Sarah Jane Weaver: Thank you ‘for teaching me how to write’ #GiveThanks

As a child, I did not like Bonnie Oettli, my third-grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in Holladay, Utah.

She was not much taller than her students, but she was fierce. When she noticed my desk was messy — and it always was — she would dump the contents onto the floor and ask me to clean it. Sometimes we found crinkled, missing assignments in the process.

Once she called me “flighty.”

Mrs. Oettli and my mother met together often during my third-grade year.

She made the entire class write about a “Thought of the Week” — every week.

One “Thought of the Week” was particularly hard for me: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Mrs. Oettli asked me to redo the assignment over and over again. I missed recess. I sat at my messy desk and pondered, pouted and cried. Finally, I was assigned the “Thought” as homework.

Sarah Jane Weaver writes about an experience she had when she was a 9-year-old student in Mrs. Bonnie Oettli's third grade class.
Sarah Jane Weaver writes about an experience she had when she was a 9-year-old student in Mrs. Bonnie Oettli’s third grade class. Credit: Courtesy Sarah Jane Weaver

When I turned the assignment in the next day, my teacher looked at me and smiled, “Someday you will see me on an elevator and you will say, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Oettli, for teaching me how to write.’ ”

In a quiet voice I told her I would never do that.

Still, I have not forgotten her words. That day she told me that I could write — and I believed her.

This summer, on a quiet day while working from home amid COVID-19 restrictions, I marked 25 years as a Church News reporter and editor. It is a career that has taken me to Church headquarters and across the globe — and given me the opportunity to write about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its members and its leaders.

Today I pondered it again in light of President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation to #GiveThanks.

According to Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, gratitude heals, energizes and transforms lives.

After dedicating years of work to the study of gratitude, Emmons has concluded:

  • Those who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis feel better about their lives as a whole and are more optimistic.
  • Those who are grateful are more likely to make progress toward important personal goals.
  • Young adults who are intentionally grateful each day report “alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy.”
  • Those who are grateful are more likely to help someone with a personal problem or offer emotional support to another.
  • Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and family.

The word gratitude comes from the Latin root “gratia” meaning grace, mercy and thankfulness. It personifies influence and elegance. As Emmons has discovered, gratitude is an action that requires us to be intentional.

President Nelson described it this way in his Nov. 20 invitation: “Over my nine and a half decades of life, I have concluded that counting our blessings is far better than recounting our problems. No matter our situation, showing gratitude for our privileges is a fast-acting and long-lasting spiritual prescription.”

I never visited my third-grade teacher after moving to the fourth grade. I never saw her on an elevator. And until today, I never searched her name on the internet.

But sitting at a very messy desk and thinking about gratitude has led me back to thousands of small, seemingly insignificant moments that continue to define my life — of the influence of family, friends, mentors, leaders and teachers.

Mrs. Oettli’s thought of the week assignment — the one that drove me to proclaim in a soft, resentful third-grade voice that I would never thank her — has new meaning.

Viewed through the lens of gratitude, the phrase “Today is the first day of the rest of your life,” means I have a choice. It means I can be intentional about how I move forward amid the pandemic — and respond to the many ills that plague our world, “including hate, civil unrest, racism, violence, dishonesty and lack of civility,” as President Nelson has said.

It means that every day I can choose to be thankful for the earth and life and the opportunity to grow and learn. That I can appreciate art and literature and music and the opportunity to repent, start over and make amends. It means I should be grateful for loved ones and the opportunity to serve them and others.

Most of all, President Nelson said, it means I “can give thanks unto God, the Father of our spirits, which makes us all brothers and sisters — one great global family.”

Because one teacher thought I could write, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the Lord’s children in many nations. Each has deepened my testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am grateful for the insight and knowledge I gleaned from them.

President Nelson invited me, and others across the globe, to be intentionally grateful — every day.

I will start with my third-grade teacher, because I may never see her in an elevator.

Thank you, Mrs. Oettli, for teaching me how to write. #GiveThanks

— Sarah Jane Weaver is editor of the Church News.