I have just had a bit of a conversation on Facebook about the last school at which I taught – I didn’t post it here because it has only limited local interest. But as I was thinking about things I remembered a parent/teacher interview that went wrong.
The student was an interesting girl who was struggling to find a focus – she didn’t have any idea what she wanted to do and I had been trying to suggest that she didn’t need to make up her mind at this stage of her life.
Her mother was a pleasant smiling woman who bubbled around the school being helpful in the canteen or the second hand textbook or uniform shop.
I didn’t know the husband. He sat opposite me and allowed his wife to do all the talking. He uttered a few words, quietly and in an accent I didn’t quite hear or read. After I had given the usual pieces of information that parents seem to think are important I conclude by saying that their daughter was having trouble with making up her mind regarding a future career. I suggested that this was common for a person of her age and that too much emphasis is placed on the making of a decision as early as possible. We were fast approaching the point where I put my foot in my mouth although I wasn’t aware.
Then the mother lit the fuse with her next comment. “We don’t care what she wants to be. We just want her to be happy.”
I paused. A personal pet topic just entered the discussion. Before I could say anything the mother said, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That’s what it says in the Constitution.”
“It’s in the American Constitution,” I said, “but I’m glad it’s not in the Australian Constitution.”
The husband seemed to rouse himself and the wife said, “But isn’t that what we all want. Isn’t it in our Constitution.”
“No, it isn’t in ours. Thank goodness.”
With that the husband stood up and spoke clearly now in an obvious American accent. He was obviously annoyed. “I’ll not sit here and have my daughter’s teacher denigrate the greatest Constitution ever written. Come on, we are going home.”
I apologised for offending him. Had I known he was an American I would have been more careful with my choice of words. But if he could just sit down then maybe I could explain what I meant in particular when it was relevant to their daughter. He sat down but I wasn’t in any mood to back down.
“Please give me a chance to explain,” I said. “I think, that the phrase just quoted is, sadly, too often taken out of context. And were I an American I would probably sponsor a movement to have it removed.”
He wasn’t happy, so I changed tack.
“Let’s start again. You said that all you wanted was for her to be happy. But that is not in the nature of young girls. Young girls need to experience sadness and learn to cope with sadness because they will surely have to confront and deal with it, for example when her parents, you, die. She will need to learn to deal with loss, with misogyny, with rejection and with simple physical pain. If she doesn’t experience these then when will she learn to be resilient. Where will the idea of empathy come from.
If she loses a job and falls into a kind of depression how will she learn to climb out? Happiness is not something you can nor should you pursue. It comes of its own accord when we learn how to deal with sadness and fear and pain and loneliness. I could go on and list all these in alphabetical order from Apprehension to Xenophobia.”
“I know, sir,” I said to the man on the opposite side of the desk, ” that it is probably not what the founding fathers meant. But it is what they said and it is what most people read. The French of course have liberty, equality, fraternity and the Germans have unity, justice and liberty. And finally the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has life, liberty, and security of person.
“So what I am saying is that concentrating on “Happiness” is a very shallow aim and your daughter has a heck of a lot more to her than that. I think you should let her decide for herself, but teach her to aim a lot higher than the American Constitution.”
He smiled rather ironically and said, “You nearly had me until that last one.”
Then he stood up and we shook hands. Over the next few years we met each other on a number of occasions. The last time I saw him he smiled at me and said, “We’re still searching for happiness.”