Gratitude and love. These words were on my mind this week.
Some foundational information to provide a starting point for this log is necessary. Our university semester was interrupted harshly by the pandemic, and there was a lot of emotional, mental, and academic stress involved with the changes that interruption brought. For me personally, those stresses were compounded by two other stressors: being a dad and being an encourager.
My kids were banished from their school about the same time the rest of us were. This meant they were home 24 hours each day, and aside from the basic tasks of making sure they don’t hurt each other or jump off the top of the house on any given day, I also had to be very sensitive to their emotional, mental, and academic stresses. Doing school at home was not easy on them at all. One child worked ahead, completing every assignment seconds after they were emailed, and the other child needed to be dragged through their assignments, often kicking and screaming. Both were very upset to not see their friends. Heck, we’re lucky enough to have kids who love their school, and they were even missing their teachers. A couple of weeks into our educational banishment, G was furloughed from the hospital. This meant adding another body and mind to the daily home mix. It’s one thing to be busy at school during the week and go from 7:00 am until 7:00 pm without talking to your wife or kids. It’s quite another thing to be busy with school during the week but in the same building as your family, and not talk to them. So, you try to do everything all at once, and you can imagine how that normally turns out. On the best days everyone was a little on edge. The worst days were, well, worse.
It was easy to see how the switch to online learning was impacting my students. I could see it on their faces when they were kind enough to turn their cameras on during Blackboard meetings. I could hear it in their voices when they were kind enough to turn their microphones on instead of typing. I could read it in their emails and text messages. I had a need to try to help make the transition and the anticlimactic ending to the semester as enjoyable as possible. When it was time for class, I closed my studio door and flipped the switch on my personality to be the best version of myself. I posted silly things to Instagram. I sent goofy messages. I checked on people.
Each day I still carved out quiet time for myself. Some days I selfishly stayed in my studio after a class had ended just so I could think about the next thing I had to do. Some days I sat up late at night petting Zeke with my brain in neutral. Every day I ran and tried to have my coffee in silence, but I quickly learned that the things that were bothering everyone else were also bothering me. People online were talking about being bored and binge-watching all sorts of things, and I was over here wishing I had several more hours in each day to get all this crap done. I was tired. I was withdrawing from my mental account faster than I was depositing.
But then, some messages arrived. The first message came through social media and caught me totally off guard. It was a simple message of gratitude from a student. Sometimes at the end of a semester a student will be thoughtful enough to email a kind word about enjoying a class or something like that. Those messages are always appreciated, and they carry much more weight than you can imagine. There were a couple of those this semester but this one was not from a student in one of my spring classes. It was just a student who noted something and voiced an appreciation for it. The next one came just a few days later. One sentence that probably completely changed how I feel about the entire semester as a teacher. Gratitude is so powerful. Gratitude is an expression of love.
I don’t have to teach the way I teach. The basic task of transferring information from one human to another can certainly be done with less effort. I teach the way I do because I love my students. I see them as humans instead of numbers. I can help them get a degree, but I have a deeper desire to help them become better humans; to be kinder, happier, more fulfilled. I know this may be idealistic and maybe you think it’s a waste of effort, but I’m stubborn so shut up. So, I do what I do, the way I do it. There is, of course, a cost. I give up time with my family and friends to invest in my students. I sometimes take a lot of crap from people who think I should teach a different way. Some days it’s just hard because life is hard, so I do the best I can. And then you get an email of gratitude and you know it was worth the price. Just one sentence makes the sacrifice worthwhile. All the sunflower seeds I plant each year do not germinate. But the ones that do certainly make the planting worthwhile.
Saying “thank you” or saying, “I appreciate you” is just another way of saying “I love you”. I know my students would run screaming if they thought of it this way. Most of them would pass out if they even knew I believed in love. But behind the curtain of sarcasm, self-deprecation, and nonsense, love is the common thread in this story. I teach because I love my students. Some students offer that love back to me through gratitude, and it keeps cycling through over and over.
The coolest thing is that you just never know how important it is until you do it. I’ve had students tell me years after graduation that I said something to them once that changed their life. Honestly, I was probably clueless. I was just doing my thing the way I do it and they happened to be there. I had no idea it would have such an impact on them. Likewise, a student may decide mid-conversation that they want to say thanks or maybe they’re bored and decide to email. They may have no idea just how close I was to throwing in the towel. Some of those messages have saved me.
I wonder how many lives could be made better today if you and I decided to look outside ourselves for a moment and let someone know we see them and appreciate them?