Gratitude


The defining metaphor, or the basic conceit if you prefer, of this site is the deviation. The ways that by taking a path few take (that of the PhD) we are off the road. We have departed de via, from the road. However, as my subtitle suggests, I believe strongly that the road is one thing, and the way that we find is another. This post is for those who have been there for me on the way.

Maybe it was just me, but there was an extent to which the acknowledgements page of my dissertation was the most difficult to write. According to ProQuest/UMI, by the time all was said and done, my dissertation clocked in at 282 pages. Two pages, the second not quite full, are acknowledgements and I realized the moment after I clicked “Submit” that I hadn’t thanked half of the people who needed thanking. It’s a terrible feeling, actually. Here it is, the document itself, the culmination of so many years of work and so many wonderful people’s help and assistance and, inevitably, I had left out some whom I wanted to thank.

I tacked to a new breeze, however, when I realized that many of the people whom I most needed to thank would never read my dissertation, might not have access to the ProQuest database, and, most sobering of all might have no idea I’d written a dissertation. Because the process that led to graduation did not start with graduate school. It didn’t even start with undergrad. I don’t know where or when it did start exactly, but I finally took pen in hand to try to address the gratitude problem.

I bought stationery, actual “thank you” cards, with the seal of Tufts University on them. I filled my fountain pen (a gift from my father for my BA graduation) and started writing. (Incidentally, for pen lovers, I addressed the notes with the roller ball that was the gift from my father for my PhD graduation). To begin at the beginning, I wrote a letter addressed to the faculty and staff at the Yung Wing School more commonly known as P.S. 124 on Division Street in New York. There, I’m told, I learned to read. Maybe those who have been granted PhDs in Physics, or Psychology, or Economics don’t feel this direct pedagogical lineage as strongly, as those are subjects that you begin to study in High School if you’re lucky. However, there is a noticeable way in which I feel that I just got a PhD in reading, in close reading if you like. And in thinking about how this was possible, I couldn’t help but think of the institution largely responsible for making this shapes on the screen in front of me now have meaning to me.

I wrote another letter to the Philippa Schuyler School for the Gifted and Talented, again more commonly known as I.S. 383, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Both of my primary schools were named after amazing individuals: Yung Wing, “the first Chinese student to graduate from a U.S. university” and mixed race child prodigy and activist Philippa Duke Schuyler. Junior High is rarely a happy time in anyone’s life, it seems, but I think about where I am now and I feel gratitude to that school for helping me get here.

I also wrote letters to the Oliver Scholars Program and the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers (IRT), two programs which I believe have very similar missions and strategies. I benefited from the support and encouragement of both of these programs. The Oliver program, among other things, demystifies the world of private school. I don’t know where I learned that private schools were places only for the richer-and-smarter-than-thou, but Oliver helped me understand that these amazing schools were resources in one could only learn how to use them. IRT did a similar thing for graduate school. Never in the course of my undergraduate career did the idea of a doctorate occur to me. I knew what they were, of course, but they seemed like the sorts of things that “other people” got. IRT showed me that maybe, just maybe, other people might be me.

I wrote some personal notes, too. Individual teachers and supporters who made a difference in my life. And I have more of them yet to write. I wish those tiny cards had room for the scenes. I hope I get to tell the English teacher who made us 16 year old 11th graders buy the untranslated Canterbury Tales that I was one of the few first-years in graduate school–who were not medievalists–who could both read and pronounce Middle English. And I hope I remember to tell him that I can still declaim that first sentence!

And then there are those I’ll probably never get to thank. The woman with whom I rode the B38 bus for two years on the way to Junior High who watched me reading and doing homework on the bus and took to asking me to talk about what we were working on. The priest whose sermon on grace inspired years of inquiry into the intersection of grace and ethics. These are the tiny bits of quotidian scholarly questing the sharing of which reminds us–outside of the academy, outside of the classroom–why we do what we do.