Giving Real Meaning To Your Thanksgiving

November 14, 2012

Guide To Diagramming Sentences

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
                           Thornton Wilder

A Note To Readers:
When you reach the end of this blog, I will have an assignment for you.  Now, while I believe the task I’ll be doling out will give you indescribable joy and satisfaction that may last inside you for days, it’s totally ok if you choose to stop reading now in order to dodge the added work.  My deepest hope, of course, is that you’ll hang in there to the end….

A Story Of Regret:
When I was fourteen-years-old, I was transplanted from Long Island, New York to a town three thousand miles away just outside San Diego.  A move like that is inherently stressful, especially when you have to settle in at a new high school in late November, two months after the semester has begun.

On my very first day, and in my very first class, I met a teacher who at first terrified me but who later profoundly changed my life.

Miss Adelma Dale was a no-nonsense women in her early sixties who was teaching sentence diagramming, an arcane method of explaining English grammar rules, that instantly struck me as entirely incomprehensible.

Out of fear, perhaps, and to hide my own confusion, I soon found myself acting out in class.  Within a couple weeks of meeting Miss Dale, she sent me to the Principal’s office twice.  Most days, she forced me to sit in the back of the room, literally behind the piano.

For the next six months, I hated going to this class. I routinely felt lost, and embarrassed by all her efforts to discipline me.  More than anything, I looked forward to the next year when I could change teachers and get out from under her oppression.

“Be careful what you ask for” is the lesson I learned in my sophomore year.  My new English teacher, Mr. Cunningham, lacked all of Miss Dales’ passion for teaching and insistence upon challenging students to grow.  I quickly found myself excruciatingly bored and under-challenged.

Ironically, I would have only two options for English in my junior year – either coast through another class taught by Mr. Cunningham, or take a second chance with my arch-nemesis, Miss Dale.  My intuition advised me to take the more challenging route.

After a year of being away from Miss Dale, it seemed quite apparent that she had greatly changed.  I now found her to be extremely patient and even caring.   Early in the semester, she even invited me to meet after school for one-on-one tutoring – something that continued for the remainder of the year.

It was only many years later that I came to fully grasp two important things about Miss Dale and the impact she had on my life.

The first is that she wasn’t the one who changed between my freshman and junior year.  I had changed.  By holding me to a much higher performance standard, and by caring, it was she who had influenced me to grow, mature and become more self-confident.

My second greatly delayed insight is that Miss Dale saw my full human potential.  She invited me to stay after school not so she could teach me the subordinating conjunctions, but so she could teach me to become a better writer.

When I got into a great college, and succeeded as an English Literature major, I took it for granted that I was a capable writer.  But many years later while I was writing my book, I finally had the epiphany that it was Miss Dale’s kindness, generosity and determination to help me that ensured I was capable of fulfilling my promise.

Tied to feelings of immense gratitude, I sat down and wrote Miss Dale a letter.  Speaking from my heart, I told her about the impact she’d had on my life, and how deeply I appreciated all she had done to help me – at a time when I most needed a friend and advocate.  It was also incredibly satisfying for me to convey to her how very significant her impact on me had been. 

But it turned out I was too late.   The post office returned my letter a few weeks later indicating she no longer was at her long-standing address.   Now in her nineties were she still alive, it’s very likely Miss Dale passed away, never reading my letter or hearing my deep-felt gratitude.

Your Assignment:
Importantly, and not coincidentally, next Thursday is “Thanks Giving” Day.  If you are anything like me, you have numerous people in your life who have greatly helped you become the person you are.   This could include friends, colleagues and direct reports alike.  Drawing upon an exercise created by University of Pennsylvania professor, Dr. Martin Seligman, I’m encouraging you to write a detailed “gratitude letter” to a person (or several) who has been kind, generous or exceptionally supportive to you, but someone whom you have never properly thanked.

If you want a truly moving experience (for you both) visit the person and read it to them aloud.  But whether you mail your words, deliver them in person or read them over the phone, the great satisfaction will be to have accomplished this on or by Thanksgiving Day.

I of course, regret waiting too long to properly thank Miss Dale and to convey to her the difference she made in my life.   So, in light of my experience, please don’t wait any longer to thank the people who’ve been so integral to yours.

What I know for certain is that gratitude nourishes the spirit in both receiver and giver.  It energizes.  When you express authentic appreciation to others, you fill their hearts.  You directly and inherently demonstrate that you value and care for them, and they can feel it.

So, before you settle in for a long day of football, turkey and stuffing, take time this Thanksgiving to express your most honest and grateful thoughts to someone.   This is the year I hope you’ll put your heart on the line.  If you do, you’re likely to feel a glow that will last longer than you can presently imagine – and you’ll make someone else feel they truly matter.   Double helpings of pumpkin pie can’t create feelings like that.

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By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.