By David K. Shipler
The Monday before Thanksgiving, the head of Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., urged an assembly of high school students to mark the holiday by giving thanks, by reflecting on the people in their lives who had contributed to their well-being. The act of expressing gratitude in itself, he said, had been shown to improve well-being.
Then he introduced me as the morning’s speaker, and I flipped the question around. What did they want to be thankful for? What would they like our generation to leave them in this world that would deserve their gratitude?
Hundreds of teenagers stared at me, thinking in silence. The hesitation (or the contemplation) stretched on until an adult in the back, presumably a teacher, raised his hand. “Peace and compromise,” he said on the very day that political leaders had again failed to reach compromise as the congressional supercommittee gave up on lowering the debt.
Hands began to go up. “The end of oil,” a student suggested in a guileless wish. Sustainable life, another said, leaving us to imagine a broad universe reaching from ecology to equality. Nobody should have to fear losing a job, one added. Representatives should represent the people, another declared.
These good, smart kids seemed to be standing right where we should all be: at the boundary between the country’s ideals and its practices. It is a difficult place these days, when we know the things that have to be done but can’t gather ourselves to do them. What is there to be thankful for? Our ephemeral military victories? Our prospering 1 percent? Our robust hate speech? Our vigorous surveillance society? Our sensible, selfless political leaders?
Thanksgiving has the beauty of universality. It excludes no one. It can be a religious holiday or not, as you choose. It summons no patriotic displays that can be cheapened by jingoism. It requires no gift-giving, fosters no egregious materialism, and produces no self-indulgence except for food and family—which are worthy means of celebration.
Yet there is something sad about having to search to give thanks. The students at Georgetown Day were not smiling—not even a boy who said hopefully that he’d be grateful for an NBA season. There is a loss when you cannot rejoice in the world and instead have to retreat onto the safer, private ground of your own small circle, being thankful for your family and friends and not for the state of what lies beyond. Intimate warmth and love become a sanctuary as well as a blessing.
High school is a wonderful age, at the cusp of consciousness about the larger world. Ideas are new. They have a fresh clarity, unspoiled by cynicism. Curiosity is still eager, unburdened by the weariness of disappointment.
So I told them that they had more power than they thought: Think back 60 years, when a 16-year-old named Barbara Johns took the platform at an assembly in her all-black, segregated school in Farmville, Virginia. She ordered the teachers out and led a discussion with students about the wretched conditions: tarpaper shacks to house the spillover from overcrowded classrooms, the history teacher who doubled as a bus driver and collected wood and started fires in the morning, the coats everybody had to wear inside in winter.
The Farmville students called a strike, walked out, appealed to NAACP lawyers, and filed a lawsuit that, combined with four others, led to the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
The Georgetown Day students are not about to call a strike and file a suit. They don’t have to. They are warm and privileged. But they may also be restless about what we are leaving them, and maybe that will translate into action. Perhaps the question still echoes, perhaps they will continue to think about what they would like to be thankful for, and someday make it happen.