Happiness

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

-J.R.R. Tolkein, The Hobbit

Happiness as a teacher is a matter of habit, and a matter of choice. You get into the habit of doing things that work for you- of checking the homework at the beginning of class instead of bringing a stack of papers home every day, or of keeping the kids’ notebooks in the classroom instead of making photocopies of every damn thing- and you realize one day that your last period is over and yet you feel like a civilized human being instead of like Indiana Jones  after feeding every snake in the zoo. You also realize that you can choose to berate yourself for every mistake you or the students make, or not. As Bobby McFerrin says, in every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double.

And so most teachers can come across as self-satisfied people, at least in the matter of their work. You can call it a survival strategy- compulsory dissatisfaction day after day will make you start scanning the Help Wanted ads sooner or later- but deciding that what you gave was good enough, even if it was not ideal, is itself probably pedagogically valuable. Just as, for a child, what matters is often less whether their parent yelled at them for the clothes sprawled across the floor than whether they sense their parent is still angry after the yelling is finished, so too the teacher’s affect percolates across the classroom and attaches itself to all but the very most socially unaware kid. The same shove between Johnny and Tommy while getting in line for recess can be, depending on the teacher’s mood, a momentary hiccup, a Getting In Trouble, or a reason to start hating school. The teacher decides, in the end, whether what is going on in the classroom is acceptable or unacceptable, worthwhile or repulsive, and the kids will generally go along with that judgement, even if they are individually unable to change it.

The teacher- who is powerless in her own classroom in many, many ways, and maybe made still more impotent by administrative mandate and intrusion- retains this single great lever of influence, that she is the organizing principle around which the buzzing, bumbling confusion of one or two or three dozen children or adolescents cohere. This is, no doubt, in part the result of the natural hierarchy of age, and is probably intensified when the children see themselves or who they would like to be reflected in the teacher’s mannerisms or diction or gaze. But it is also simply a result of human groups and our desire to organize ourselves around an individual; as Yeats put it:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a Swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air.

-William Butler Years, From “Coole Park”

As parent or teacher, as nation or people, we decide whether to be happy; not to accept the unacceptable or not to resolve to improve and to change, but to acknowledge that we are here together and tomorrow will give another chance to try and fail to get it right.

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