It’s Thanksgiving week. Two days till my university closes for break. I was talking to my students about whether they celebrate the holiday, what their traditions are. The conversation turned to gratitude and how the practice of being thankful is good for mental health. We went around the room and shared things that make us thankful.
In one of my classes I have a group of CAMP (College Assistant Migrant Program) students from Myanmar. Their people group is Karen, pronounced like the girl’s name “Corinne.” Like their parents who work in the poultry industry, they are some of the kindest and hardest-working people I have ever known. They all want to make their families proud by doing well in college. As so often happens in the classroom, our roles reversed and they taught me something new about what Thanksgiving means, a lesson I hope I will hold in my heart forever.
Most of my CAMP students were born in a refugee camp. Their parents fled across the border into Thailand when soldiers came to their jungle villages and burned their houses to the ground. All of them have stories of loved ones who didn’t survive, or didn’t make it into Thailand. Many still have relatives living in fear inside Myanmar, where government forces hunt and kill Karen people. The stated goal of the Burmese military commander is to wipe the Karen from the face of the Earth. As an American citizen from a small town in Arkansas I can only try to imagine any of these things.
Some of them lived as refugees their entire lives before coming to the United States in their teens. They are thankful for things like a house with a strong roof, plenty of food to eat and clean water to drink. A young woman describes what it was like to haul buckets to a river for water, how her mother boiled it over a fire. A young man talks about how thrilling it is to learn, fulfilling the longing he had all of those years while he was living in a place with no trained teachers, no books, no school supplies. Another tells how thankful he is to have more than one shirt. He remembers when he only had one shirt, a free T-shirt given out to everyone in the refugee camp. He wore it until it was way too small and just rags, but now he has a clean shirt every day.
My eyes fill with tears as they go on and on: thankful for a bed, a room, a phone. Thankful for a car, shoes, the internet. Thankful for a table. A floor that’s not made of dirt. Meat to eat. A bathroom. Plumbing. A desk. They never had these things before.
I think of myself as a patriotic American but it dawns on me that I know nothing of the riches of my country, how lucky I was just to be born here. As a kid I never realized school was a privilege. I thought it was just something everyone does. There were teachers and classes and everyone had pencils and books and a desk. Water was not a treat. I was never afraid when I saw a soldier; I was proud. I knew soldiers were good people who fought for us. They were there to protect us. To keep our country safe and free.
My husband and I have a list of things that need repairing in our home: the handle came off the microwave, there’s a problem with one of the burners on our stove, the shower in the master bedroom drips and it’s annoying when we’re trying to go to sleep at night. A puppy has chewed the trim in our laundry room. The agitator in our washer is not just right. Sometimes the internet is slow. There are bigger things, like that the hardwood floor needs refinishing, but it will be so hard to keep dust out of my grand piano. We decide to put that off.
These are the sorts of things we discussed at the breakfast table this morning, over eggs, toast and bacon. Stone turned on the faucet and clean water came out, just like it does every day. He poured a little into a machine and then stuck a pod in the machine—one of the pods that gets delivered to our door every month by subscription. As it dripped he poured milk into another machine that swirled the milk into a foam. He added vanilla, honey, and cinnamon — all out of tidy containers — then spooned the froth into a cup now full of hot, dark espresso. Our house was warm.
After choosing clothes out of a big closet, and a pair of shoes out of many, I left my house in a car. It has leather seats. It starts on the first try. Warm air blows on my feet and heated seats keep me comfortable as I take the nice paved roads to my office. My office has a phone and comfortable chair. A computer with fast internet. A printer. It even has a cute little red fridge where I keep my lunch, and a case of Diet Dr. Peppers. In my office I grab books, pen, and paper — all provided — and then I walk into a warm classroom. I have freedom to teach stories and poems and plays I love to students I also love. I get paid money for doing this.
This essay would never end if I kept listing all of the things I have to be thankful for. But this year what I’m especially thankful for is the perspective my Karen students have given me. The reminder of what a miracle it is just to be alive in this place, this time. The gift it is to have my particular set of problems to solve. There are people all over the world who would trade places with me, just to be safe. To keep their kids safe. Clothed. Fed. To send them to a free public school with brilliant teachers and books and programs to help them grow in every way. May I be so thankful it keeps me mindful, and spurs me to work that brings freedom, safety, bounty and joy to others, here and everywhere.