Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!


It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

And the last piece of mail came from an old student.  I got a handwritten note and a graduation notice from my own alma mater. At first, I couldn’t believe that I have students that have already graduated from college, but then secondly, I couldn’t believe the kind things he had written.

It said:

“Dear Ms. Stovall,

I’m not sure if you remember, but I was in your American Literature class in ‘08.I just recently graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in Chemical Engineering.  The University gave me 25 graduation notices, and I thought I would send them to the 25 people who helped me become the man I am today.

I am writing to thank you for two reasons. The first is that you really cared about me as a student. I am dyslexic, so English has never been my favorite subject and most of my English teachers pretty much wrote me off. You didn’t. I was glad when I got to college and I never had to take another English class, but you are the reason I read for pleasure.

The second reason is more serious. You were the first person to convey the idea of social justice to me. I grew up with people fighting inequality my whole life.  But you were the first person who got it through my head that I should actively work for equality. This idea continued at UW.  I lived with a group of people called the multicultural learning community, which is a diverse group of students who live together and work on social justice throughout the Madison community. This experience was extremely transformative for me, and I never would have gone through it without you.

I have decided to pursue a PhD at Wash U in St. Louis. I have got to experience research and really loved it. I hope to one day change the makeup of students who graduate with engineering degrees.

I have also heard about your honor.  Congratulations and well deserved.

Thank you for everything you did for me.”

It’s tough out there for a teacher these days.  We are in an era in which we are often blamed for society’s mistakes.  We are burdened with more tasks, more testing, and larger caseloads than ever before (with no research that supports that these changes actually support student learning).  I love teaching, and I love my students, but sometimes I just need to be reminded why I sacrifice my sleep, my free time, and sometimes my sanity to do it.  And this note was exactly the reminder I needed.  I am so grateful for this note and ones like it, as they remind me why the work that I do is so important.

Students, like this special one, sometimes state that I inspire them.  But they’ve got it all wrong.  I am who I am because my students inspire me.


Picture of Adam and Shiana

Family picture with Adam, Shiana, and Ailie

Picture of Ailie and me

Picture of Ailie and me. Can I keep her please?

Adam and Shiana have been such amazing friends to me since I have been here.  Plus, they have the most adorable baby in the Southern Hemisphere.

Adam has opened his classroom and his planner for me.  He has been an amazing affiliate teacher, even if he won’t share his Wheat Bix with me.  I’ve had a terrible go of technology, and Adam will spend his free spells trying to help me “save things.”  So for that, Adam is my hero.


My flatmate Tricia has gone from being a complete stranger to one of the people I treasure the most in my life in just a few short months.  We’ve been through several crazy experiences in New Zealand so far (note: must write about the gun in Rotorua and someone attempting to break into our hotel in Auckland) but I couldn’t have chosen a better human with whom to have these experiences.

Not since meeting one of my college roommates, Kimber, have I felt like there is a person I could never get sick of. So thank you for keeping a smile on my face during this crazy adventure down under (and over).

Picture of Jessie and Tricia

My lovely roommate Tricia and I at the Fulbright orientation. Little did we know just how close we would become!


One morning, I received some bad news via text message. Wellington was slowly waking up, and the pigeons were my main company as I walked up Cuba Street to my carpool pick up point.   As happens every morning, I passed a homeless man sitting on the street, legs in a pretzel, hair and glasses making him look like an elderly John Lennon.  And, like every morning, I said “good morning.”  Usually, this man just slowly nods at me in reply, never speaking but with his eyes.  This morning, however, after I had passed him by, he called out, “You. are. beau-ti-ful.”  I was so surprised at his voice that I turned around quickly, and asked him kindly what he had said.  He looked at me carefully and said, “You are beautiful.  Simply lovely.”

I thanked him, and when I turned around, I burst into tears.  Something about his simple words really touched me at a time when I was feeling pretty miserable.  John Lennon has some home baked goods in his future.


I am so grateful for Christine who helped me set up this amazing blog.  I spent two days trying to set one up by scratch, and it was an utter flop.  It looked like the Space Jam website, but not on purpose. I told my coworker Bernie about it, he told Christine, and then next thing I knew, I was over at their home, petting their dogs, and watching Christine create the website you see here.

I am also grateful to Nancy, my Chicago mom, who makes sure that I don’t have horrible grammar mistakes in each post (yes, English teachers make mistakes too) and to Jennifer who made my awesome logo.  You two are two of my favorites.


Picture of Dan, Tricia, and Jess

Picture taken during Dan, Tricia, and Jess’s day of fun!

When I first arrived in New Zealand, I thought it would be freeing to not have a car.  There wouldn’t be any worries about paying for gas or finding parking.  But it has actually has made me feel quite caged in Wellington.  I have the most amazing view of the sea, and my walks to and from school are magical, but it wasn’t until I met my friend Dan that I got to see things in New Zealand I couldn’t walk to.  Dan made a daytrip for Tricia and me, showing us all the beauty Wellington had to offer through telling us all of the Maori history and stories.  He did the same when Regina arrived.  I hope that he becomes a forever friend, as he always knows how to make me smile at school.  Today it was through a pack of gummy bears and a story about cooking spaghetti in the sea.

His stories and his willingness to share his love of his city is contagious–it reminds me to be hospitable whenever I get new visitors.  I promise to pay Dan’s gesture forward.  (PS: Reegan when you come, I can’t wait to show you around!).


Fulbright Fellow Brenda put me in touch with Victoria University Professor Chris Marshall, the inaugural chair in Restorative Justice.  My project tackles eliminating the racial predictability academic achievement by focusing on professional development for teachers.  This is because as students come and go in four years, teachers stay for decades.  Therefore, the best way to impact long term change is by impacting teacher learning.  I have been feeling a big missing part of my project has that we first have to build a culture that values connections, communities, and respect before we can make real change.  After doing a lot of research and talking to people who have been trained in Restorative Practice, I really believe that the value shift that would occur by being in a Restorative school would create the platform for the change that my professional development program could bring.  In short, if the school values relationships and connections, then it’s easier for teachers to build the classroom communities they need to impact student academic achievement.

So I decided to talk to the “big gun” who is Chris Marshall.  Here is this man who is the first chair of RP in the world and someone who writes the books on the topic, and yet he carves out time in his afternoon to talk to a curly haired American teacher who stupidly didn’t think to read said books before the meeting.

Picture with Chris and Howard

Picture with the great Chris Marshall and Howard Zehr

But despite my ignorance, Chris has been really encouraging to me.  He invited me to an invitation only roundtable on Restorative Practice, and it was remarkable.  When I first arrived, I looked around at all of the important people of New Zealand–judges, administrators, heads of prisons, police chiefs, authors, mayors–I actually had a bit of a panic attack and had to spend the first 15 minutes hiding in the bathroom.  But then I remembered that Chris had lent me a hand, and I should shake hands with these admirable people.

It was amazing–Chris sat me at table 1 with him.  Because I’ve been eating cheaply on the nights Tricia and I don’t cook together (aka ramen noodles like I’m in college again) the three-course sit-down meal featuring beautiful lamb shanks was a jackpot for my taste buds.  And I got to meet THE Howard Zehr, the grandfather of Restorative Justice.  And we had a long chat! And I got his card! And I might attend his summer institute!  And, as my friend Avi would say, I felt very, very rich.

Other shoutouts in list and picture form:

  1. Louise B.  I basically want to be you.
    Picture of a gift of books

    Mary and John. Your gifts of books have been invaluable to me. Plus, I got to meet the author of one (Howard Zehr) two weeks ago.

    Picture of amazing food

    Susan. Thank you for the beautiful meal and your amazing company.

    Picture of Liana and me

    Liana. I am quite possibly the world’s worst packer. Thank you so much for helping me pack all of my clothes right before I left for Chicago. I got a TON of clothes and supplies–I can’t believe how well I packed–in just two suitcases. So I am grateful to you for not having to wear the exact same outfit each day.

    Picture of Dan, Adam, and me

    Dan S. Thank you for giving me a ride each day to school. I have learned so much from you. In general, I love the Coffee Boys and Java girl car pool!

    Picture with Nicola

    Nicola. You are a wonderful light. Thank you for having us to your school and the amazing welcome powhiri. I love your poetry, and I can’t wait to bring it back to my classroom in the states!

    Yonina and me

    I am so grateful for my school placement because of the amazing teachers I get to work with. They make me so happy, and I wish I had more pictures of everyone. Here is a one of the lovely Yonina and me in the staff room–I got to guest teach in her amazing classroom last week!

    Picture of me and cat food

    Lori. Thank you for keeping my little Atticus happy. It was hard to leave my little pal behind, and there are times when my heart aches–like when I get some free cat food but there is no cat to give it to–but I am happy to know he’s in a good home!

    Picture of Toni

    Toni. Toni (woman on the left in the photo) was my first real introduction to New Zealand, and she is the reason I knew I would love it so much. She has looked out for me, and I cannot thank her enough for her connections, time, and hospitality.

    Jen and me in Auckland

    Jen H. It was so wonderful to meet your boys (finally!) and get you to hug you in Auckland last weekend. Here’s to staying in contact with you through Whatsapp videos and messages.

    Matt and me

    Mat M. The day I am able to adequately express how grateful I am for you, is a day the English language shall not soon forget.

    I am extremely appreciative of the fact I happened to go into the University on the one day they had a cupcake competition.

    And lastly (for now, as I have so many more things I am thankful for), I am extremely appreciative of the fact that I happened to go into the University on the one day they had a cupcake competition.

2 thoughts on “Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

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