Welcome back to One Good Thing. Part do-gooder spotlight, part travelogue, part humor column, this series captures the journey of award-winning novelist and filmmaker Owen Egerton. You may recognize Egerton as one of the hosts of the Texas Optimism Project’s monthly podcast, The Good Newscast—an extension of what we hope to accomplish with One Good Thing.
I promised my kids that things would be back to normal by now.
This was in March when we presumed this isolation was a quick cul-de-sac, a slight detour in what would be an otherwise predictable year. I assured the kids we’d be past any lockdowns by the fall school semester.
I should explain, my kids are nerds and proud of it. While other children look forward to Christmas or their birthdays, mine shake with excitement at the anticipation of the first day of school. No splurge at the candy store or toy factory could equal the unbridled joy of school supply shopping. We head to the local Office Depot (that’s right, Office Depot. We don’t mess around) and the kids skip down the aisle like coyotes let loose on a hamster farm.
Check out the new three-ring binder designs!
Dad! It’s the protractor I’ve been saving up for all summer long!
When the first day of school arrives, Arden pulls on a black t-shirt with a Broadway quote so obscure it would lose Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Oscar finds a matching jacket and hat with more glitter than an Elton John-themed prom, and we’re off.
But, of course, this year is different. We bought our supplies online. We met our teachers over Zoom. On a bright August morning, we herded the kids outside, took a First Day of School picture, then ushered them back inside and to their laptops.
The day hit me hard. The school administrators and teachers are being brilliantly creative, and the technology is amazing. But I’m growing weary of looking on the bright side and I’ve traded in my rose-colored glasses for blue blocking lenses. Even for students returning to campuses, things were different. The “new normal” is no longer new and still not normal.
I want my kids running in hallways, passing notes, developing a crush on the person sitting in front of them inspired solely by the back of their neck. When are we on the other side of a pandemic? What’s the safest course of action? It’s all uncertain. And it is hard as hell to live in a state of uncertainty.
As the kids started classes, I eavesdropped and was once again amazed at the heart and humor of teachers. It reminded me of my favorite teacher.
Jessica Carpenter has been teaching for nearly two decades, most of the years with the Pflugerville, Texas Independent School District. I’ve never been in her classroom and she’s never assigned me homework, but Jessica teaches me more than she knows. She’s done so with smiles, laughter, and kindness.
Jessica knows about uncertainty. In 2016, Jessica was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. She was told to expect three months to two years. That was four years ago.
Optimism isn’t pretending adversities will just go away. Optimism is facing the hardship, acknowledging the pain and disappointment, and finding a path forward.
When the doctors told her she may die within the year, she still showed up to teach, to inspire, to give. Through a devastating regimen of chemotherapy, immunotherapy treatments, and occasional radiation she filled her classroom with smiles. Even when a world-wide pandemic forced schools to pivot to virtual classrooms, Jessica taught. She knows that the building is not the school and the classroom is not the class. Students and a teacher—that’s the heart of it; that’s the whole of it.
Jessica learned long before the lessons of 2020 that nothing is certain—not health, not the first day of school, not normality, not life. She could easily be bitter. She could be understandably enraged. And I imagine there are days when she is both. But what I’ve seen—what I’ve learned from this teacher—is radical gratitude, soul-giving kindness, good vibes, and a sharp eye for silver linings.
I promised my kids we’d be back to normal because part of me believed certainty was a kind of optimism. It’s not. Optimism isn’t pretending adversities will just go away. Optimism is facing the hardship, acknowledging the pain and disappointment, and finding a path forward. Jessica has outlived the doctor’s predictions and the statistics. She greets each morning with the breathtaking knowledge that this day is more than she was promised. This day is more than any of us are promised.
So my kids begin school this year from the living room couch. It is not ideal and it is also extraordinary. It is challenging and it is also wonderful. It is uncertain and it is life.
I am so very grateful.
Grateful for the schools who create learning spaces in buildings and pages and Zoom rooms.
Grateful for students boldly reading a book report into a laptop camera or smiling at a crush through a face mask.
Grateful for educators like Jessica who teach with their words, smiles, and lives to their students, families, and friends.
Post Note: After writing this, I learned that Jessica passed away on September 10th, peacefully with her husband by her side. Thank you, Jessica, for your dedication to teaching and giving and shining. Thank you for your bold, beautiful soul.
Illustration by Mark Conlan.