Thankful Despite it All

My most recent post was about this school year so far and all the ups and downs and craziness involved in it. Tonight, I want to post about the things I’m grateful for, despite everything. In the midst of everything that has been going on, I have been re-reading The Book of Joy, a series of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu facilitated by writer Douglas Abrams. In it, the two spiritual leaders speak of the important of gratitude, even in the midst of injustice and distress. I’ve been thinking a lot about that.

And so, this Thanksgiving, here are some of the things I am grateful for this very strange school year.

My colleagues – including my wife. We try not to gather. We have forgotten what each other’s lower faces look like. But we still see each other in the hall and around campus. We commiserate. We share survival strategies and laughs. We are getting each other through this. And the colleague I get to take home, my wife Andrea, understands my pain (and I hers) as we arrive home end-of-the-school-year tired more often than we would both like.

My co-teachers. I began the year with a co-teacher in two of my classes, one I’d worked with last year. As the year began, Mr. J. told me he was considering his options – including a retirement incentive. When our classes grew in size, he came to his decision. He was leaving. I miss him, and our partnership, but very quickly I gained a new, younger co-teacher (another Mr. J.!) who has blended right in and managed adapt to my sometimes unconventional way of running a class. And after taking one of his written teaching exams and passed it with flying colors, he told me he’d used writing techniques he’d picked up in my class. And then he told our students the same thing. That’s backup!

My school administration – The school year has not been perfect, but that’s mainly the virus’s fault. And my state’s and district’s. Given what they’ve had to work with and what they’ve had thrown at them, my principal and her administrative team have been, at least for me, supportive, responsive, and appreciative. I couldn’t ask for more.

My students, including the ones who aren’t my students anymore – Two major waves of schedule changes have meant that my classes have been, like everything this school year, set in Jell-O. Most of my classes have been somewhat subdued this year, but I constantly remind myself: This has been a very stressful year. They have arrived at their first year of high school masked and missing classmates who aren’t there in person. But if reactions from students who have been forced to leave my class are any indication, their quiet demeanor has not meant that they are not enjoying my class. Several students who scarcely ever spoke up told me that mine was their favorite. I met one of these former students at the super market, and her mother stopped my wife and me to tell me how much my student had enjoyed my class. And to tell me that she, the mother, had been my student some 27 years ago and had also loved my class and still remembered some of the lessons. Few things make the whole endeavor seem eminently worth it than an encounter like that. But I do have students, in person and online, who are throwing themselves into learning in spite of everything, who are willing to discuss, to joke, to share. And there are moments where I can almost pretend things are… normal.

My students’ writing – I have had my 9th grade students write a My Education So Far essay, and they just drafted Enthusiasm Essays. They are going beyond formulas. They are emulating the writers we’ve read. They are taking risks. I am learning about them as human beings. It is beautiful.

My students’ thinking – I ask my students to record their thoughts, reactions, and questions when we read things. Some of them seemed unaware that they could have their own thoughts when they read (as opposed to just answering someone else’s questions). But given the chance to respond, they do. And I can see them growing, as readers and as people, sometimes across their comments on a single text. And the discussion, when it starts to kick in, is fantastic. The sea of talk is full, and learning is floating on it.

My students’ creativity – All writing should be creative writing, of course, and my ninth graders are proving it all the time. But creative writing is also a class I teach once a day, and this year’s group is one I look forward to seeing walk in the door each day. They take my 6 minute bell-ringer exercises and turn them into 300 word short stories that sound like the opening lines of novels. They want to share with each other. They write fascinating pieces of writing they generate on their own. Just before break, we began brainstorming and preparing to outline a collaborative novel. Going back to school Monday will be a treat because we get to dive back into the final stages of mapping out a backstory. (Our premise – a Civil War historical re-enactment site is populated not by costumed actors, but by actual ghosts of the long-lost town. It’s going to be awesome.)

The ideas I teach – We have discussed how knowledge is an absolute good. We have explored how our enthusiasms, frustrations, worries, and the things we wonder about make us who are and also give us things to say as writers. We have discussed learning as a survival skill. We have talked about the need to see the world through different lenses and perspectives. We have discussed the power of words and the misuse of that power. We are currently discussing the power of definitions to shape how we see reality and to shape who has power in society. In upcoming weeks we will be discussing the power of attention, the importance of emotional intelligence, and the power of narratives and stories. I teach these ideas because they are important for my students, not just in school, but in life. But I also teach them because I need endless reminders of these ideas myself. I teach for my students, and to keep myself grounded.

The chance to speak out – I am grateful that I have been able to be a voice for teachers during this very trying time. I hope I have done justice to our experiences.

My patrons – The people who support me on Patreon literally keep me going. I would not be able to afford to draw the strip without you. Thank you, thank you, and again I say, thank you!

My readers – As I head rather rapidly toward the 21st anniversary of Mr. Fitz, I am, as always, grateful to my readers. I hope I’ve provided some comic relief to a rather grim school year, and maybe some encouragement. No writer wants to write into a void, and you all help me know that I am not alone in my struggles. Thank you.