GIVEN THE IMMENSE SACRIFICES of our military men and women over the last 14 years, it is customary for civilians, both prominent and ordinary, to say “thank you for your service.” It is fitting and proper that we should do so. The sacrifices they have made, in blood, pain and sanity, ought to entitle them to our undying gratitude.
It has occurred to me lately, however, that there are those who serve us closer to home, and that they, too, deserve our thanks.
Part of the reason for the realization was a recent conversation I had with a passenger in my car, who I picked up as part of my new gig being a driver for one of the car-sharing services.
I picked up a weary looking young woman on Geary Boulevard in the western part of San Francisco, and after she was belted in and ready to go, I joined the flow of traffic and asked, “Just getting off work?”
“Yes,” she said with more than a trace of gratitude.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher,” she said.
“Oh? What grades?”
“Middle school — just a few blocks over that way,” she said with a tired wave of her hand.
Thinking of my hormone-addled self at 13, I joked, “On behalf of my middle-school-aged self, I apologize.”
She laughed and said, “No — they’re a handful, but I love my job.” Then, her voice softening: “They’re great kids.”
On a sudden inspiration, I said, “Thank you. Thank you for your service.”
Things got silent, so I glanced at my rearview mirror, and saw her wiping away a tear from her cheek.
“Oh, geez,” I began, “I didn’t mean to—”
“No, it’s ok,” she said. “It’s just that—no one ever said that to me before. Thank you so much.”
Her destination was clear across town and the streets were clotted with rush hour traffic, so we had the chance to talk for perhaps 20 minutes about her school, the challenges she faced in her daily routine, how things had changed since my middle-school days, and so on. She really was a wonderful person, and clearly committed to excellence in her job. I’m sure her students will remember her with affection.
After I dropped her off, I realized there was someone like her in my own past.
I finished up my high school career at Liberty High School, the continuation school in my hometown (it’s a long story…) and there I had a teacher named Terry Abreu. He was my history/current events teacher, and — being the history geek I was and still am — I used to spend my free time reading the history books in the long bookcase that ran along an entire wall at the back of his classroom.
I enjoyed debating as much then as I do now, and loved to discuss and debate the issues of the day with my teachers. At some point Terry challenged me to write an essay in which I would defend my position on some issue on which I was holding forth. I wrote the essay, and rather than refute what I had written as I expected, Terry critiqued my arguments, and gave me my first lessons in how to define and defend a position on an issue.
None of this was in Terry’s official lesson plans. He just saw a kid with an active, engaged mind, and chose to devote time to developing that kid’s potential.
I wrote many essays during my time in Terry’s classroom, and Terry read and critiqued them all, pointing out logical fallacies and clichés that weakened my case. To the extent that I am a good writer, it is thanks in no small part to Terry’s patient teaching; to the extent that I’m not, it is in large part due to things he tried to drum into this thick skull that I have since forgotten.
I look back at the arc of my life, and can see that at key junctures, there was someone like Terry who was willing to selflessly give of his or her talents, their only motive helping me realize my full potential. Just off the top of my head, there was a squad leader I had in the Army named Sgt. Morales-Santos, and he acted as a mentor to me when I was a green and somewhat sloppy new troop just out of basic training. I’ve mentioned before that there were people in my childhood neighborhood in Richmond who taught me to be compassionate and not to judge anyone too hastily.
The extent to which I am a good person today owes a lot to their patience, care and persistence. I’m convinced that the world is a bearable place because of the selfless generosity of such people. They, too, serve us, and they deserve our thanks and respect.