My mentor teacher gave me some terrific advice that really didn’t have anything to do with teaching before I began my first year. It had to do with surviving which really, when it comes down to it, is what a new teacher needs to hear right before the first day of school. A brand new teacher is living off of pure adrenaline-induced survival mode. And my mentor knew that. She remembered what it was like because her own first year of teaching was, as she said, “Pure hell.” That first year left no room for her to think any happy thoughts.
Her advice to me was this, “Somewhere, in your room, you need to have a Happy Thoughts Shelf.” She went on to explain that I needed to have something to look at when the days were hard; I needed to have things that reminded me of who I was, objects that made me smile — that brought me happiness when I didn’t feel too happy at any given moment. I needed an anchor in the storm.
She was so wise! Of course, I have to be honest. I loved my first year of teaching. Surely, there were hard days. There was the day the kid’s pants fell down as he ran to his seat. And then there was the day my youth-in-custody ran away from her foster home the day before her judge who would determine if she could be adopted by her foster parents or not — and be put on probation. Instead, after running away she was placed in youth detention and sent away.
It hurt my soul when I went to visit her, a young 13 year old scared girl in an orange jumpsuit. And I was a young 22 year old scared teacher. I really understood the reasoning behind the Happy Thoughts Shelf then.
Time passed and I gained more experience. The Happy Thoughts Shelf overflowed. I learned I needed this shelf at home too because we can become consumed with what is wrong that we notice nothing else. In fact, what is wrong in the world will be constantly pointed out to us. Most of it is genuinely wrong; some of it is mostly wrong. Other things only feel wrong, really isn’t but if placed in perspective.
But there are fantastic things happening, not just in the world, but in our own lives. We are being harangued into believing that something needs to be great again when greatness is already in us all along — if only we would look around. Does this mean to ignore what has hurt us? To only hang a Happy Thoughts Shelf? No, there needs to be another shelf. A shelf for all that has shaped us; a shelf that has shaped me, made me who I am. A Hardship Shelf. Without this shelf I wouldn’t be able to treasure my Happy Thoughts Shelf. There can’t be one without the other. We don’t live in a one-dimensional world, and emotions are ultimately representative of the multi-dimensional. I wouldn’t put the trivial, silly things that have made me cry over the years. There wouldn’t be enough shelves for that. No. This shelf would be for the experiences that have pulled the tears out of me, racked my heart and forced me to breathe when I didn’t want to do so. This shelf must exist. If it doesn’t, then there is no sense in ever illuminating the other. Nothing can be made great again without acknowledging the struggle in the first place. Where there is darkness, lightness will shine brightly.
I want to take all that is around me, all the people I am enjoying, all the genuine things that have been said about me, all the joy I feel, and place it on a shelf. I want to straighten them all, dust all the nooks and crannies. I want to take it all in, and love it all back. I want to be able to pick things up and hold them in my hands — be able to recall the kind of moment that scans itself in time.
I’m dusting off my shelves. And am happy.