You Get What You Get: A Meditation on Why I Teach


I have spent the morning lying in bed, reading poems in The New Yorker and The Sun. My lover is dozing on the couch, our dog on his chair. And now, I have a half hour to write before I go to work. I’ve lit a candle, a baroque music CD is playing. I feel happy. I think, “I deserve this.” Then the thought enters: “You do, too.” Is that my guilt speaking? Do I feel I have to give this happy feeling away as soon as I experience it?

Of course I believe in, “You do, too.” That is, I believe that J., who is barely 18, a mother of two and who is in the GED program for teen moms where I teach, deserves this. A woman I never met in Rwanda deserves this – or her version or vision of it. But deserve is a tricky word. When bad things happen – do we deserve that, too?

A memory from childhood rises up alongside these thoughts: It is snack time at nursery school. The teacher is handing out vanilla and chocolate cookies and Dixie cups filled with milk. She hands me a chocolate one. I wanted vanilla. When I ask to switch, the other children take up a chant: “You get what you get or you don’t get nothin’.” I can still hear my classmates’ taunting singsong.

I remember feeling surprised: How did all of the other children know that chant? They seemed to know the rules, too: The rules of snack time — and I supposed, the rules for life. Rule number 1 was: “Don’t state your desires,” followed by, “Take what you get and shut up.” That cruel little mob was in the know and I was not.

In my world the rules were different. My mother gave me pretty much what I wanted. At home, I could pick. Here, in the cramped universe of nursery school, the world was less generous. I hated the rules my classmates seemed to be acclimated to, and yet I knew I needed to learn them; that I was supposed to become one of them — become mean like them – or hopeless like them. Perhaps no one was offering them choices. No one was letting them pick.

I grew up defending my right to pick; believing in a kinder way – a more beautiful world. It has become my life’s work to help people recognize this other path.

Sometimes I come at my work – and my life – from a place of guilt: Why is it that in the lottery of genetics and time and place I was born into relative comfort? Other times I think of myself as a messenger – carrying hope from a place that is softer and more colorful – decorated with glinting gold threads, like the ones woven into the scarf that is draped around my shoulders this morning.

And I keep hearing the mean little chants. One such song says I am privileged and can’t possibly understand someone else’s despair. But I recognize those voices now. Those are small voices of hopelessness.

I listen for kindness. I look to the quality of morning light on deep-toned wood. Birds. Candlelight. Soft music. Time to reflect, relax. Beauty of whatever flavor. That’s what I deserve. And, yes, you do, too. It’s what I choose to believe in. It’s what I choose to teach.

Photo by Aja Riggs

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3 thoughts on “You Get What You Get: A Meditation on Why I Teach

  1. I really like this post, and the sentiment that underpins it.

    This is tangential in some ways, but I related to the nursery school part of it because we still haven’t put Eliza into daycare, and she is 2 1/2. Half the time, I worry that we are depriving her of an opportunity to be “socialized” and the other half, I am thankful that she isn’t, yet.

  2. Thoughtful post, Tzivia. It’s powerful to literally hear the voices in one’s head debating with each other. The feeble, True Voice of our Self asking for the proverbial “chocolate cookie” while the old, false voices of our past try to convince us we don’t deserve the cookie, deserve what makes us happy. Does a tree deserve as much sunlight as it can get? Does a squirrel deserve to hoard as much nuts as it can for winter? It is the nature of the Universe to give to one’s self what one desires because often what we really desire is for all the chanting voices in our head to just be nice to our Self. And isn’t THAT what we’re supposed to learn in nursery school?

  3. Hi Tziv,
    There’s probably a whole world to explore in the way we learn things from nursery school. And what an effect it has on the rest of life if we’re not strong enough to know ourselves at that age!(and is anyone?)
    I was glad to read your story “again”.
    Thanks. I will go and write J’s all over my workbooks…

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