Those opposing them have done so for a number of reasons, one of which is their perception of government overreach, a trampling of the civil rights of the people and the people’s children. Endangering lives and violating freedoms are not trivial issues. Thus, it is not surprising that emotions have run high.
We, as human beings and Americans, would betray our humanity and our heritage if we did actively engage with these issues.
Hopefully, in the coming weeks and months, a combination of vaccinations and herd immunity will result in the end of the pandemic and, with it, the end of mask mandates, hand sanitizer flowing like Yellowstone geysers, Plexiglas barriers evoking visiting day at the local pokey, and social distancing keeping us from embracing our grandchildren and other loved ones. Masks by the millions will be discarded and create palpable tiers in landfills across the country. Barriers will be shelved with a prayer that they will never be needed again, but kept in storage just in case. We will visit the graves of friends and family members who perished but whose funeral we could not perhaps attend due to social restrictions. These will all constitute the reminders, the scars even, of COVID-19.
But the scar I hope will heal, and heal quickly, will be the animosity we feel toward those on the other side. For it is that ill-feeling which will leave us distant from others, unwilling to work with others, perhaps permanently disliking, even hating others.
For that, besides time and mortality, there is only one remedy: forgiveness. Once all of this is in the past, if we truly don’t want it to leave behind one very nasty, very unnecessary legacy, we will have to forgive those who opposed us and those who lashed out at us. This is not to say that we suddenly agree with our opponents or forget what happened — that may be beyond human capacity — but rather that we forgive them anyway. And they forgive us … anyway.
That forgiveness may be the only way we can reach the peace we desire for the coming season and many seasons beyond.