Monday, December 24, 2012

All I Want for Christmas

Dearest NIP,
            Today’s letter really isn’t a letter at all. Rather, it’s a short essay that I wrote about 3 years ago after the events mentioned within transpired. I intended it to be read to my AP Human Geography class, but the sentiment is one in which anyone can share. I hope that you and yours have a wonderful holiday season, whether you celebrated Hanukkah earlier this month, are celebrating Christmas today and tomorrow, or the New Year next week. May each of these special days remind you of what’s truly important in your life. I hope to continue with the thematic letters on the five qualities soon.

Happy Holidays,

- Ryan


I want to tell you about a boy named Jonathan. Jonathan is the five year old son of two migrant workers and is the oldest of four children. When he joined Erin’s kindergarten class, it was his first exposure to school and he began more than a month late. He came to her speaking no English and, surprisingly, little Spanish. Salimar, another of Erin’s students, would often try to act as a translator for Erin, but Jonathan just stared at them when they would try to talk with him. Over the past few months, though, he slowly made gains as Erin worked closely by his side. About two months after his arrival, the word “apple” came from Jonathan’s lips along with a huge smile. Shortly thereafter, he could say “yellow,” which is apparently his favorite color.

            About two weeks ago, Jonathan stopped coming to school. By the end of the first week, Erin came home with tears welling in her eyes because she was afraid of what might have happened to him. She wondered whether or not he had enough to eat; she told me that before the school had placed him in the free and reduced lunch program, he would come to school with an ear of raw corn for lunch, undoubtedly food that had been given to his parents in lieu of cash for their labor. An entire second week had almost passed when he finally appeared alongside his mother last Friday. She explained and apologized in broken English for Jonathan’s absence; she had recently given birth to his baby brother and, coupled with not finding any work, the circumstances had forced her, her husband and the rest of Jonathan’s family to move in with relatives in Ruskin. Before leaving, Erin asked for the address so that we could bring his Christmas gifts to his new home; he was the child Erin and I specifically adopted to shower with gifts, especially educational toys that would help him continue to learn English.

            This past Saturday, Erin and I packed Jonathan’s wrapped gifts into our trunk and made the drive to Ruskin. When we found the address, we turned into a large trailer park that was clearly home to only migrant workers. Driving through the park, my eyes caught sight of a dilapidated swing set that sat barren and lifeless with only one chain hanging from the bar that playfully jostled in the wind. It only got worse. As we neared Jonathan’s trailer, his mother emerged from the doorway onto the wooden and weatherworn ramshackle steps with the newborn in her arms. She waved to us as we pulled up alongside their home. I got the presents from the trunk and as we proceeded up the steps the rest of the children gathered about the mother excitedly. Jonathan beamed with his characteristic smile, the same one Erin had described to me when he said his first word in English. Jonathan’s mother invited us in.

As soon as I entered, I was shocked by the emptiness of the home. It was a singlewide trailer with one bedroom at either end. The one to the right was presumably the bedroom of Jonathan’s extended family. Three small girls curiously peeked out of a crack between the door and the frame before hearing their mother tell them to close it. The only furniture in sight in the entire middle section of the home was a lone picnic table, toward which the mother motioned me to sit. Erin had made small stockings for each of the two younger sisters and I’ve never seen two children so grateful to have one lollipop, a canister of generic Play-Doh, and a few stickers. They opened the Play-Doh and looked with amazement as they removed it from the can and squished it in their tiny hands. Jonathan began unwrapping his first gift, a soccer ball, when his oldest cousin opened the back bedroom door and sadly asked me a question: “Where do you put your name in to get presents?” Erin explained that she was Jonathan’s kindergarten teacher and that he was part of a program at school to give students gifts. The girl remarked that they didn’t do that at her school and then closed the door.

The afternoon sun was beginning to come through the window and I squinted and moved over before noticing the “curtains,” which were black garbage bags that had been split down the seams and then stapled to the window frame. I began to take stock of the rest of the house; not only was it devoid of furniture, but there was no television, no radio, no phone, not anything that most of us sitting in this room take for granted. Besides an old electric stove and a beat up refrigerator, the only piece of “technology” they had was an ancient microwave with a dial timer. After Jonathan opened all of his gifts, Erin gave him a hug and said “te amo”; he smiled again and went right back to his toys. Erin and I then gave his mother some cash to help them through what are sure to be tough times this holiday season. When we left, Erin told me it took everything she had not to cry when she saw how Jonathan lived. Imagine: four adults and seven children living in a trailer, presumably sleeping on the floor with blankets and eating communal meals on their one piece of furniture, a picnic table.

            The other day one of my students asked me what I wanted for Christmas. I thought about it for quite some time and I told him that I wanted him to do something kind for someone he normally wouldn’t. In our American culture, we have the tendency to point the finger when things don’t go our way—we judge, label, accuse, mock, or deride anyone who doesn’t fit our worldview. In high school it’s even worse because peer pressure often forces students to accept only certain people into the fold and shun others. If anything, I sincerely hope that the first semester of AP Human Geography has taught you that life is not black and white. Life, more than anything, is a struggle. And we all rise to meet that struggle in different ways. So before we judge, label, accuse, mock or deride those who don’t fit into our worldview or what we think of as “normal,” perhaps we should celebrate our diversity and try to become a little more inclusive of others. After all, people are people. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is, what types of food you eat, the religion you believe in, or where you come from. If you cut someone, I guarantee that person will feel pain and his/her blood will run red. We are all one family after all. We are all human beings. And all I want for Christmas is the same thing we all want: to be good to one another, to be loved, and to accept each other for who we are and not who we want them to be. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Gratitude

Thank you, NIP
            No matter who you are, I owe you a debt of gratitude. At 37 years old, I now fully realize that there are very few things I can accomplish on my own. Our lives are so interdependent upon others, whether we choose to acknowledge this fact or not. The more I have turned toward this realization over the last few years, the more my life has flourished. Even everyday encounters have taken on such a rich texture simply because I am grateful for having the chance to experience them. This transition didn’t happen overnight, however; it has been a gradual growth of gratitude by constantly reminding myself all that I have to be grateful for—from family, friends, students, neighbors, anonymous readers of these letters and other strangers, to even simple moments when I revel in the fact that I am alive and feeling the sunshine on my skin as I breathe deeply and feel connected to all of life.

            For me, the first step toward true gratitude for my life and everyone and everything in it was discovering a powerful mantra from Zen Buddhism. I must tell myself these following three lines umpteen times per day:

Infinite gratitude to all things past
Infinite service to all things present
Infinite responsibility to all things future

The first is essential to this letter, and it may be the most crucial overall because it allows us to build a foundation—a place to start when it comes to making the necessary constructive changes in our lives. Being grateful to all things past implies acceptance to everything that has brought us to this very moment. Our mind has a tendency to pick and choose events/thoughts/actions in a way that shapes our everyday existential experience, but we miss the point if we don’t recognize that everything—whether we choose to acknowledge it or not—has shaped us. Good, bad, or indifferent, all of the moments of our lives when put into a cumulative perspective have fashioned the life we lead in the here and now. Being grateful for even those moments, thoughts, people, etc that have hurt us are important because we have (hopefully) learned something from them. I certainly have had my fair share of those in the first 37 years of my life, but the way I see them now is radically different from how I saw them in my youth.

            Take my parents’ divorce, for example. 25 years ago, it was a disaster in my life. I couldn’t appreciate the dynamics of adult relationships, let alone be grateful for the disintegration of my family. Now, though? I couldn’t be more grateful for my parents getting divorced because of the good it brought into their lives. Both of my parents have found someone with whom they can share their lives in a positive, rewarding way. Moreover, it has only allowed my family to grow to include more members. I feel the same exact way about Erin’s family as well. She also grew up in a divorced household, but it’s a blessing in the sense that we effectively have four sets of parents. Sure it can make the holidays challenging by having to go to so many houses, but I simply remind myself as soon as I cross whichever threshold that I am grateful to spend time with them.

            I am also especially grateful for being a teacher. Each year I meet new students and form new relationships, which, as I get older, seem to be the most important aspect of life/living (human relationships). Having a career where I get to “pay-it-forward” by extending toward students the love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience that has been shown to me throughout my life thus far is incredibly rewarding. Admittedly, I have had difficulty sustaining my love for teaching a few times this year, but in those moments it tended to be the peripheral hazards of the career (bureaucracy, politics, etc). What has and continues to sustain me, though, is the magic between the bells. Even while doing our mindful minute after the tardy bell, I find myself silently repeating “I am grateful for this moment” on the inhalation and “I am grateful for these students” on the exhalation. I cannot even begin to tell you how that positively impacts the tone and atmosphere of my instruction, NIP. Know that if you are one of my students—past or present—you have had an indelible impact on my life and the way I choose to live it. All of the students I have taught, whether they realize it or not, have been important to my maturation both as a teacher and a human being.

            The one for whom I am most grateful, though, is my beautiful wife, Erin. I routinely tell just about anyone who will listen that if it weren’t for Erin, I would not be who I am today (or, seeing we just finished Nietzsche in philosophy class this week, who I am becoming). She has been such a source of strength and motivation throughout our entire relationship, but especially since beginning this project of self-improvement nearly four years ago. Every day when I wake, I lie in bed and proceed through my gratitude mantra. This used to culminate in the final, simple line “I am grateful,” but in the last few months has transformed into “I am grateful for all of this bounty and beauty in my life.” More often than not, Erin’s face pops into my mind’s eye when I am reciting that line. I am so thankful for her presence in my life and our relationship in general that it’s quite difficult to put into words how much she means to me. Words—as they often do when trying to convey a powerful feeling or experience—break down and become meaningless; therefore, I do my best to show my gratitude for her and our marriage by simple actions: bringing her coffee when she wakes; giving her my undivided attention when she speaks; holding hands while we walk; making dinner for her; in short, loving her as best I can in each and every moment.

            I don’t remember how young I was the first time I heard someone tell me to count my blessings. All I know is that it took me far too long to heed that advice. By constantly reminding myself of the small gifts each new day brings, I find it much easier to weather the worst of life’s storms. It may take time for it to become habitual, but try to take a mental inventory of the moments for which you’re thankful throughout the day. In time even the most mundane things may become marvelous. And before you know it you’ll be staring at ant colonies scurrying in and out of a knothole in a tree, thinking about how grateful you are to have taken a random stroll outside on a beautiful, warm winter day while the sunlight warmed your skin just slightly yet was kept in equilibrium by the gentle breeze that cooled it.

Be grateful for all of it, NIP.

Thanks again for reading…

- Ryan