Gratitude and the Secret Curriculum of the Heart

thank youMonday mornings are “family breakfast time” in my advisory. We sit around a table–me and ten junior boys–and we talk about grades, the weekend, cars, pro-wrestling, video games, football, and girl problems. None of them are friends. All of them struggle with some sort of behavioral, emotional, or academic issue. (The first day they walked in, they looked at me and said, “Did somebody seriously put us all in one room together?) But every Monday, they stride in, drop their bags, pull up a seat, and talk and laugh over something delish. It is one of my favorite times of the week. During the rest of the week, they get caught up on work, chunk projects, avoid eye contact, skip out to use the bathroom and end up in the gym or the cafeteria, and generally get nagged to death by me, which often results in exhaustive verbal combat and ensuing detentions. Collectively, they are the most tumultuously terrible and significantly beautiful part of every day.

Today was our Thanksgiving breakfast. I made them a vat of apple crisp and as I scooped it out for them, I told them that last week I lost a dear man in my life who had been a father figure to me. They quietly listened and offered their sorries. Considering in this group, we have had to lay down rules like no tabletop yoga or public conversations about masturbation, I was proud to see they knew the conventions of mourning. But today I wanted them to know more: I never got to thank him for being what my own father never was. And what I want you to know–is that we’ve all got crap handed to us here at this table. But there is somebody who has been there for you. And there is a time limit on gratitude. Time does run out. I then handed them some blank thank you notes. Today, I want you to say thank you to somebody in your life. Who has gone that extra mile? Who do you know has your back? It’s Thanksgiving. So give thanks.

I wasn’t sure how they would handle this outright cheesiness. I had even texted my best friend in the morning and said, “This is what I’m doing. I hope they don’t riot.”

But ten boys. Ten 16 and 17 year old boys who have sworn at me. Skipped classes. Served in-school suspensions. Failed entire courses twice. Ten boys in low-riding pants. Carhartts. Shiny new sneakers. Work boots. Ten boys who regularly tell me I annoy the hell out of them. Shrug me off. Tell me they’re fine. Pout. They all sat and put pen to paper and poured gratitude into their letters. Some wrote two. One asked me to deliver it to his coach.  One sketched a beautiful picture. One moved to a separate table and intently poured over it. They did not riot or boycott or laugh it off. They put their heads down low to the table, and silently put. pen. to. paper.

After class, I discovered that three of them had quietly slipped notes onto my desk, thanking me.

And here is what I remembered in that moment: as teachers, we must carry a secret curriculum of the heart. It cannot always be about standards and assessments and competencies. Sometimes it has to be about finding the good in our most challenging kids and showing them the value they have in this world. It is about letting them know that what they  say and dream and think and love is important and respected. That when they stop and create goodness, they are cherished. And that when they show gratitude for the small glimpses of joy others have brought to them, they are choosing to live a life of happiness. And this–knowing that they are in control of their own happiness? This is the most important thing a group of teenage boys could possibly learn.

So as we head into the Thanksgiving weekend and behaviors escalate at the delicious lure of a four or five day weekend, hold tight to those kids and remember that the essay or the math test or the presentation may not be the most important thing for them right now. But their hearts? Those are always important–and should always be at the forefront of our daily practice.

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Teaching in a Hurting World: Between Despair and Apathy

later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? // it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere. ~Warsan Shire

I was sixteen years old, sitting in my eleventh grade English class, when my teacher handed us a stack of newspapers plastered with bold headlines perched above photographs of Bosnian atrocities. We sat in silence and skimmed the articles, a heaviness stretching over us. We were the generation who never knew war—we were born at the end of Viet Nam, and we had yet to get entangled with Iraq. And here he was, thrusting our first exposure to the monstrosities of war in our naive faces.

“So what can you do?” he asked, and we sat there in silence. Nobody said a word. “Can you stop this?”  More silence. “Can you donate enough money to help every person in need? Can you go and take care of those injured? Can you meet with leaders and ask them to rethink their decisions? Really, is there anything you can do to save Bosnia?”

A wave of helplessness washed over me. I set the paper down and decided not to look at it any longer. There was nothing I could do, and so there was no need to know any more. Glancing around the classroom, I witnessed the same resignation wash over my classmates’ faces.

But then he stopped pacing and his voice softened. “You cannot save the world. You cannot stop terrible forces in action single-handedly. But you can stay aware of what is going on—that is your responsibility.  And to speak up for what you believe? That is your responsibility, too. And then, in your own corner of the world, you can promise to never commit any act so heinous. You can be kind. You can give. You can help the person next to you. You will never be able to change the world for everyone, but you can change the world for someone. And even if you only make a difference for one person, you have done a necessary job, because someday, perhaps, that person will do the same.”

I am reminded of his words during long, heavy-hearted weeks like this where too much war, too many guns, and too much hateful and derisive rhetoric compound personal loss, student hardship, and the never-ending dreary gray of early December. If we try to contend with the emotions that arise during every update, the weight of the world encases itself in the amber of our existence and laughter feels frivolous. And yet, to ignore it and bury our heads is reprehensibly irresponsible.

As educators, we are often unsure of how to navigate the intangible space between despair and apathy during difficult times.

Whenever I grapple with owning the woes of the world, I am transported back to Room 210 with Mr. Coverdale and I remember his kind words and I remember that he changed my world. He took this poor, aimless girl and catapulted her into a career to mirror his own through his kindness, laughter, and caring. And I remember his words: If you only make a difference for one person, you have done a necessary job, because someday, perhaps, that person will do the same.

And so dear colleagues, yes. We are teaching, immersed in a world that aches. We cannot shut our eyes to the terribleness that gets turned over and over in the news each night like a pile of composting leaves. We must always speak out against the heartache and injustice that plague our children’s futures, and we must listen to their fears and assuage their concerns. But we also have to teach from a place of joy and gratitude, showing our students that even in horrendous moments, there are glimpses of beauty in this world, and we need to remind them that they are often that beauty. We cannot fall into despair; nor can we be lured into apathy. Instead, we must hope that the intentional work we undertake each day makes a difference for one student. We must know that as the world grieves under its blanket of pain, our work is most important now.