Emma ’14 on Learning to be Grateful

Emma '14 During Morning Meeting, 12th-grader Emma shared her story of how a recent family vacation made her aware of her own privileges. Take a few minutes to listen to the podcast of her talk, entitled “Learning to be Grateful” – it’s worth it.

Click here to listen to Emma’s Morning Meeting talk.

Over winter break I took a trip with my family to Kenya and Tanzania. It was such a wonderful trip, one I know I am so incredibly fortunate to have taken. Throughout the two weeks, I saw and experienced things I never could have imagined experiencing. Africa is such an amazing continent in so many ways and I was stunned by all of the incredible wildlife I saw. More importantly though, I met unforgettable people who taught me so much. And while this trip brought me so much joy, it was also a huge eye-opener.

We are constantly told that we live in a bubble. And to be honest, even though I’ve always agreed with that statement, I never truly understood what it meant to the full extent. On our way over to Kenya, we had an overnight layover in Dubai. That night, we decided to see Dubai a bit, so we went to the mall, the biggest mall in the world, and there we found an entire floor dedicated to designer children’s-wear. Arriving in Kenya the following afternoon was a huge culture shock.

During our layover in Dubai on the way home, we didn’t have enough time to leave the airport, but I was still faced with all of the consumption that we are so accustomed to here. I had the same feeling when I landed in San Francisco and wasn’t sure what to do with my emotions. The first week school resumed was awful: I was jet-lagged and didn’t know how to process all that I had experienced on my trip. Fortunately, I had people I could talk to about how I was feeling, and soon started to feel less guilty about my privileges.

Little by little, I realized that I was becoming more mindful about small day-to-day privileges that I had never even thought about before my trip. For example, I never thought that having a seat on the bus was much of a privilege. But after seeing the Matatus, which are mini-vans that are used for transportation, I am so glad that I don’t have to share a two-person row with four other people. Something else I had never really thought about was having easy access to clean water. Here in the Bay area, we could drink our shower and sink water and never have to worry about getting sick. Also, I am so glad that I don’t have to worry about wrapping a mosquito net around my bed every night so that I can protect myself from getting malaria. In fact, I had never really thought about what it would be like if I wasn’t able to be near a safe medical facility in order to get vaccinated or to help me if something were to happen. While visiting a hospital in Tanzania, we delivered very basic medical supplies which we had brought with us—supplies that are in great abundance in hospitals here.

I also learned about female circumcision, which I never knew existed. For those of you who don’t know, female circumcision, or FGM (female genital mutilation) is most commonly practiced in parts of Africa and the Middle East and is illegal in most countries. FGM is most often a cultural practice or ritual and causes women to never feel sexual pleasure. I felt so incredibly ignorant. However, when I returned home, I took advantage of the resources we have here at Bay and became educated about it.

Lastly, I have never had to worry about not being educated simply because I am a woman. While staying outside of Nairobi, I met a Lebanese woman who told me that because her parents could only pay for education for one child, they automatically decided that her brother would go to school. I couldn’t imagine ever being in that situation with the wonderful parents I have and the education system we have here in the United States. According to the United Nations, “Out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” Although these statistics are more balanced in the United States, women still only make 77 cents to the male dollar. Although we live in a flawed country and society, we have so many benefits and privileges which we often glaze over and forget about. However, one really only needs to look around to see the all of the inequality and disparities that exist all around us. No one needs to travel in order to realize all of the privileges we have in our lives—it’s all right here.

I know that sometimes trying to feel grateful about certain things in your life can make you feel guilty—I often have this reaction. While this is a perfectly normal response, I want to encourage you all to try to focus on the positives of being grateful. It may not happen right now, and I know that for most people, simply hearing about examples of gratitude isn’t enough. I doubt that any of you will have a complete change of mind, but try to check in with yourself throughout the day and be mindful about how you are feeling and what you might be seeing differently. Thinking about these little things on a daily basis has helped me take advantage of some of the privileges I have and has also helped me lead a more fulfilling life.

I’m well aware that I’m far from perfect; as a teenager, I can be very self-absorbed. It takes a lot of work to constantly remind myself to take a step back from daily life and remember just how great it really is. Just almost two months ago, I was hearing back from colleges…I had a total meltdown; it was the worst week of my life. Believe me when I say that I did not practice gratitude at all that week, even though I should have.

After things died down, I was able to take a step back. I realized how truly lucky I am to have even had the opportunity to have applied to all of these schools and how fortunate I am to be attending an amazing school next year, even though it wasn’t my first choice when I applied. According to Unicef, “only 60 percent of children of the appropriate age attend secondary school worldwide. In sub-Saharan Africa, that number drops to only a quarter.” And in many countries, women only make up 1/3 of university students. Sometimes, thinking about these facts helps me remember how fortunate I am.

It is so easy to become caught up in our daily lives because it is the life we are living. But when we get caught up in the small upsets in our lives, that is what our lives become, and we are constantly distressed about small things that don’t really matter in the long run. Yet, I want to encourage you all to do something that is not easy—reflect. Try to reflect on something small every so often, and I promise you that you will begin to see things differently.  I’ve never been the person who has known what they want to do with the rest of their life, but after my trip, and after learning how to practice gratitude, I know that the only way I will lead a fulfilled life is if I am helping others in a big way.

I don’t think any of us will ever realize how lucky we truly are—I know that I definitely do not. And I also know that you don’t have to travel anywhere to see people who are less fortunate than we are. If you keep your eyes open, you will realize many the benefits we have. The more we can learn to be grateful and take advantage of the privileges we all have, the more we can become better people who can make a real difference in the world. I know that since I have started to practice gratitude on a more regular basis, I have been a happier person because I am taking advantage of what I have.

Thank you.