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The day-after-Christmas pine needles find every corner of the living room. A fortress of wrapping paper, cardboard boxes, and tags-still-on presents create a maze through the house. Stacked dishes sit by the sink and empty wine bottles wait by the back door. Is it really over? Are we staring at the end of this challenging year?

Disparaging 2020 has become sport these days, and rightfully so. It's as if the universe played a big joke on us all, distorting our vision during the year that mimicked perfect sight. We lost so much. Anger swirled like an infinite hurricane. The economic pause gave many the permission they needed to halt good sense. The year probed our weaknesses, exacerbated family disagreements, and made volcanoes out of vulnerabilities.

But did we miss something?

I worked at a liquor store in college, one that was just a few blocks off campus. This location ensured an eclectic clientele with equal parts college students and professors, factory workers and bikers. All considered it the go-to spot to buy booze. My co-workers and I would spend hours building funny displays with the 12-packs of Busch Lite or the cases of Boone's Farm wine. Once, a professor came in and complimented an essay I had written, claiming it was sitting in the front seat of his car as he purchased his six-pack of St. Pauli Girl beer. Another time, a biker came in, asked for a discount and when one wasn't offered, he puckered his mouth to expose an obscenity tattooed to his inner bottom lip. Always interesting.

The store's night manager was by far the most intriguing of all. He was a stump, standing just over five feet tall, barely able to clasp his hands because of overly broad shoulders. His blond hair made a perfect bowl on his head, his teeth sporting a small Alfred E. Neuman gap. The manager laughed easily, deflecting customer complaints with his confidence and humor.

The night manager was a grave digger at the local cemetery by day. His hands were calloused and rough from working a combination of backhoe and shovel. A bright white T-shirt stood in contrast to jeans perpetually marked by dirty fingerprints. Every night he'd walk in carrying an old pizza box with a checkered board hand-drawn on top. Little plastic chess pieces jangled within it as he walked.

The manager routinely set up the homemade chessboard on the edge of the counter near the cash register. One of the first nights I worked with him, I listened as he explained to a customer that he was learning how to play chess. The customer, a college student, smirked. The manager claimed he was getting pretty good at it and would play the college student. If he lost, the beer was free. If he won, the student had to pay him $5. The college student, still smirking, threw a $5 bill on the counter.

The manager beat him in six moves. Without a word, the student picked up his sack of beer and left the store in a huff. The manager turned to me and winked. He wasn't new to chess at all. He was hustling. Time after time, customers came in and commented on the chessboard. The manager feigned ignorance, proposed a bet, and proceeded to beat the tar out of every single one.

My favorite college professor, the one who complimented my essay, came in one evening and took notice of the game on the counter. I tried to wave him off, catching his attention by shaking my head behind the manager. The professor cracked his knuckles and smiled, agreeing to play. The manager beat him in 10 minutes.

I caught up to the professor as he walked out the door, St. Pauli Girl six-pack in hand.

"Sorry about that, sir. I tried to warn you."

The professor smiled behind a bushy gray mustache. "Are you kidding? I needed that. Every once in a while you need someone to remind you that all is not as it appears. Best $5 I've spent in a long time."

As this troubling year comes to a close, I find myself thinking about that professor's words. We've lost so much in the last 12 months, suffered greatly in so many ways. But is the year all that it appeared?

Maybe we can recognize that within the year, many families found themselves once again. They turned from the overscheduled panic of life to meals at the table. Together. Teachers and students fought through the haze of technology to find the clarity of education. Together. Small businesses became curbside; customers became cheerleading supporters. Together. And though we disagreed, we persevered as a country. Together.

Forgoing the easy descriptors of appearances and digging deeper to put meaning behind events allows us to realize the simple significance, the simple truth, of where we are today. The last 12 months marinated in important lessons. And those lessons place our footsteps more firmly on the path forward.

Within those thoughts, it becomes clear. We're not staring at the end of this challenging year as if lying broken and bleeding, looking up at the cliff from which we have just fallen. No, our eyes do not focus on the past. Instead, we're looking to each other for support, to the heavens for guidance, to the horizon for the next challenge to overcome.

We're looking forward to the promise the new year brings. Together.

--ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“vā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“--

Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.

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