What is Essential?

The COVID-19 crisis has, in short order, reframed the way I view myself, my family, my community, my work, and my world. Although as of this writing no one in my family has been stricken with or died from the virus, several students and colleagues have lost family members. Several more will follow.

I’ve reached out to students to see how they’re doing, several of whom are likely not responding because they are dealing directly with this crisis in some way. Of those responding, one is working long hours at a grocery store, another is babysitting her brother while her mom works overtime at Amazon where someone recently tested positive, and another is being kept from his mother and grandmother who are in the hospital with Coronavirus.

As an educator married to another educator, I am acutely aware of how fortunate we are to be working from home and in good health. Although I am an advocate for public education, it is debatable whether my job is essential right now.

Which begs the question of what is actually essential: medical workers, first responders, police officers, grocers, delivery drivers, pharmacists. In the words of governor Whitmer, people who work in industries that “protect and sustain life.” Three weeks ago that list would have looked much longer: lawyers, investment bankers, pro athletes, filmmakers, YouTubers. No offense to any of those professions, but they are not essential right now. Valuable in many ways, yes. Essential? No.

What is essential is what we can’t live without.

So in the context of this national crisis, how might this change our students’ answer to the age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Might this be a chance to inspire our students not to pursue careers that earn the most money, but that are the most “essential?”

In a prophetic moment, a few weeks ago I polled our Eagle Scholars (graphic in the upper right) about potential career paths. I was stunned by the results: public service was the most popular response, over STEM, Business, the Arts, and Humanities.

Maybe this crisis will elevate farmers, small grocery store owners, nurses, first responders, police officers, and delivery drivers to a higher status. In short, jobs whose primary goal is not to profit from others, but to serve others, pandemic or not.

When we come out of this – and we will come out of this – perhaps it will have inspired a new generation driven not by rugged individualism but social responsibility.

I hope we’re all here to see it.

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