Hand of Gratitude

hand of gratitudeA couple of weeks ago I completed, and passed, a course at college. It was a Certificate in Mentoring Skills. It was a small group, just 6 students, and we all got along really well, as to be expected from the nature of the course. I hadn’t studied for several years. This was something I had been drawn to studying for a year or two.

During the course, I had hit a point where I was struggling, not with the course but with personal issues in my life; ill health, financial complications, and my home being burgled. This manifested in my taking ill at college with a panic attack. I was very embarrassed. Had it not been for the support and kindness of my classmates, and one in particular, and my tutor, I’m not sure I would have returned the following week or at all.

At the end of the course, the final session, our tutor asked us all to get a sheet of paper, write our name at the top, and draw around our hand on the paper. We then had to pass this around to all our classmates, who were then to write something nice about the person whose name was at the top.

It was lovely to think about what we appreciated about everyone in the class, and to receive their kind words back. The comments were so varied. They showed what nice aspects one has, that other people notice even if you don’t notice them about yourself.

I remember saying how I had read about something similar on the Internet, and related the story the best I could, but not completely accurately.

I have just found the actual story again, so thought I would share it here. It contains a powerful message about the value of kind words, and why we should use them as often, and as soon, as we can.

This is the touching story of a teacher at a Catholic school in Minnesota. She describes an unforgettable elementary student named Mark Eklund who had been likeable but frustrating because of his inability to stay quiet in class. The teacher transferred to teaching junior-high and later had Mark again. One day asked everyone in the class to write down each student’s name and also write the nicest thing they could think of about that person. Years later, the teacher got word that Mark Eklund had died in Vietnam and she was asked to attend his funeral. Mark’s family showed her that the piece of paper from junior-high with other student’s kind remarks about him had been carried in his wallet until the day he died. The teacher then heard that other students had also saved their pieces of paper from that day and how much it had meant to them. The story closes with encouragement to tell people how much we care for them and how special they are to us while there is still the time to do it.

MAKE SURE YOU READ TO THE END YOU WILL BE HAPPY YOU DID

He was in the first third grade class I taught at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, Minn. All 34 of my students were dear to me, but Mark Eklund was one in a million. Very neat in appearance, but had that happy-to-be-alive attitude that made even his occasional mischievousness delightful.

Mark talked incessantly. I had to remind him again and again that talking without permission was not acceptable. What impressed me so much, though, was his sincere response every time I had to correct him for misbehaving – “Thank you for correcting me, Sister!” I didn’t know what to make of it at first, but before long I became accustomed to hearing it many times a day.

One morning my patience was growing thin when Mark talked once too often, and then I made a novice teacher’s mistake. I looked at Mark and said, If you say one more word, I am going to tape your mouth shut!” It wasn’t ten seconds later when Chuck blurted out, “Mark is talking again.” I hadn’t asked any of the students to help me watch Mark, but since I had stated the punishment in front of the class, I had to act on it. I remember the scene as if it had occurred this morning. I walked to my desk, very deliberately opened my drawer and took out a roll of masking tape. Without saying a word, I proceeded to Mark’s desk, tore off two pieces of tape and made a big X with them over his mouth. I then returned to the front of the room. As I glanced at Mark to see how he was doing, he winked at me. That did it! I started laughing. The class cheered as I walked back to Mark’s desk, removed the tape, and shrugged my shoulders. His first words were, “Thank you for correcting me, Sister.”

At the end of the year, I was asked to teach junior-high math. The years flew by, and before I knew it Mark was in my classroom again. He was more handsome than ever and just as polite. Since he had to listen carefully to my instruction in the “new math,” he did not talk as much in ninth grade as he had in third. One Friday, things just didn’t feel right. We had worked hard on a new concept all week, and I sensed that the students were frowning, frustrated with themselves and edgy with one another. I had to stop this crankiness before it got out of hand. So I asked them to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name. Then I told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down. It took the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment, and as the students left the room, each one handed me the papers. Charlie smiled. Mark said, “Thank you for teaching me, Sister. Have a good weekend.” That Saturday, I wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and I listed what everyone else had said about that individual.

On Monday I gave each student his or her list Before long, entire class was smiling. Really?” I heard whispered. “I never knew that meant anything to anyone!” I didn’t know others liked me so much.” No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. I never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another again.

That group of students moved on. Several years later, after I returned from vacation, my parents met me at the airport. As we were driving home, Mother asked me the usual questions about the trip, the weather, my experiences in general. There was a lull in the conversation. Mother gave Dad a sideways glance and simply says, “Dad?” My father cleared his throat as he usually did before something important. “The Eklunds called last night,” he began “Really?” I said. “I haven’t heard from them in years. I wonder how Mark is.” Dad responded quietly. “Mark was killed in Vietnam,” he said. “The funeral is tomorrow, and his parents would like it if you could attend.” To this day I can still point to the exact spot on I-494 where Dad told me about Mark.

I had never seen a serviceman in a military coffin before. Mark looked so handsome, so mature. All I could think at that moment was, “Mark, I would give all the masking tape in the world if only you would talk to me.” The church was packed with Mark’s friends. Chuck’s sister sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Why did it have to rain on the day of the funeral? It was difficult enough at the graveside. The pastor said the usual prayers, and the bugler played taps. One by one those who loved Mark took a last walk by the coffin and sprinkled it with holy water. I was the last one to bless the coffin. As I stood there, one of the soldiers who acted as pallbearer came up to me. Were you Mark’s math teacher?” he asked. I nodded as I continued to stare at the coffin. “Mark talked about you a lot,” he said.

After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates headed to Chuck’s farmhouse for lunch. Mark’s mother and father were there, obviously waiting for me. “We want to show you something, his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.” Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times. I knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which I had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him. “Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.” Mark’s classmates started to gather around us. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. I keep it in the top drawer of my desk at home.” Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album.””I have mine too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary.” Then Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. I carry this with me at all times,” Vicki said without batting an eyelash. “I think we all saved our lists.” That’s when I finally sat down and cried. I cried for Mark and for all his friends who would never see him again.

The density of people in society is so thick that we forget that life will end one day. And we don’t know when that one day will be. So please, tell the people you love and care for, that they are special and important. Tell them, before it is too late.

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