Three years ago, my younger brother passed away a few days after Thanksgiving. We had all enjoyed a unique Thanksgiving that year, not one circling mom’s table and a bounty of turkey and stuffing-inspired side dishes, but instead gathered at a buffet that offered a traditional American feast alongside a deep-fried Chinese one. My brother had been in and out of the hospital that year, more often attached to an IV than home, mom was pressed for time to put together the meal, and we all decided something different would be an adventure.
That year, there was no family Christmas. My parents left soon after my brother’s funeral for their first year wintering in Florida, in a house my brother had loved and helped choose, that they had bought partially to help his diabetes-ravaged body heal through sunlight and warmth.
I didn’t send out Christmas cards, buy any presents except for my young nephews, and did not put up the Christmas tree. My soul was hard, black and empty. The only two bits of solace I found that year were that my brother was no longer fighting the unbeatable disease he’d been diagnosed with at 18 months old, and that his passing had been on my grandmother’s birthday.
That was three years ago. This year, through much internal dialogue, I decided to put up a tree. It’s a basic one, not the elaborate ones of Christmases past. The pre-attached ornaments are simple, the company-manufactured ribbons symmetrically placed and there’s no star or angel balancing on the top. What it does offer is light. Lots and lots of light. Tiny white dots everywhere, each one not nearly brilliant enough to illuminate a space on its own, but collectively powerful to light up the room. Despite the ache I still carry for missing my brother, the soft white light is a connection to Christmases we shared as kids and the belief that peace exists only when it’s paid forward.
There’s a magical power in Christmas lights. Some folks, the ones who leave strands stapled to their soffits all year round, must believe in this with an extra fervor, but my little tree is enough to confirm this. Sitting in the darkness, with my dog’s lazy, sleepy snores punctuating the silence, the pinpoints of light weave a tapestry of memory of the students I’ve had over the years. There are days when my life in the classroom resembles this room without the tree plugged in: dark, desolate, abysmal, lonely. But then, with a little electricity, individual lights pop to life and together create a more complete picture of why I do what I do. Each of those lights shine because there’s a power going into them that they can’t deny, an energy that transforms them to share their unique and wonderful selves with the world around them.
Teachers are a direct source of power to our students’ classroom lives. We’re the current, the energy and electricity that connects students to knowledge that transforms their thinking and actions to ones that will illuminate their dark corners. They might not come to life through the content we teach, but through the humor, grace and respect we bring to their lives that empowers their progress. By teaching, we inherently believe that each student has that switch, that ability to become a better version of themselves. Some days, we may have to put forth more energy than we receive, but in the long run, even those students who seem dim and unaware of their own abilities will come to life through something we have said or done for them. We may not get to see this for ourselves, but our faith in the process and power of education gives us the knowledge that some lights take longer to warm up than others.
Relax in front of a lit Christmas tree or any source of light you find peaceful and inviting, such as a sun-filled window or even a candle. Inhale and exhale deep, slow breaths from your nose for a few minutes until you hear an oceanic rhythm in your breaths. Consider how the light is there for you as a result of it being given power from another source. Reflect on the bright moments you’ve shared with students this year and in years past. Contemplate how to carry this light forward in your own life on a daily basis, then simply sit and soak in the light so that it touches deeper, darker parts of your soul.