Last year, when my daughter was a freshman in college and having a really hard time, she would complain to me about everything. She was unable to see anything good about her college, her new city, her life far from home. So I pulled out a strategy I used to use when she was younger and feeling gloomy. At the end of our phone conversations, I wouldn’t let her hang up until she told me three things she was grateful for. She would try to get away with saying me, her dad and her brother. “Nope,” I would reply. “Family is only one. Name two more things.” She would invariably come up with two pretty good other things she was grateful for–a good grade on a lab, a kind word from a girl down the hall, a new friend at cross country practice, or a chance encounter with a cat on the street. This exercise always ended our conversations on a positive note. And when she came home for the summer she reported that she would often force herself to think of three things she was grateful for before she fell asleep.
I found myself thinking about gratitude this morning and about what a powerful force it can be. I have a rough ENG 99/108 class this semester. They are friendly, lively, fun to be around–and they do almost NO work outside of class. I assign homework, they don’t do it. They are cheerful about it; but like Bartleby the Scrivener, they just prefer not to. This is becoming more and more of a problem. Today, we talked about it. I told them that I just don’t know what to do. Their nightly work is called “class preparation” for a reason. If they don’t do it, they are not prepared for the day’s activities in class. They had lots of excuses. ”We are busy,” they said. “We forgot.” “Our lives are so crazy.” “The article is so long.” Yeah, I said, but this is college. You have to find a way to get your work done.
As I left class, I was so bummed. I felt like the worst teacher ever. What am I doing wrong, I asked myself. But then I got kind of mad–those lazy bums! This is college, for Pete’s sake, do your work! Then I remembered the gratitude exercise. Rather than hating myself or them, I thought about what I was grateful for with that class. I’m grateful they are still coming to class. I’m grateful we have a good relationship. I am grateful that they all looked me in the eye and said they would do the reading for our next class. That’s where I left it. I’m not sure if they’ll do the work. But I stepped away from my mess of emotions and my blame and anger and focused on gratitude.
What I know for sure is that I’m grateful to have a job where I get to work with young adults every day as they work to figure out who they are, where they want to go, and what it takes to get there.