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