Gratitude … That Might Have Been

November 22, 2013

Straight From the Top

Mr. Norman Thompson

Editor’s Note: Mr. Norman Thompson, instructor in English for 42 years, shared his reflections on gratitude with students and faculty in chapel on November 20. His wisdom and eloquence so resonated with us that we were compelled to share this bounty with you.

 by Mr. Norman Thompson

As once again the seasons of the year roll around with heartbreaking inevitability, gathering speed and force, until we arrive at that time of year and that time of our lives when we begin to reflect on what has been and what is left to be.

As once again we approach that season of Thanksgiving, we are led to reflect on those things for which each of us should be thankful. As I approach yet another in a long procession of Thanksgivings, I wistfully gaze down the vista of the past, thankful for the myriad blessings that have serendipitously defined my life. But I am also led to reflect on the people whom I wish that I had thanked then and wish that I could thank now for acts that have charted the course of my life.

I speak here not of a God, not of a loving family, not of lifelong friends, not of present teachers, not of heroes who defend our freedoms, for these we have thanked or still may thank.

No, here I speak of those whose influence on our lives we took for granted, whose acts at the time seemed infinitesimally small or insignificant, but whose influence on our lives become blindingly apparent only much later, too late for us to express to them the ineffable gratitude that wells up in our hearts. These people may have seen their acts as merely their duty or have considered them insignificant, the acts of any decent human being. Still, I cringe to think that those to whom I owe so much may have been hurt by my ingratitude. Amien’s song in Shakespeare’s As You Like It expresses the pain inflicted by indifference to acts of kindness:

                  Blow, blow, thou winter wind;

                  Thou art not so unkind

                  As man’s ingratitude.

And I find no consolation in the words of American clergyman W.C. Bennett, who cynically wrote, “Blessed is he who expects no gratitude, for he shall not be disappointed.”

I hear the voices of inspiration and wisdom that speak to me over the expanding gulf of time and space. I yearn to speak back, to do what I had left undone, but while one can speak forward to the time to come, the veil of time is impermeable to the voice that would address those who have become one with the blowing dust of the Ages.

I hear even now the voice of Mr. Moe. His name was longer than this, but all my teammates on my junior church league baseball team called him Mr. Moe out of respect and admiration, as had a generation of Little Leaguers before us. I remember how in the previous year, we had twice been soundly drubbed by our hated rivals, the Bears. (We derisively called them the Teddy Bears despite the fact that they treated us as a grizzly standing in the rapids treats spawning salmon. Our games with them usually involved invocation of the mercy rule.) But this year we were a year older; this year we were ahead going into the next-to-last inning. And what did Mr. Moe do? He put in all the young benchwarmers, to the whining protestations of us hardened veterans of the dusty city park diamond. And what was his lame excuse? That on this team everyone played; that we were playing for fun and camaraderie. But we starters knew better. We were playing to win, to humiliate our opponents when we had the chance. Then, to shake hands and say, “Good game,” and pretend that we meant it. I perhaps protested loudest. Mr. Moe, with disarming kindness in his eyes, said to me, “Son, do you remember last year when we were ahead going into the last inning? Do you remember that though we lost, we had pizza afterward, and joked and laughed as though the world were not ending? Did it matter why we lost?” I don’t remember how that game turned out, but I do know that it was many years later that I realized the truth of the lesson that he was trying to teach us. And I remembered why we had lost those games the year before. We lost because Mr. Moe had put me and a couple of other benchwarmers into the game.

I wish fervently that I could tell Mr. Moe that I finally came to understand the wisdom of his words and deeds. I wish that I could quote Albert Schweitzer’s words to him as an expression of my gratitude to him: “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.”

I hear another voice from the abyss of the past that spoke only one sentence to me that I remember. It was spoken by my junior high school typing teacher, Miss Brindley (almost all my teachers seemed to be aging spinsters), a harpy, we freshmen thought, who ruled the typing room with an iron fist (or talon, if you like). Perhaps some of you can picture Miss Shields, the teacher in A Christmas Story. Well, Miss Brindley was from that era, but was otherwise unlike Miss Shields. Miss Brindley wore shoulder-padded tweed jackets and shoes that a telephone lineman would covet. When she left the campus for the day (usually long after the last student had left even the latest after-school activity), she wore a felt hat with a long, pointed feather protruding from the starboard side. She looked like an aquiline Robin Hood, but always in shades of dark brown. No one would ever mistake her for one of Robin’s Merry Men, though, for she was never seen to smile. One day she fixed me with her colorless raptor eyes, glinting through her steel-rimmed glasses, a stare so chilling that I panicked and blurted out, “I can’t do it; I will never pass this course.” To pass, one had only to type something like an anemic 40 words a minute with no more than three mistakes. I can still hear her words, her only words, to me: “You will do it, because you can do it.” I did do it.

And that class, one semester during my freshman year, was the most useful class that I ever took. I was able to type my own papers in college and graduate school, and to do so accurately and cheaply if not speedily. As I type something every day, I have reason to express my gratitude to Miss Brindley every day. Perhaps even more important to me than the utility of the course was the lesson of perseverance that she taught me. But I never thanked her. I was too intimidated at the time, and it has been too late for a long time to do so now.

I wish that I could express my gratitude to a shadowy figure haunting the dark recesses of my memory, an adjunct professor of my undergraduate years, a man whose face and name have dissolved in the beaker of time. Nor can I hear his voice, but he speaks to me nonetheless. He taught me much about critical thinking with only two memorable words that he wrote in the margin of one of my essays. He had assigned a critical analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet of each student’s choice. I chose Sonnet 73. I consulted Perrine’s Sound and Sense extensively. I commented on every poetic device that I found pertinent in this book. I used every pertinent poetic term listed in the index of the book. Though he gave me a pretty good grade, he wrote only two words beside my concluding paragraph. He wrote, “So what?” I was first devastated and then angry. How dare this part-time professor make such a smug, insulting remark as the totality of his evaluation of my brilliant analysis? But, as he had given me a good grade, I decided to ignore the comment and endure the remainder of the course, which terminated in the grade that I wanted. It was only several years later, years during which I had done more reading and had expanded my familiarity with criticism and with Shakespeare that I realized how right he was. No matter how detailed an analysis is, if all its details and all its arguments do not coalesce to develop a coherent illumination of the central theme of the work, then that analysis is the work of a dilettante, a novice, whose best efforts will engender from the true scholar only a shrug and a dismissive “So what?” I would like to thank the man who encouraged me for my effort by giving me a good grade, but made me a better reader and writer by telling me the truth.

As I peer through the occluding mists of time at the many encouraging faces and hear inspiring voices, I see and hear one that always wrenches from me a rueful sigh as I think of my nonchalance at the life-altering service that he rendered me. I took what he did for granted at the time, and many years had to flow by until I realized the magnitude of what he had done for me without the slightest obligation on his part to do so. This man, I shall call him Mr. Reynolds, was the principal of a public middle school, who had come to work one summer at the commercial establishment where I was employed. He was trying to pick up a little extra cash and intended to remain for the summer only. We became casual friends as we had a common interest in things academic. Our interests were unlike those of our co-workers or our customers. One day as we lunched together, he asked me why I was involved in a business so alien to my interests. I had no answer other than to say, “circumstance and inertia.” As we drove away from the restaurant in his car, he said, “I would like for you to meet someone.” He drove to a place that I had never before seen. We entered, and he asked to speak to the head of the establishment. He introduced me to Col. Ross Lynn, headmaster of Memphis University School, telling Col. Lynn that I would be a good fit for any opening that he may have in the English Department. As it fortuitously for me turned out, there was an opening, and as the platitude goes, “the rest is history.” As we drove away, I said to Mr. Reynolds that if I got the job, it would be because of his strong endorsement of me to his friend Col. Lynn and his knowledge of an opening on the faculty. With a sheepish grin and a glint in his eye, he turned to me and said, “I met Col Lynn for the first time today, and I have never been on that campus before.”

I never saw Mr. Reynolds again after that summer, which came to an end a couple of weeks later. So, 42 years later, I look back on that summer afternoon and the brief friendship formed by a chance encounter, and see with clarity that my life, my career, was determined by someone who owed me nothing but paid me so handsomely.

And so, if I may presume to give you young people some unsolicited advice, I would remind you that time is a swiftly-flowing river; its swiftness seldom allows us to paddle upstream against its overwhelming current, to return to a place that we have passed, a place where we may have been more thankful to those who had helped us become what we are. I would submit to you that in this season of Thanksgiving, the time to express gratitude to others is now.

G.K. Chesterton reminds us, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

“No one who achieves success does so without acknowledging the help of others. The wise and confident acknowledge this help with gratitude.” So wrote Alfred North Whitehead.

Remember with the poet Whittier:

                  For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

                  The saddest are these: “It might have been.”

So, take it from me, if you care to, expressing your gratitude now will save you a lifetime of recrimination.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

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