For the last several years, Stanford has cancelled classes during Thanksgiving week, probably in deference to the students who have far to travel to be with family. So last Friday I sent the students in my three classes off for a holiday, though it would be one filled with work: we have only two weeks of class left after the break and their major projects and presentations are due right away.
Of course I have work to do this week as well: writing projects I am behind on, preparations for next week’s classes, response to several dissertation chapters—all the usual. So I worked as hard as I could on Monday and Tuesday, but on Wednesday I drove up to the northern California coast to The Sea Ranch, where I have a home by the sea. Driving north with the ocean to my left, I counted the hawks I saw (5), the cows munching beside the road (4—they are often IN the road), the deer (8 or 9), and I kept my window down so I could hear the rush of wind and water. It was dark by the time I pulled in, but I still headed out to the cove and sat on the rocks, just taking in the smells and sounds.
Today I have been giving thanks. I am thankful for the beauty of our natural environment, so I walked three or four miles, saying silent “thanks” all along the way. I am thankful for my family and friends, so I made six phone calls and sent many more email messages of thanks. I am thankful to be alive and healthy (well for my age at least!), so I made a sweet potato pie full of thanks.
But most of all, I am thankful for my students: I can close my eyes and see faces and names scrolling back through the decades, and remember their triumphs and tragedies, their hopes and dreams as well as their fears. As I’ve said many times, I became a teacher almost by default: in the 1960s I could imagine women being teachers, nurses, or secretaries and that was about it. So I chose teaching—and what a choice it has been. I am grateful every day for it, grateful to be able to work with young people and watch them grow and develop and change.
Have I had only blissful experiences with teaching? Not by a long shot: there was the near total debacle that occurred when a student’s peer group turned mutinous when he wrote about how good he’d felt when he’d killed the first animal he had caught in a horribly painful trap; there was the student who never did a lick of work in my class, though I exhausted every strategy I knew of to get her going on a writing project that would be meaningful to her—and then fell to the floor screaming when she found out she had failed the class (of course I had failed it too!). There was the day I gave back a midterm in my history of writing class with scathing criticism because all the students had done so badly: heck, they hadn’t even answered all the questions—and then looked up to see a hesitant hand in the air and a student saying “Was this a trick exam?” “What do you mean?!” I had fairly exploded. “You know,” he said, “a trick: the exam said we were to answer 12 of 15 questions: was that just a trick?” NEVER MIND, I’d had to say: and then gather the midterms back up to be re-graded.
All teachers of writing have had moments—and students—like these, and we’ve all been worked to exhaustion and near burnout on occasion. But these negatives are so hugely outweighed by the positives that I tend to forget all about them. Today, of all days, I am thinking of the good and happy and enriching classroom moments and giving thanks for them. I hope your Thanksgiving 2011 is joyous and wonder what you are most thankful for today.