“Hug a teacher today.”

We’ve seen these words on Internet memes and banners hanging from the walls of schools.

We’ve heard them spoken on news programs and by politicians.

It is a nice sentiment and certainly many parents of schoolchildren will oblige.

But our debt to teachers extends far beyond this simple expression of gratitude.

As the daughter and granddaughter of elementary school teachers, the sister of an early-childhood educator and a former preschool teacher myself, I know that there is so much more that we need to do to honor the men and women who devote their lives to teaching, counseling, mentoring and yes, protecting our nation’s most precious resource.

And that debt we owe is not merely symbolic.

Why does it take a tragedy of unfathomable magnitude for us to recognize the worth and sacrifice of our nation’s teachers?

That, in and of itself, is a tragedy.

I spoke with my mother earlier this week.

She was in tears after hearing our president read the names of the 20 children who lost their lives in the most horrific manner possible.

These were children the same age as those she teaches.

She told me that she wasn’t sure if she would be brave enough to do what those teachers at Sandy Hook did on Friday morning.

Those teachers who gave up their lives protecting the innocent souls in their charge, in some cases acting as human shields and facing certain death, to try to save as many young lives as possible.

But I know.

I know that if, God forbid, this tragedy had unfolded in my mother’s first grade classroom, she would be among those for whom communities across the country would be grieving today.

My mother is the most selfless person I have ever met, but she is not unique in that regard.

Selflessness is what defines the character of the men and women who choose this difficult, rewarding, exhausting, often thankless career path.

Sadly, once this tragedy has become a distant memory for all those not directly affected, the slow but steady creep of criticism and condemnation will begin anew.

We will once again hear calls for the dissolution of teachers’ unions, for cuts in funding to public schools, for reduction in teacher pay and benefit packages.

We will once again see teachers painted as glorified babysitters, who enjoy short work days and long vacations.

They won’t tell us that those teachers arrive at school in the morning long before your children do and that they stay into the evening hours grading papers and writing lesson plans.

They won’t tell us that those teachers spend their own hard-earned money on supplies for their classrooms.

They won’t tell us that far too many teachers have to supplement their often meager income with second jobs.

They won’t tell us that instead of enjoying lavish vacations, many teachers will spend their summers working at grocery stores and summer camps, shopping malls and movie theaters.

They won’t tell us that those teachers will take classes to further their own education, usually on their own dime.

What they will tell us is that we need “shared sacrifice” in these trying economic times, while continuing to insist that we not touch the astronomical fortunes of the so-called “job creators” who have enjoyed years of tax breaks and have yet to create jobs.

This has to stop.

We can no longer abide this treatment of our nation’s educators.

It is long past time that we afford teachers the respect, the honor and the compensation that they so deserve.

So, yes, hug a teacher today.

But tomorrow, do something more.

Contact your legislators and demand that they support tax increases on the wealthy so our country’s debts are not borne on the backs of those who have already sacrificed so much.

Tell them to stop scapegoating teachers’ unions.

Tell them to stop trying to dismantle the Department of Education.

Tell them to stop condemning those who have chosen this noblest of professions.

If Friday’s massacre taught us nothing else, it taught us that our teachers would do literally anything for your children, including give up their own lives.

Think about what that means to you and take action.

– Special to the Press Herald