We Are Only Human

On the path to self discovery

The Generosity of Gratitude

Giving thanks for educators, students, and colleagues

In the season of thanks, I recently had my Harvard freshman seminar class take inventory of all they’re grateful for. The responses were fairly predictable: family, friends, significant others, pets, jobs, opportunities. There were a few endearing surprises, including one student who was appreciative of his comforter, another her fuzzy hat. I had to smile at those ones.

It’s undoubtedly rewarding to work with inquisitive and successful students at a place like Harvard. But I have to say that what I’m most grateful for are the kids who don’t yet have it figured out, the ones who are often struggling in a dramatic way. In my other role as an attending child and adolescent psychiatrist in urban public schools, I work with students who are grappling with abuse, family dysfunction, mental disorders, behavioral problems — and sometimes all of the above.

Working in conjunction with teachers, parents, and principals in an ongoing effort to engage with or change the direction of a struggling student is daunting but inspiring. We don’t always agree, but we all have the student’s best interest at heart, and when our hard work, our dedicated team effort—including, sometimes, our frustrated tears—fuse into a successful outcome, the results are exhilarating. Our combined pain is always worth the transformation, however small the incremental progress, in a student.

Recently, out of the blue, a mother reached out to me. “You probably don’t remember me, but you saved my son’s life,” she said.

Of course I remembered. Simon was the student who, at 5 years old, insisted on eating out of a dog food bowl. He’d dismantle his kindergarten classroom, ripping drawings off the wall and breaking the aquarium, and he hit students and teachers. He was so disruptive and aggressive that his teachers and principal started to give up. Teachers and administrators are mere humans. Humans with a high stress threshold, to be sure, but everyone has a breaking point. Exhausted as we were, I encouraged them to keeping fighting alongside me, to carve out a plan for Simon, and to move forward with making it happen. I could see what a difference we could make for him, but a plan would be pointless without their determined support. We eventually connected Simon with a caring therapist and a smaller therapeutic school, and I estimated a 6-month timeframe before we’d begin to see any progress. Regrettably, in the hustle and bustle of helping other kids, I lost touch with him. But this turned out not to be a bad thing.

It was 6 months to the day that he turned his behavior around, his mother told me. Now at 13, Simon is coming into his own. He has his ups and downs, but it is what you would expect for a child that age—and she just wanted me to know that he’s doing fine.

When the parents or guardians of kids I work with thank me, I instead want to thank them for allowing me to be a part of such inspiring stories. Schools are battlefields, filled with both those needing comfort from their wounds and those experiencing moments of glory. At times it can be an overwhelming environment, without a clear roadmap of how to progress. It’s a unique opportunity to support kids and families when they’re most vulnerable, and to be recognized for it is almost inconsequential. While I love hearing good, reassuring news, I’m grateful just to have had the chance to be a part of a child’s life and to be in the company of such invested educators and administrators who impress and motivate me daily with their passion and purpose, a passion for the possible.

We read stories about greedy teachers and bad teachers, but the teachers I know are some of the most hard-working people I’ve ever met. I knew a kindergarten teacher who for 20 years sent birthday cards to her former students. This story reminds me that small, simple acts of kindness can make a big impact, whether to a struggling student or to a stranger having a bad day, and that helps keep me going.

It’s been shown that acknowledging what you’re grateful for makes you more motivated to be generous. So, this Thanksgiving, I’m proud to acknowledge the work that my colleagues and I get to do, the struggles of my students, and the incredibly hard work of all the educators and administrators out there.

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Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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