(More) Gratitude Lessons

Other than my photo project, I’ve been silent here recently… partially from a lack of time and a lack of inspiration, but mostly due to a lack of perspective. This school year has been rough. I am teaching at a fantastic school and doing a job I enjoy, and with enough experience under my belt that I occasionally even feel like I am doing a good job. On an intellectual level I don’t have any reason to complain, but I have felt awfully whiny about elements of my life that I thought I had accepted already. Never enough time, never enough money, never enough energy for anything but work.

Now it is Christmas break and with some time to breathe comes some time and space for an adjustment of perspective.


A couple of Fridays ago, I was in my 1st grade class – my kiddos who are tiny and sweet and who don’t even need me to use English with them anymore – when the classroom teacher came in and showed me the headlines on her phone. A young man walked into an elementary school in Connecticut, and killed an entire classroom of first graders, and shot several teachers and other school staff who were trying to protect them.

Just the day before, we had practiced our school’s lockdown procedures – locking doors, herding kids into corners or sometimes even closets to huddle silently out of the line of vision of anyone outside the school or in the hallway. Since I travel around to different classrooms, I was part of several drills – learning where kids need to hide in each classroom, and hearing several teachers’ attempts to make children realize the seriousness of these drills, without scaring them.

I’ve seen snapshots from my students’ lives. Many of my kids know far too well about humans hurting other humans, and what guns can do. I already think a lot about kids and guns. On that Friday I was already thinking about guns and schools, as Michigan legislature stayed up late working on a variety of worrisome bills, including a push to allow concealed weapons in gun-free zones like schools. Friday afternoon, the news about Sandy Hook trickled into our school building, in whispered conversations between teachers trying to keep their composure in front of small faces. Those two news feeds ran parallel in my head, and my grief was immediately mixed with anger and fear.

As stories about the events at Sandy Hook began to emerge, it was clear that the school did everything they could. Teachers stepped in front of bullets and gave their own life trying to protect their students. Imagining myself in a similar situation (an unavoidable nightmare) I have no doubt in my mind that I would do the same thing.

A tragedy like this necessitates discussions of guns, discussions of mental health, and beyond. For me, a more personal question is: If my students are worth taking bullets for (which they are, without question) then why aren’t they worth just teaching? Particularly in this country, teachers are in general expected to work long hours at a job that requires a lot of continuing education, but without salaries to afford grad school, loan payments, or even more basic things. (What if you want to get married? Have a kid? Save for a house?) It is an important job, and it’s worth those things, which is why I chose this profession in the first place.

If my life was literature than tire shops would be a device to symbolize a change in perspective. For me the scent of tire rubber is connected to catharsis. Why is that? Anyway, last week I got a flat tire, and while waiting for it to be fixed a woman next to me struck up a conversation, starting with asking where I got my tights. I said that I got them somewhere in Spain (which already makes me feel like an asshole. Ohhhh, these old things? Some little place in Spaaaaaaaiiiin…) and she asked about what I was doing there, which led me to a conversation about teaching, and her to describe her life as a single mother and an aspiring travel agent or interior designer, once her daughter is old enough that she can go back to school. She was surprised to learn that they spoke a different language in Spain, and wasn’t sure where it was – in Mexico, right? Wait… next to China, then?

I was incredulous and tried my best to be tactful, but my vague amusement quickly turned to shame. She said something along the lines of: “It really sounds like you have your life together” and I felt ashamed of my own anxieties. I struggle with debt from getting my degree, with the stresses of the job I wanted so badly and worked towards for years, and with how to make my expensive photography hobby more self-sufficient and perhaps income-generating. I still feel the socioeconomic divide very strongly when talking to people who grew up with new clothes, waterproof shoes, paid tuition.

I don’t think it’s entirely useful to discount anyone’s anxieties, even my own. (I do enjoy reading White Whines, however… while there will always be people more unfortunate than me to feel empathy for, there will always be people more privileged for me to judge?) I always cycle through anxiety, punctuated by injections of perspective, followed by guilt for being anxious, then guilt-fueled attempts at gratitude, which often disintegrate into anxieties again.

2012 has been a year of teaching myself how to be content in the here and now, which was harder than I would have expected in some very incredible heres-and-nows. I lived in a beautiful Spanish city on the coast, and felt guilty when I hid under the covers and longed for the faces I left behind in Michigan. Now I am back and dreaming of the sea. (For me and for humanity, the capacity for discontent is endless.) I am still trying to learn the gift of gratitude and the art of living in the moment, but 2012 has held a lot of lessons.

In the coming year I want to continue those lessons, and be grateful without being guilty.


One Response to (More) Gratitude Lessons

  1. annadefenestrated says:

    Reblogged this on arm and commented:
    I’m really not into ‘gratitude,’ but awareness and reflection and appreciation. To me gratitude implies owing someone something.

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