Growing up, I never had the chance to offer or reflect on gratitude. It was demanded of me, by force if necessary. If I forgot to say thank you, or I was too slow with my thanks, a smack across the face or a belt to my behind served as a reminder. My mother wanted me to appreciate all the things she did for me.
The effect? I started to not ask for anything. I didn’t ask for help on my homework, I didn’t ask my mother to pass anything to me; I became hyper self-sufficient. I was of the mind that if I asked for anything or forgot to be appropriately thankful, I would receive some kind of painful response.
I can confidently state that this is the reason why I did so poorly from kindergarten to sixth grade: I was deathly afraid if I asked my teachers for any kind of help, they would hurt me. I sometimes have fantasies about my childhood, my asking for help like my classmates did—Who would I be now? Would my dyslexia have been diagnosed earlier than it was? Would I have a better grasp on math? Would I be free of the nagging feeling that I’m not being thankful enough when people do something for me?
Later, in the early ’90s, I worked in a group home that was the stuff of nightmares. Violence, pain, and fear were the default settings of this place. There was a girl there, I’ll call her Sunday. (I’ve changed all the students’ names in this piece.) She made four or five suicide attempts a week. Not self-harming gestures, but full-on attempts to take her life. Her story was so tragic as to be almost unbelievable: Her father used her for sex, as well as pimping her out to his drug-addled friends. Most of the people who hurt her were men. Despite this, she and I became close over our shared love of BritPop and science fiction.
When I quit that job to spend some time out of the country, I lost track of Sunday. In 2004, she called me. It took me a while to remember who she was—I’d worked with lots of youth over the years.
She had a favor to ask. Sunday had completed college, had a job, and was about to get married. Since she didn’t have any contact with her biological family, she asked if I would walk her down the aisle. It had been well over a decade since I’d worked with her, so I agreed—but I wanted to know: Why me?
I was consistent, she told me. I listened to music with her and I gave her books—four photocopied pages at a time because the administration of the group home thought she could harm herself with an entire book. I never gave up on her, Sunday said. This made her feel like she wasn’t broken, that she mattered.
The wedding was beautiful. I’ve cried like that only two other times in my life: when I was married and when my daughter was born. At Sunday’s wedding, I suddenly, fully understood what gratitude was. With this invitation, she acknowledged the impact I had on her life. Not with a cursory thank you, but with action. Her gratitude meant my presence in her life had value. She valued me enough that she trusted me to bear witness to her new self. What I did for her, how I thought about her and interacted with her, made a substantive difference. It was an example I’ll never forget.
Sunday also showed me that a mere “thank you” is too easy. Now, if someone shows me kindness, does something for me that transforms me in any way, I try to do more than just say “thank you.” I let them know what their actions mean to me and how I’ve been affected by them. I tell them I’m available and willing to return what they’ve shown me. Not as some kind of tit-for-tat, but to show my radical appreciation for their time and energy spent on me. Her expression of gratitude changed my life and forced me to see the difference between being courteous and thankful and being grateful.
Despite using the terms interchangeably, I see thanks and gratitude as different things. A “thanks” is about courtesy. It is acknowledging that someone has done something for you. I also feel like thankfulness is outwardly focused. I experience it as being transactional. Someone assists you, and your thanks is the receipt of that transaction. ‘Gratitude’ is simultaneously inwardly and outwardly focused. You appreciate what’s been done to or for you, you appreciate the person or thing for providing you with the assistance or experience, and you recognize how the thing has made your life better, even if it is just for a moment. This was what I gleaned from being asked to participate in Sunday’s wedding.
We spend a whole lot of time talking about microaggressions—minute social slights steeped in bigotry and disregard—but we rarely (if ever) talk about the joy and the little microalliances that stem from authentically expressing gratitude. The ways we come together over a mutually beneficial and transformative interaction.
This is why I left adolescent mental health and juvenile justice work after two decades: I found no gratitude in the work. No microalliances. I wasn’t positively moved or motivated by what I was doing. I was on autopilot. I no longer felt effective or energized by the work. I was burned out, compassion-fatigued, just going through the motions. I no longer cared. It was a chore. Instead of being grateful that I was able to do this work, I became resentful. When the emotional return on investment is imbalanced, it is time to go.
I almost immediately fell into another job. Instead of being a frontline worker, I’d be an administrator. Instead of mental health, I’d work in education as the director of an alternative high school of choice. The program that I currently run is a program for students who are behind in high school credits and won’t be able to graduate “on time.” Almost all of the students are people of color, living at or below the poverty line. A large number identify as queer. Many are undocumented. I thought I would be doing different work, but nope. All of my skills working with teens with behavioral and mental health challenges, involved with the justice system, and just dealing with the persistent trauma of adolescence come in handy. In fact, if I didn’t have these skills, I’d never be able to do my job.
I label the program an Etch-A-Sketch: shake it up and begin from scratch. The staff understand that when the students walk through our doors, they are walking into a new life. Starting fresh isn’t just about students doing better in school. It also includes changing the way they view themselves, how they view the world, and how they view themselves in the world. Inviting students to make these changes is the most difficult part of the work. So many of my students are beat down by gentrification (I lose a handful of students each term because their families can no longer afford to live in Oakland, or the immediate Bay Area), tragic loss, sexual violence, community despair. That they even come to school is a feat of resilience that I praise every chance I get. But this whole invitation to change is a process. Asking them questions, listening to their answers, offering options (not advice) have proven to be valuable, especially when done in a group.
Three years in, my team and I increased the graduation rates, increased term-to-term persistence, and increased in-term retention. When I arrived, the program was considered a failure. Not anymore. We became successful because I started to treat the program more like a group home with a rigorous educational component, and less like a traditional school. Check-ins with students, parental involvement, and more rewards than consequences helped to transform the program from the last resort for students who didn’t do well in traditional high school, to a place where struggling students feel they can restart their stalled education.
I believe we are able to accomplish our gains because of the premium I place on gratitude. Unlike in my house growing up—where gratitude was painfully extracted—I’ve tried to make gratitude become part of our cultural fabric. It began simply with “please” and “thank you.” Then it grew to random rewards for prosocial behaviors. It grew beyond the staff, to even more public displays of student appreciation.
So many of our students are not used to this. For example: School wasn’t Manny’s thing. Never liked it. Before they graduated, they went to almost every high school Oakland had to offer. (Manny identifies as non-binary, which is why I’m using “they” as a pronoun.) In Manny’s admission interview, I reviewed their file with them and set boundaries around how their previous behaviors were unacceptable. I said that I trusted them enough to make safe decisions for themselves and those around them.
They had a rough first month, but at the end of every day when there was no behavioral problem, I expressed my thanks to them for choosing success over things that would hold them back. Manny accused me of insincerity and said I only wanted to “make sure I don’t whoop somebody’s ass.” I admitted that this was part of it. The other part, I stressed, was that I was genuinely grateful they were making decisions to change their behavior for the better. When I told them they did well, it made me feel good and that gave me energy that I could invest in making the program the best it could be for them and their fellow students. “Thank you for making me want to come to work every day,” I told them.
Manny graduated with a 3.5 grade point average, up from .34—and they are now attending a four-year college.
I work with students like Manny one on one, but I also work with them in groups. The groups I facilitate with my students almost always bring about shifts in perspective, if even a tiny bit. But I had a group earlier this year I won’t say broke my heart, but I will say challenged me to recommit to this population because of the sadness I felt.
I sat alone in the circle of chairs. I didn’t say a word, only looked at the nineteen high schoolers who milled about. I made eye contact with some, avoided eye contact with others, but remained silent until my students began to fill the remaining seats. This is how I start every group. I never call a group to order because I don’t want the experience to feel forced. I also don’t want to put any expectations on our time together, so I stay quiet, listen to the scattered conversations, and wait patiently until they are ready to begin. It is their time, and I let them have some control over it. And they know this. So sometimes they take advantage of me and stall, eating up our allotted time until there are only minutes left. This usually happens when there is some kind of incident the students don’t want to talk about, but I am fully aware of. Other times, the students are already in the circle, ready and waiting for me. It is so wildly inconsistent.
In this group, we’ve talked about everything from body integrity and sovereignty, to media representations of race and gender, to why I’ve never smoked, drank, or done any drugs in my life. Nothing is off-topic, as long as it is explored with respect and compassion.
Many students in the group had experienced the loss, to murder, of one of their classmates a year prior. We were right around the anniversary of this death, so I decided to introduce what I thought would be a light topic. “What are you thankful for?” I asked the group. It was like I told a horrible joke, to the wrong crowd, in the wrong room. Complete silence. Even the students who always contributed stayed quiet.
I’m normally really good with silence, but this silence didn’t feel right. I dropped a few more prompts, but nothing. I rephrased the question; still nothing. One of the students began to offer things she liked. I grabbed on to this thread and tried to shoehorn it into a conversation about gratitude. I wasn’t that skilled. Another student became upset and launched into, “Thankful for what? For being poor, my brother in jail, my mom working all kinds of jobs?” I validated the student, then pressed: “You’re here. You’re trying to change your life, right?” He countered: “Why would I be thankful for something I’m doing to better myself? Ain’t nobody helping me.” Many of the students nodded or murmured in agreement.
I felt so sad and defeated. The words stung because of their familiarity. I understood why the student felt that way and why the others agreed. The world, their world, is a hard place to live. When everything appears to be conspiring to impede your progress, then despair, resentment, and retaliation seem to be the only options. I was hurt because I could empathize and I was ashamed of how easy it was for me to do so. My trauma is still pretty close to the surface. How could I get it so right with my staff, but so damn wrong with my students? If these students couldn’t express gratitude, what kind of lives would they live? Gratitude relates to kindness and a mutuality of kindness, and this was something my students lacked: kindness done to them, and the ability to be kind without conditions. And I don’t blame them. They live in worlds where the “I” is the most important thing. Where getting yours is the only way they can get anything. This didn’t make it any less sad and painful.
After several more minutes of profoundly awkward silence, I adjourned the group and immediately went to my office and called members of what I call my brain trust to process what just happened. I think this experience affected me so deeply because I was forced to realize how gratitude, no matter how hard I’m working on it, still isn’t my strong suit. I try, but I fall short more than I like. I saw my younger self in all of them.
This was something I wanted my daughter to never have to unlearn. I didn’t want her youth to be as miserable as mine. From a young age, gratitude was introduced as a factor in my daughter’s life. After she was born, my wife and I modeled “please” and “thank you.” When she was older, we’d sing, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit,” to invite her to be appreciative of what she had and who spent time with her. If she forgot, we’d have a conversation with her about why.
At age ten, she has such a developed and sophisticated and nuanced expression of gratitude that I learn from her every day. Most mornings we set a goal or two for the day. When we see each other in the evenings, we discuss if she achieved her goals. If so, we talk about what she did to make it happen. If not, we discuss barriers and ways she can take different actions to get her desired result. She also has a gratitude jar on her desk. She writes down what she’s grateful for and puts it in the jar. At the end of the week, she opens the jar and reflects on all the things she was grateful for.
My daughter has two parents, and we’re raising her in an emotionally and financially stable household of relative privilege. How many marginalized and disproportionately impacted people are getting lessons, being trained in gratitude? I don’t see it as a luxury. I see gratitude as a survival skill. The ability to appreciate and to recognize the good and be thankful for it helps to heave off the weight of the things that are determined to hold us back, to hold us down. Being able to look at the world from a place of interconnectedness is powerful. Knowing that your actions and words mean something to someone, that you matter to someone—as Sunday expressed to me—instills a perspective, a momentum, that invites us to participate in the world in a way that emphasizes cooperation and connection. It allows us to re-envision ourselves, re-envision the world, and re-envision our relationship with the world. To use a very cliched phrase: We’re all we got.