The following is another guest post by Jane Matthews.
This appointment wasn’t even about me: I’d been called in to talk about my son who was in danger of flunking school. The days when he actually used to skip into the classroom, ever fibre in his body excited by his life, were a distant memory. Ever since moving to the secondary school the energy had been leaching from him. Each year, the reports got worse. My son never turned in any homework, never spoke in class; above all he was miserable.
So there we were, being shown into the head’s office, me more nervous than my son, to talk grades, exam results, reports and options.
Instead of which, the head wanted to talk to us about happiness.
“What are you passionate about? What makes you happy?” he leaned towards us, smiling. “What do you enjoy so much you’d spend all your time doing it if you could?”
We lost the headteacher for a few minutes then while he told us about his own passion for Russian history and how he’d read every book he could lay his hands on, taken himself off to watch Russian films, and how that had taken him to university and then naturally into teaching because he knew he wanted to light the fire of learning in others.
Then he was back, gently asking my son why he’d chosen to stay on and study for his A levels.
“So I can go to university.”
“Why? What do you want to study there?”
My son’s head dipped. “I don’t know.”
Even more gently: “So you can spend more years studying things that don’t interest you, because you don’t know what else to do and what’s what everyone else does?
“This isn’t about what anyone expects of you but what you should expect from life.”
Learning to be happy
For many of us, it’s only in midlife that we start to ponder whether doing what everyone else is doing is making us happy.
Just imagine how different our lives might be if our teachers had decided, like this head, that the most important lesson any school has to teach is to find out what really turns us on, what makes us so happy that – in our minds at least – we feel like skipping when we’re doing it.
What makes us happy may change with the passing years, as we change. But we would have learned that at every stage along the way we can choose not to follow the crowd. That we are the experts us on, once we’re given – or give ourselves – permission to make happiness our priority.
As I write this I’ve no idea where my son will be when school restarts. I suspect at 17 he won’t find the courage to give up halfway through his A levels, either to study something else, or go and do something entirely different.
And why should he? He lives in a world in which most of the adults he sees have precisely the same attitude, continuing on the same treadmill, even though it doesn’t make them happy, doesn’t bring them alive, because that in breaking out they may lose the way, lose friends, lose approval. Fearful that to make a change is to admit they may have wasted years moving away from their dreams rather than towards them.
And because they never had a teacher who told them the thing to do is the thing that makes them happy.
Jane Matthews is a writer, whose next book, The Best Year of Your Life, on how small changes can make a big difference will be published in 2010. She also runs personal development workshops in self esteem and Heal Your Life, Achieve Your Dreams. For details of these, and her other books, see www.smallbooks.co.uk.