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“Thank You For Your Service”

September 2, 2015

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.

Whoops.

“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.

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6 Comments
  1. Alexandra permalink
    September 2, 2015 2:16 pm

    Thank you for thanking a teacher. None of us who has succeeded in anything would be here without one — or many — teachers. It’s high time that we recognized their value — by thanking them and in ways far more tangible.

  2. September 2, 2015 11:05 pm

    Great piece, Matt! I think we should all take the time to thank the many people who offer their service in big and small ways. So often we take them for granted, and this is something we can easily change.

  3. David Cruz-Uribe, OFS permalink
    September 4, 2015 7:54 pm

    Matt, this is an interesting and thoughtful post and one well worth thinking about when we deal with all sorts of people. I know in my own new position the solicitousness I have shown to my new staff has been greatly appreciated, and I suspect from some things they said that it stands in contrast to the ways they have been treated in the past.

    However, I want to touch on something else you said in starting your article: that it is right and proper to thank service people for their service. I hesitate to do this because this action of thanking, which should be relational, has been politicized: one does not thank service men and women out of actual gratitude but rather as a political statement or as a means of staking out a certain social/cultural/political position. I realize that this is not completely accurate—the reasons people do things are complex. But the fact remains that I often feel that I am being pressured into thanking them for their service not to express anything towards them and their service, but rather to show my allegiance to an ideological superstructure that I find quite objectionable.

    I am really not sure how to dig myself out of this personal conundrum, except perhaps to spend less time on Facebook. But the tensions are real to me.

    • Ronald King permalink
      September 5, 2015 9:58 am

      I was never thanked for my service in the late ’60’s and when I began working with Vets in group, family and individual therapy from ’86 to ’91 a common core source of their pain was the shame imposed on them for being in the military during Viet Nam. This shame was/is the fuel which intensified their suffering associated with the war and the PTSD which they had to endure throughout their lives along with their families. So when I see a Vet now it is with a real feeling of love when I express to them “Thank you for your service.”

    • Alexandra permalink
      September 5, 2015 11:09 am

      David,
      If I may explain how I deal with the issue:
      I don’t thank people automatically for any kind of service. I make a point of thanking/commending EVERYONE for any act of kindness and/or service that I receive and/or observe. If I engage in a conversation with someone and believe that they do perform a service that I appreciate, I do thank and/or commend them for it. This way, I am showing appreciation where I mean to do so and do not thank people for doing things which they might consider honorable and necessary and important, but with which I disagree. Also, a somewhat neutral observation like “I am really glad that there are police officers who are willing to protect victims of domestic violence” does state my appreciation, without thanking any particular officer for performing actions with which I might disagree. I am careful that any statement that I make be sincere. Personally, I find this habit of automatically thanking people in uniform for their service to be more than a bit disconcerting.

    • September 5, 2015 1:39 pm

      this action of thanking, which should be relational, has been politicized: one does not thank service men and women out of actual gratitude but rather as a political statement or as a means of staking out a certain social/cultural/political position.

      Yep. Some of that politicization has been a response to the Legend of the Spitting Hippies during the Vietnam War, who were nowhere near as common as claimed in retrospect. My purpose here, however, is to depoliticize it by, in broadening it, transforming it (back?) into its original purpose: thanking someone genuinely for their service — whether that be to our nation or to our local community.

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