Surprisingly, the questions I fielded the most while working as a substitute teacher, besides my age, concerned my happiness. One teacher told me that his class requested me by asking for “Ms. Happy Sub.” Though they never called me that to my face, the teens frequently asked me either with the best of teenaged sarcasm or an earnestness that would melt your heart, “How are you so happy?”
The truth was that I was struggling. My poor health kept me unemployed for a period of time before I started working with the school district and I felt quite a bit of internalized cultural shame for being an adult in my twenties, moving back home and not entering into a traditional 9-5 workforce, physically unable. I was counting calories in my ongoing quest to gain weight and still falling short of my goals. Small gains seemed to be quickly lost. I also found myself confronting the culture antisemitism that I grew up in for the first time since I was the one in high school. Still, everyday I put a smile on my face and went to work.
The kids are inspiring, growing, struggling, happy, and in pain. They feel everything intensely and I loved them all dearly. I want the very best for each one of them. At the end of the block as they left my room, I would call out reminders for them to take good care of themselves, to eat good food, get good sleep, and think kind thoughts about themselves. They deserve kindness and should treat themselves with kindness. Reminders that I try to still give myself. On my very worst days, a kid would come up to me and tell me how much it meant to them that I smiled and maintained a pleasant demeanor. Kids would joke with me or get excited when I walked in the room– even some of the ornery kids I had to constantly nag seemed to be happy to see me. Some kids would come chat with me even when I wasn’t covering one of their classes that day. I loved the stories, artwork, and curiosities they all had. As a substitute teacher I had the joy of seeing which classes a student genuinely thrived in and where they were struggling. Even the ones who hated me and met my nagging with eye rolls or talked back, stormed off, threw fits, I felt protective over them and desperately wanted them to learn, grow, and live good lives. When one of my students from my long term job teaching AP Psychology shared his exam scores and thanked me for teaching him the tools that made it possible to achieve such a high score, I held back tears. I learned so much from those kids about life, myself, and the town I grew up in and I know that they learned a lot from me too.
Those kids made me think about happiness in totally new terms. When you are constantly asked why you are so happy when you aren’t feeling particularly happy–you have to wonder at the nature of happiness. I often told them that it was a matter of perspective and having studied slavery and the Holocaust, it is easy to appreciate what you have. Then when I was teaching psychology, I learned the technical term “downward comparison,” which argues that people who compare their situation to others in a worse situation are generally happier. This tool certainly helps but I don’t think it is enough.
I think that at a certain level, we have to cultivate some kind of gratitude for our struggles and failures. It is all a matter of perspective– my allergy severely limits my options but it also opened up an entire new world of food science and ingredients I would have never used. I have been graced with incredible displays of human kindness from friends, family, and restaurants who go out of their way to accommodate me. My parents argue that my allergy added an extra 10 years to my father’s life by eating at home more often, cutting down on processed foods, and eliminating most dairy from his diet after I was diagnosed. My poor health has helped me to cultivate patience and empathy. I believe that severe physical pain has given me the tools I need to study extremely painful and difficult periods in history and still maintain my mental health. Living at home has enabled me to pursue a unique career of my own making. When we look at our struggles and seek out the benefits, lessons, and opportunities I think that our lives improve.
I miss substitute teaching because I miss working with the kids, but I am grateful to be doing what I am doing now. We all face our own struggles in life. Some of the kids I worked with have handled unbelievably difficult and painful situations with remarkable grace and fortitude. I am thinking about them today as I consider my gratitude practice and try to enter into a prayerful Shabbat. I hope that they are all thriving.