I have a weird job. My coworker agrees. In fact, last year after teaching a particularly ridiculous class of grade 6 students he said that exact phrase to me: Our job is weird…and I had to agree. It’s weird but it’s wonderful and fulfilling and I love it. I spend my days in schools teaching kids about their emotional wellness…doesn’t sound hard or weird until you understand that in order for me to do that I have to start with the very basic level of teaching them to understand emotions. As in happy and sad and angry and glad… Turns out somehow we (good job us) forgot to teach kids what emotions are and how they work. How did that happen?
I remember kindergarten well. I remember the classroom and my little friends (and that one girl I just hated from the minute I met her simply because her Mom braided her hair everyday and my hair was too short) I remember my teacher and how nice she was (the 2nd teacher: we were kinda bad and we may have broken the first one a little bit…) I remember sitting on the red carpet for story time and learning as a class to tie our shoes. I remember the French teacher using a green monster puppet to teach us our very first basic French words. I remember each morning getting to select which order we wanted to visit the play centres: paint, water table, blocks and the house centre. I also remember that we learned about feelings. We learned to solve our conflicts on our own by using laminated pieces of paper with faces depicting emotions on them to share with each other how what something they said or did made us feel. We learned what sad, happy, angry, afraid and embarrassed meant when we were 4. It helped us be better friends and kind people. This is clearly no longer the case. The kindergarten kids I hang out with now (ya..I’m that cool!) can unlock my iPhone in 3 seconds and download 37 songs and 4 games and probably do my taxes …but they can’t tell me what sad feels like and they can’t work through tiny little conflicts on their own with out pandemonium breaking out. As far as I am concerned this is a problem..but as usual, no one asks for my opinion on these things!
When I teach my intermediate students I find it easiest to explain things using examples from pop culture to help them relate to what I am teaching. This month I am teaching the basic definition of Mental Health: who has it, what it is, how to keep it in check. Before I can even begin to teach that I literally have to explain what emotions are and how they work. In order to do this I have been using references from a cute Pixar movie about a little girl who looses her joy and sadness after a big life change. The end of said movie shows that in order for the little girl to get through her problem, which she does…yay!, she needs to let all of her emotions work together….it’s cute and it perfect! The first slide I use in my presentation is a picture of the characters from the movie: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. I ask my students to tell me which character they relate to the most and then we talk about how we, human beings, are actually made up of all five of the emotions working together. Then I ask them why, in the movie, did the writers show the emotion Joy crying? How can Joy be sad??? Seriously! how can Joy be sad? She is Joy. She is happy…that’s who she is for sobbing out loud?!?! Is that a mistake? A continuity error?? What I explain next, what I help them see next is my favorite teachable moment: to see the looks of astonishment on their faces when they come to the realization that you can not, literally, have the feeling of joy with out knowing sadness. The movie is accurate…100%. Think about it: how can YOU honestly say you are 100% happy if you have never felt deep sadness? How can you feel sad if you have never felt pure euphoria? How can you say you are brave if you have never felt fear? Disgust?? Not without admiration! Anger without knowing peace is not possible! Love without loss…same thing.
At some point in the midst of having this conversation 30 times in 30 different classes this month with 800 student…I had one of those life altering epiphany moments that is so simple it makes you feel kind of silly: I am that little girl in the movie…but like more life experienced obviously. A bad thing (okay it was like 17 bad things all at once punching me in the face like a fist sandwich) happened…completely out of my control and my own brain only did what it had to, in order to protect me from myself. What. The. Hell??? My everything was thrown into chaos and those things that I held onto as the things that meant peace and calm and happiness were gone or leaving or being taken from me: both physical things and sentimental things. It was bad and I felt worse and it lasted forever and it felt like it was never going to stop and then all of a sudden I didn’t feel like that anymore. My brain…my emotional wellness…my very own resilience…all of those things I blather on about all damn day long to my students…did their effing job and somehow….I am OK now. Somehow, I came to the understanding that the things I had that I thought meant everything to me and my happiness were gone, and the me I was then was gone, and none of that would be the same ever again. I somehow came to the realization that is perfectly OK; in fact I was somewhat glad about that. I figured out that I got to decide that its OK to be happy with things as they are right now….and I am. I somehow came to understand that sometimes its good to feel the fear and the anger and the disgust and the sadness and most importantly: the joy. Cue my man Dumbledor: “Happiness can be found even in the darkest times, if only you remember to turn on the light”. You, literally, have to let the joy in during the bad times. I found my joy….and guess what? It’s not significant. It did not come in the form of a person to replace what I felt was missing, it did not come in the form of a financial windfall or a sudden lack of troublesome people in my life. It came simply from just accepting things for what they are right now and being excited for the things that come next and being alright with that. In the mean time the “stuff” is still here. It’s here everyday in my face causing problems and little annoyances. I am still healing from the grief associated with the multiple losses I have experienced and I am still figuring out how the dynamics this life of mine are going to play out in regards to logistics….that stuff is going to take a while I am certain. Some days are sad and I still get angry and I am still hurt and none of this has been fair or necessary…but it is what is and I am OK and I am happy. Thank you weird job and cute movie for helping me see that