This morning as I drove to town, I passed a couple of workers shoveling tar onto the street, smoothing it, and doing the hard labor to make Highway 377 a more pleasant place to drive. And I wondered if those guys ever get the true recognition they deserve. Without them, we’d be living with permanent potholes. That’s when it occurred to me . . . these guys are the reason we celebrate Labor Day! It’s not just about BBQ and one last hoorah on the lake. It’s about commending the American worker for services provided. It’s about praising them for long, exhausting days that help make our country—despite its shortcomings—the best place in the world.

When I was a kid, Labor Day meant the day before I went back to school and, according to my mother, the last day I was allowed to wear white shoes until Easter. It meant cookouts and Frisbee and frozen watermelon slushes, or performing with my drill team in the local parade. I enjoyed the day, but I didn’t get it. Somehow, I missed the reason for the celebration.

But I get it now. In hindsight, I remember my dad, a firefighter, coming in exhausted after a long night. Sometimes he smelled like smoke, and he’d have this faraway look in his eyes, and I knew he’d been through some things he didn’t really want to talk about. I remember him taking extra jobs, directing traffic, standing on the hot Houston pavement in July, just so he could pay my college tuition.

I remember my mom, who worked oh-so-long hours as a school secretary and used nail polish to patch the runs in her panty hose, because payday wasn’t for another week and we needed money for my school choir uniform. I remember the teachers in my school lugging two-ton totes home each night, because the final bell didn’t mean the end of their workday. I think of my husband, who has faithfully taught school for many decades, and who works extra jobs in the summers.

My entire life, I’ve been surrounded by people who work long, hard, back-throbbing, muscle-aching schedules to make life better for the people they care about. They are the embodiment of the American spirit and the reason the American dream is possible. Because with diligence and a can-do attitude, bridges are built. Roads are smoothed. And college educations are paid for.

You see, the American dream is rarely attained through daydreaming alone. It’s a tough-earned victory, won when those dreams are combined with grit, sweat, and tenacity.

Hard work gives us a sense of pride and accomplishment. The rewards of our labor, whether a paycheck or a completed project, tell us we have value and worth. That’s why our forefathers created Labor Day in the late 1800’s, and made it a national holiday. It’s a way to say, We see you. We appreciate you. We wouldn’t be nearly as great without you. So this Monday, between all the picnics and parades, don’t forget to find a hard worker in your life, and say thanks.