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What Really Matters?

Friday was the last day of school–at least, the last day with students–and as we neared the end of class, I looked at the exhausted faces of my 7th graders in their little Zoom boxes. One was bouncing, as he had been for the past twelve weeks of remote learning, on what I imagine was an exercise-ball-cum-desk-chair. Another was practicing his pitching skills by throwing a ball against his bedroom wall, then catching it. Then throwing it, then catching it. Another, this one a girl, was smoothing and adjusting her hair in her “Zoom mirror.” She had been adjusting her hair for twelve weeks.

But I said nothing about any of it. The last three months had made us all weary. And it had been an especially difficult and traumatic week. 

I took a breath. “Well, my lovely students, we have 15 minutes left of class. Fifteen minutes until you are officially 8th graders. So we’re going to use this 15 minutes to do one last thing.”

The Pitcher stopped throwing his baseball against the wall and turned to face his computer. The Hair-smoother stopped smoothing. The Bouncer kept bouncing. It’s hard not to bounce when you’re thirteen and you’re sitting on a rubber exercise ball and the world is on fire.

“There’s no easy or quick way to get out of this mess our country is in,” I said. “But we can start moving in the right direction by doing small things. In the next fifteen minutes, we’re going to show our gratitude for people we care about, for people who care about us, by writing thank you emails. You can write thank you emails to your parents and guardians, to a sibling, a classmate, a relative, a coach, to a friend … anyone who you are grateful for.” 

A hand went up. “Can we write to a friend?”

“Yes,” I said, reminding myself that even the smartest 7th grader has the brain of a prehistoric reptile. “You can thank anyone … a relative or a coach … a parent or guardian … a friend. And it doesn’t have to be a long note. A two- or three-sentence thank you email is plenty.”

“What if we don’t have paper and an envelope?”

“Right,” I said. “That’s fine because we’re just emailing our thank you notes.”

“And how long do these have to be?”

They were prehistoric reptiles who had been attending online school for twelve exhausting weeks.

“And,” another student chimed in, “what if we don’t have the person’s email?”

I glanced at the time. “Well, since there’s now just thirteen minutes left in class, let’s write to people whose contact information we do have. OK?” 

From each of their little Zoom boxes, they showed me a thumbs up. 

“Great,” I continued. “And just so you know, I’m going to do this too. And I’m going to write one to you all because you all make me happy and hopeful.”

For thirteen minutes, I wrote, and they wrote (or pretended to), and when the make-believe bell rang, I reminded them that they were amazing, that they were my hope-givers. 

I think they knew I was telling the truth. I hope they did.

Then we all said a chorus of goodbyes and waved frantically at each other, and one by one, I watched their faces leave the meeting, until only I remained. I clicked the “End meeting for all” button, closed my laptop, and burst into tears.

The theme for 7th grade English is Justice. Never in my teaching career has a thematic unit felt so tragically relevant. Never in my lifetime has there been such a bevy of current events to use as examples of injustice. 

Over the past several months, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what really matters. Does, for example, proper grammar matter? Does it matter that my own teenagers keep their rooms clean? Does buying organic milk matter? Does it matter that my son’s SAT score isn’t all that high? Does it matter how the dishwasher gets loaded or whether clean laundry gets folded and put away?

Does a three-sentence thank you email matter? 

I think it does. Maybe sending and receiving gratitude reminds us that in spite of quarantines, in spite of nasty rhetoric meant to divide us, in spite of racism, we are still connected in essential ways.

I have come to understand that my teenagers’ inefficient and nonstrategic dishwasher loading techniques don’t matter, not at all.

But human connection does. For so many reasons.

The author, Susan Vreeland, writes:

Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving-kindness, human understanding, and peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers in the forms of domestic and civil violence. Art and literature are antidotes to that.

Without connection, there is domestic and civil violence? Yes.

So it’s incumbent upon us writers to create the antidote to violence? Yes!

When we read fiction, we spend ten or twenty hours walking in the shoes of another. Recently I have read a story about a pack horse librarian in Kentucky, another about a crew of radical tree-huggers, and another about a gaggle of ghouls that abides near the crypt where Abraham Lincoln’s young son is interred. All three works of fiction plunked me in the middle of worlds that were totally unfamiliar. And by the end, the settings all felt like home, the characters like family. Even the most unfamiliar characters have somehow slipped into my heart. Their voices and their stories are now stitched into my psyche.

Susan Vreeland is right: Isolation, cruelty, and violence don’t have a chance in the presence of human connection.

Gratitude matters. Connection matters. Stories matter.

In this recent Op-ed piece [1], Frank Bruni discusses what will happen if liberal arts colleges are not around to teach The Odyssey and Moby Dick.

Bruni explains,

We need research scientists. It falls to them to map every last wrinkle of  [Covid-19] and find its Achilles’ heel.

But we also need Achilles. We need Homer. We need writers, philosophers, historians. They’ll be the ones to chart the social, cultural and political challenges of this pandemic — and of all the other dynamics that have pushed the United States so harrowingly close to the edge. In terms of restoring faith in the American project and reseeding common ground, they’re beyond essential.

Yes! We need to read stories that expose us to difficult things and reveal ways that a character can move through those difficult experiences. Those are helpful stories right now. We need to read those stories.

And we need to write the stories that will reseed our common ground, stories that will fill our air with oxygen, making it easier for people–all people–to persevere, to thrive, and yes, to breathe. 

What matters most to you these days? What metaphorical trees are you planting to increase the oxygen in your life and in your communities? What stories have you read recently that have helped you breathe?

Thank you for reading and for sharing. I hope you believe me when I say I appreciate each one of you!


Art compliments of Flickr’s Trending Topics 2019 [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.