Gratitude for Schools

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 (Richard Swerdlow)

Autumn is here. Leaves are falling and Thanksgiving is coming. It's the time of year elementary school teachers across the nation assign young students that traditional Thanksgiving essay you might remember from your school days: "What are you thankful for?"

Those essays, in best cursive writing, end up on school bulletin boards, displayed with construction paper pilgrims and crayon cranberry sauce. In my 23 years of teaching, I've assigned this essay to many students on many Thanksgivings. Every year, there's a certain similarity: "I'm thankful for my family, my friends, my Play Station2..."

Some Thanksgiving essays do stand out, though. 

One year, a third grader was thankful he was still alive, though cancer was killing him. I remember a student, thankful to be out of foster care and living with an adoptive family. Another Thanksgiving, a boy wrote an essay about being thankful for his new puppy and his energetic description. Playing with that puppy the way only an 8-year-old can practically jumped off the bulletin board.

But there is one item which doesn't make those "I'm thankful for" essays very often: going to school every day.


This Thanksgiving, I've been thinking about a photo published all over the world last summer - a homeless third grader in the Philippines, Daniel Cabrera. A passerby photographed this small boy sitting on the filthy pavement, doing his evening homework by the only light he could find - outside the window of a McDonald's. 

Daniel's teacher said he's a motivated student. And I hope even Daniel, begging on the streets of Manila, has things he's thankful for, including the opportunity to go to school. Because, as that heart-breaking photo shows, Daniel has figured out an education is something nobody can ever take away from him.

Daniel may not be eating turkey - or even a happy meal - on Thanksgiving. But this year, inspired by him, I'm thankful for school. And thankful for my colleagues - teachers, like Daniel's, who believe deeply in their students and in the power of education to change lives.

Even if my young students aren't always thankful for going to school, I'm thankful to Daniel Cabrera, for reminding me of how lucky all of us are to have schools to go to.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow works in the San Francisco Unified School District.