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November 18, 2016

Practicing daily gratitude: a volunteer's perspective

I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude lately. Holding myself open to express gratitude challenges me in each interaction I have, each element of my to-do list, each breath of opportunity. Less positive emotions—sadness, anger, jealousy, fear—while integral parts of a human experience, cloud an otherwise hard-working and empathetic mind. On the days where I feel all woolen and prickly, it’s harder to be grateful. It’s harder to refocus my attention onto what else is there. Yet, this challenge is more than worth the effort as it persists at the heart of hope. Part of what inspires me about tutoring is the hope-giving resilience in Reading Partners’ students and volunteers.

They remind me that there are gifts in every moment, if I’m able to look for them. Roald Dahl wrote this about the implications of one’s world view in The Minpins:

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are hidden in the most unlikely of places.”

Of course, it’s not possible or desirable to be grateful for everything that happens to you. But wisdom holds that you can be grateful for every opportunity, however undesirable or painful. It’s like David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and leader of interfaith dialogue, wrote: “Joy is the kind of happiness that doesn’t depend on what happens.” This kind of mindset allows you to be open to the notion that the most challenging situations and people in life can be the greatest teachers. It certainly doesn’t always feel that way. But I believe it now more than ever.

Fortunately, there are places in every life where you don’t have to look hard to find things to love. For me, one of those places is the reading center and the student I tutor. I’ve compiled a gratitude list of sorts, including a few of my favorite things about having and being a reading partner.

1. My student asks me questions that I’ve never thought about before.
While reading, we encountered a new vocabulary word for her: ‘confident’. In trying to explain the definition, I had to ask myself, what does the word ‘confident’ really mean? How do you express something as intangible as a feeling?

2. She reminds me to wonder at the small things in life.
During our first session together, we did an exercise where she wrote down some of the things she wanted me to know about her. She told me that she likes to dance with her little sister. That she gets cozy when she goes to sleep at night. And that she always tells her mom she likes the food she makes.

3. We always find something to smile about.
Last week we laughed at funny pictures of cats in the book we were reading about pets.

4. She teaches me to listen more carefully.
I want to be present when I’m with my student, to balance tutoring with making time to hear her stories. I do my best to keep focused while allowing space for her thoughts and impressions.

5. More than teaching someone how to read, with Reading Partners I know I’m showing my student to love reading.
There’s nothing like her quiet excitement about taking a new book home or her determination to keep going, even on days when the lesson is tough.

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