Why work the days before Thanksgiving?

Published 8:02 am Friday, November 23, 2012

Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling

Two years ago eight of them sat there, in their desks, as I entered the classroom, waiting for the quiz over their reading assignment and for the class to start. It was wonderful to see them there, presumably eager to learn. Well, it would have been wonderful if the whole class had been there, all 25, instead of these brave – lonely – eight students.

It was a normal class meeting, nothing special. There was a quiz over the last chapter of the textbook. It was the last chance to ask questions and discuss issues (the topic for this unit is argument) before they watch the final film, write their final papers and then take the final exam. Did I mention that there was a quiz? As much as the arrogant, egotistical “me” might hope it was about, well … me as the teacher, it was more about the date: the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

David Behling

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Last year’s attendance was similar, but this year most of the students actually stayed on campus until Tuesday afternoon. I was taken aback. Pleased, yes, but surprised.

Usually, during the week of Thanksgiving, students start disappearing the Friday before to places both near and far – and leaving behind all of the familiar excuses: My ride leaves early. My parents bought me a ticket without checking my schedule. My (grandparents, parents, boy/girlfriends, lovers, children, pets, gods, etc.) are expecting me to be there early because …

Usually, after entering mostly empty classrooms, I do what I’ve gotten used to doing every Thanksgiving week; I shrug my shoulders and continue with class, irritated at students who weren’t there, but even more irritated at their families and at colleagues who had surrendered and canceled class or told students to work independently this week.

As we passed each other in the halls, the faculty who were still on campus participated in our annual celebration of Schadenfreude (a German word that means “take joy in suffering”). How many did you have today? Eight, and you? Eleven out of 30. It’s a warped kind of pleasure, admittedly, but what else can we do?

What could be done? We could accept defeat and cancel all classes for the whole week, like some other schools have done. It would extend the trend – not all that long ago we had class on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (but gave it up so students, faculty and staff had a day to travel before the actual feasting began). But because the length of the semester is something that we can’t change, a week off at the end of November would mean classes would either have to start earlier, about the middle of August, or end later, two days before Christmas. I suspect neither of those options would appeal to students; I know they don’t appeal to me.

Prompted by this annual experience, I think we should stop the retreat. Go back to having classes on Wednesday. And I think we should add Friday as a class day, too. Set aside only Thanksgiving Day as a holiday, with a campuswide dinner of turkey, ham and all the trimmings. Radical, you say? Nonsense, I respond. It’s actually more traditional, and it’s more like the world of work will be for many of them after college.

We could observe Thanksgiving along the lines of the legendary first one; instead of treating the day as a reason to stand in security lines at the airport, let’s celebrate a festival at which we give thanks with the people among whom we live and work: friends, acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors, strangers and even the occasional enemy.

Those first givers of thanks didn’t expect extended family to show up from England and they didn’t travel back themselves. In fact, they ate off the charity of the Wampanoag tribe, who fed them out of their bounty since the invading Europeans didn’t have enough.

The problems the holiday causes in my classrooms raised the issue for me, but I think refocusing the day on community might make the holiday more enjoyable for more of us.

Pipe dreams, right? Maybe. Maybe not. With stores like Walmart and Target opening on Thanksgiving and Amazon running specials all day, every day, only time will tell how this “holiday” evolves.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.