Whoa, whoa, whoa, Ms. Nelson, you just dropped some bombs there! I think we need to pause this sing-along for a moment and unpack the critical issues you just laid out before us.
Am I happy? Wow, what a question. Well, it was more of a conditional, but I am nevertheless forced to confront the question implicit within. And if I can be real, no one’s ever asked me that before. Like, truly asked me, you know. Admittedly, I have had “Happy Birthday” sung to me six times (seven come February)—not to mention the countless times I’ve sung it myself—but I was perhaps too self-absorbed in those moments to fully recognize the issue laid before me. But this classroom ditty has finally put it front and center.
So first off, thank you for that. I feel seen and cared for.
But to answer your question, I guess I would say… yes? I mean, from what I can tell, I have a pretty good life. My parents are decently loving, though they can be a bit much. Like, if I don’t say “please” and “thank you” in every sentence, I have to hear about it for the next hour. But otherwise, they’re cool, no real complaints. My big sister can be mean sometimes, but she’s also very funny and smart, and we have a lot of fun together. And my little brother, ugh, not a day goes by when he isn’t climbing on top of me or pulling my clothes out of my drawers. But he doesn’t really mean anything by it, and he’s just so cute, so I don’t really let it get to me. And the kids at school are quality as well. So yeah, I guess that means I’m happy.
But if I have to be honest: that all felt very superficial. Certainly, these are things to be happy about or thankful for. (See, Dad, I know how to say thank you without you haranguing me.) But does that mean I’m happy? How can one say?
Which, of course, makes your next question that much weightier: do I “know” it? At the risk of sounding like a sophomore philosophy major, do we ever truly “know” anything? No, you’re right. Let’s not go down that rabbit hole. The aim here is not to investigate the essence of knowledge itself, but rather to take emotional stock of our present selves. Not that questions of knowledge aren’t important, but we shouldn’t use these as an excuse to neglect self-care.
Yet, in light of all that, I’m taken aback by your rushed insistence that I demonstrate my happiness by deciding whether or not to clap my hands. First off, this is highly reductive. How can we be asked to assess our emotional states so quickly, and then immediately relay that self-assessment via clapping or not clapping? I hate to sound condescending, but I expected more from you, Ms. Nelson.
Furthermore, such a demand is socially coercive. To not clap my hands is, essentially, to make a public declaration of unhappiness. I then leave myself open to probing questions about my emotional well-being, my home life, my upbringing. Why should I expose my parents to such scrutiny, let alone myself? I am compelled to clap my hands to maintain any sense of privacy.
This renders any clapping meaningless. How can I trust that Terrell’s clapping is an accurate indicator of his genuine happiness? How can he trust mine? Or what about Marisa, who is trying so heroically to find the beat? Are her valiant efforts a sign of genuine gladness or enforced conformity? Every clap now rings hollow in my ears. We have become Vaclav Havel’s shopkeepers, putting on a jovial front lest we be marked as socially deviant.
Wait, what? Not only must I clap my hands, but now my face must also surely show my happiness?! I thought you were an education professional! I was led to believe that gone were the days when we demanded people veil their true selves behind placid Stepford façades. Such a demand is especially damaging for the young girls here, who will face constant societal reminders that if they display anything beyond a genial and nonthreatening expression, they will be labeled a—well, I’m not allowed to use that word, but let’s just say it’s not one of Jay-Z’s ninety-nine problems.
I’m starting to wonder whether this whole exercise was ever about us discovering a more profound sense of self, or was really all done to fulfill your craving for self-validation. Sure, get the kids to clap and smile, and then tell yourself that that means you’re a good teacher. What’s next—a treat of fish for flapping our flippers on cue? Well, sorry, Nelson, this isn’t Sea World, and I sure ain’t Shamu! My emotions are for me to work through and take ownership of. They are not for you to put on display for your rug-time pedagogy!
Stomp my feet?! You’re not listening to me at all, are you?! It is now clear that what I naïvely thought was an opportunity to take a needed emotional inventory was instead an early lesson in gaslighting. Is this what betrayal feels like?
You know what, forget it! You win! I’m mad, I’m not clapping or stomping, and now you know it! Are you happy?!
Not helping, Terrell!