Guilt and Gratitude

Philip Hendrix, 130 TESS

It’s an overcast morning in late September. The faculty have arrived at school in traditional Thai dress, and soon we find ourselves in two lines. Two elderly teachers, Aunt Su and Aunt Dang, lead our procession out into the assembly area. We walk through rows of welcoming students into the middle of the space. And then we deposit Aunt Su and Aunt Dang at the center of the circle. Today marks their retirement, and I wonder if leaving them alone is symbolic somehow. The rest of us form circles around them, faculty and VIPs in the inner circle, layers of students surrounding us. The local marching band rounds the corner, the men playing drums and cymbals and an electric keyboard, the women leading a synchronized traditional dance routine. I see my host mother in there, elegant, somewhere in the middle of it. The community watches from the balconies of the school buiding as we join in the dancing, circling counter-clockwise, and as the band joins closer I get lost in the swirls and the rhythm, swept up like dust in a hurricane. And in the center of it all, two figures stand motionless, tears streaming from their eyes … and then suddenly we stop. 10 students make their way to Aunt Su and Aunt Dang, kneel in front of them, bow their heads, and with tears in their eyes they take turns to say just one thing to their retiring teachers.

“I’m sorry.”

Not what I would have said. I would have gone for a “thank you,” a “wish you all the best,” “I’ll miss you” … maybe a “remember the good times?” But “sorry” — why was that appropriate, and why did it strike at such a deep well of emotion? I only really began to have an idea two months later, when I spent a November weekend at the site of a fellow volunteer. I was helping with a world map project, but on day two, I woke up with the sense that a fever was coming. I stayed the full day and made my way home in the afternoon. By the time I was at the mouth of my road, I could barely move. I stumbled the 200 yards to my host family’s house and collapsed on the first surface I could find. And there was my host mom. She brought me water and medicine. She brought me pillows. And then she took a wet rag, she sat down, and she dabbed the sweat off of my body. She humored my rambling for hours until I was finally ready to head upstairs. Of course, this is the same host mother who agreed to take a stranger in for two years, who periodically sneaks into my room to mop and take out the trash, who takes my clothes out to dry in the sun when I’m at school and rushes to collect it when the rain comes, who cooks for me every day, who takes in my friends without any complaint, who puts my shoes away when I forget, and who sits down with me every dinner (because I told her I don’t like to eat alone) and watches me fumble through Google Translate to make myself understood. It struck me in that moment that my life in Thailand would be infinitely worse without her, and also that I could never hope to pay back all that she had done for me. It felt like it was more than I had earned, and this thought filled me with an emotion that I rarely feel. It was a combination of appreciation, of intense desire to be perfect and kind and generous in return, but also of guilt. I knew that I had let her down before, and I wondered if I would again.

Reflecting on it now, I wonder if the feeling was gratitude — not just acknowledging what she has done for me, but feeling that it was more than I deserved, and wanting to prove myself worthy of it. I wonder if that is what that’s what “sorry” meant for the students as they kneeled in front of their retiring teachers. And I wondered what it would be like to harness this feeling — to be conscious of it every day. There are people who treat their entire existence and everything they’ve been given as a gift unearned. People wake up every day wondering not what they are entitled, but what they can do in return. Not a bad way to start the day.

Read Philip’s previous articles and contributions.

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