“gratitude” – earth, wind & fire (1975)

Living in a big city like Chicago, it can be hard to be festive in the fall. A lot of the typical fall event staples like apple picking, corn mazes, and pumpkin patches are really only available outside of the city. Being someone with no car, that makes getting there difficult. Needless to say, I don’t get to those things every year but I’m excited that they are happening and that some people do get to enjoy those things. However, I find other ways to enjoy the season.

I am currently in Kentucky taking some much needed time off work. Today, I went to a local Methodist church to help my stepmom prepare a Thanksgiving meal. Even though the actual Thanksgiving holiday isn’t for another two days, she was in charge of a really special event.

For over 15 years, my stepmother has been teaching high school students with learning and behavioral issues. When I went to high school, these students were known among the general student population as the bad kids and went to a separate facility a few miles away. Admittedly, thinking that way was due to being younger and ignorant. Now that I’m older and have a better understanding of people and our education system, I no longer think of these students as “bad.”

When my high school got remodeled the year after I graduated, the separate facility was closed down and the students were moved into the main building. In the years since then, I’ve visited the classroom a few times and met the students my stepmother taught. I have even participated in some of their class discussions and exercises.

Prior to my stepmom being involved, I can’t say with any certainty how these classes were conducted or how students were taught. I have the feeling that maybe this environment could’ve been better. Since my stepmom became involved, I do know that there has been many improvements to the program which has ultimately impacted the lives of these students.

As mentioned, these students have behavioral and learning issues. And that is me just generalizing which isn’t exactly fair. Every individual student learns and grows differently, so referring to a group of students that learn independently of the general population as having “issues” doesn’t take into account the work they do and the progress they achieve. I’ll never stop being a student. I learn everyday and I’m learning on how to better describe these students. I’ll get there.

These are students that require a little more attention and help. Some, over the years, had developmental problems stemming from their parents’ drug and alcohol use. Many come from poorer environments which has impacted their education. And others lack the resources outside of school to enhance the education they are receiving in school. However, all of these students have the desire to make improvements in their lives. That’s why they are in that program.

A big part of what these students learn is how to recognize and handle their emotions. That when they face a challenge or obstacle, they can keep a clear head, solve the problem, and not make a mistake that could have severe consequences. This involves talking and being open about feelings as well as listening to people and being respectful of their experiences. These are key principles everyone must know to be successful in their lives. And it amazes me how many people in less marginalized or ridiculed settings don’t know that or choose to ignore it. So, when I see my stepmom’s students, I’m amazed at how hard they work to make the best of their situation and not fall into something more serious.

Today was a great example of that. The Thanksgiving meal my stepmom was coordinating was one that involved her students. For the last dozen of the 15 years she has taught this program, she has coordinated a Thanksgiving meal for the staff and students of this program. It first started in a small building on the high school’s grounds, but has now moved into the larger space of this church.

Every student has a job during this event. Some help my stepmother prepare food in the kitchen, a few prepare drinks and set tables, others handle greeting duty, and two were tasked with setting up a Christmas tree. Every student was dressed very well with the girls wearing nice outfits and the boys wearing shirts and ties. Everyone kept busy and did their job well.

This event is a big deal to them. For one, it showcases what they’ve been learning regarding handling emotions and being more successful members of society. This is a meal they plan and work together to organize. Even though they are the ones putting everything together, the event is about them and celebrating their efforts and accomplishments. This is their moment to show they can contribute to their community.

Secondly, this is a nice meal they can share with friends and family. One perk is that each student can invite their friends and family. As mentioned, many of these students come from poorer environments and likely don’t get to participate in large traditional Thanksgiving meals. So, this is one time where they can and be around people who love and support them and only want for them to succeed. The kids prepare the meal, serve the meal, and then get the opportunity to spend quality time with each other.

There was one touch to the whole event I found pretty remarkable. On each table, there were index cards with handwritten notes. Some of these included well-known quotes. However, most were notes about what the students were thankful for. I took some time to read the notes and talked to some of the kids preparing the event. It was great to hear them actually articulate their thoughts instead of getting “I don’t know” or “whatever” responses.

Prior to the actual dinner, the director of the program spoke for a few minutes about the history of the program and the success he has seen over the years. Then, he encouraged people to stand up and share what they were thankful for. It was mostly the students and a few teachers who shared their thoughts. And they were rather endearing. One student actually became really emotional and cried because she was so thankful for the opportunities she received in the program to turn her education, and her life, around. I took some time and observed the other students who didn’t speak up. No one was snickering or mocking anyone who shared their feelings. I was once a high school kid. I know how they act. I was very pleased to not see any childish behavior. Perhaps I would’ve seen that out of the students from the general population. But, they don’t have to work as hard as they kids do. They want this for themselves.

Thanksgiving is one of the rare holidays that I’ll do a themed post for this blog. So, the song of the week is “Gratitude” by Earth, Wind & Fire. Released in 1975 on a live album of the same name, this is a funky track that is about being thankful and giving love. There really isn’t a melody or standard verses and choruses. Just a funky jam with some real meaning; a meaning that is pure and simple.

Thanksgiving is all about being thankful for what you have and showing gratitude to the people around you who love and support you. I know that overall feeling can sound hokey and sentimental, but it is still important. Take into account the good things in your life and how they got to be there because things can change. Just have the strength to know that when changes come, you can be ready for them, and then be thankful you weathered it.