Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness

The auditorium is cool and dark and I almost sigh with relief as I sink into my seat. It’s hot and bright outside and my classroom on the third floor has been hellish. The heat is bad enough given our non-functioning air-conditioning, but what really drives me crazy is my students' varying temperature requirements. Coscun, who is tall and skinny, cannot bear having the window open. Aycan too is cold-blooded: she wears a sweater on even the hottest days. Sevgi, on the other hand, is always burning up, and Haluk, Kemal, and Nazli slide up and down the scale. No sooner have I started teaching than someone jumps up to see whether the air-conditioner happens to be working again. Five minutes later, someone else is tugging on a window, trying to open or close it. This goes on all morning until I could scream. Here in the auditorium the temperature is perfect for me. If my students don’t like it, they’ll just have to sweat—or shiver—it out until the movie’s over.

“Teacher, what movie?” Coscun whispers, tapping me on the shoulder.

“The Pursuit of Happiness,” I tell him for the third time in five minutes, through clenched jaws.

“Teacher, I am present,” Kemal cries breathlessly in the row behind me, making Nazli squeal in protest as he trips over her feet.

“Kemal. Got you,” I mutter, ticking his name on my roll sheet.

“Teacher, cold,” Aycan mutters. She snuffles. “Do you have—?”

But Kemal interrupts. “Teacher, I am here?” His breath is hot on my neck.

“Yes,” I mutter, rooting in my bag for Kleenex, which I’m guessing is what Aycan wants. From my over-stuffed handbag I pull dark glasses, my wallet, and a tube of hand cream. But where in the world is my Kleenex?

“You mark me present?” Kemal persists. Because God forbid he should spend a whole two hours watching a movie in a cool auditorium on a hot day and not be given credit for it.

“Yes, I have marked you here!” I tell Kemal a little too loudly, pulling a package of Kleenex out of my bag and handing it to Aycan. She frowns at it. “No, I have.” She leans closer to me. “Do you have pen?”

“Teacher, we have quiz after movie?” Nazli wants to know as I try unsuccessfully to stuff the Kleenex back into my bag.

“Teacher, what quiz about?” Aycan wails a little frantically.

By the time the lights go out and the movie begins, I am no longer cool.

And yet, in no time, I am caught up in the wonderful story of Christopher Gardner and his trials. Suddenly I am no longer a hassled, stressed-out teacher in an auditorium with a roll sheet on my lap, I am back in San Francisco watching Christopher and his son coping with life on the street. I marvel at how a father sleeping rough manages to turn himself out every morning, smartly dressed in a business suit and freshly ironed shirt; how he gets his son to his nursery school and back day after day; how he puts in a full day at work under the most difficult of circumstances. I feel his misery and anxiety when he is forced to give his rich, oblivious boss his last five dollars, when he has to pay the parking fines he has incurred through no fault of his own. When Christopher and his little boy are spending the night at Glide Memorial’s homeless shelter and his little boy says You’re a good papa, I find myself snuffling back tears. The movie could end right here and I’d be perfectly happy: if you’re living on the streets, doing your best to make ends meet, and your little boy thinks you’re a good dad, you’re a success.

“Teacher, you okay?” Nazli whispers, her voice anxious. I nod. A soft, cool hand pats mine in the darkness. Some of my students consult the clocks on their mobile phones, obviously bored, but they are the ones who would yawn their way through a hurricane. Most are on the edge of their seats, their mouths hanging open.

As I watch, I can’t help but find parallels between Christopher’s life and my own. Although I’m not homeless, I too am pursuing a dream, my own vision of happiness that always seems tantalizingly, provokingly out of reach. I too have children I am determined to do well by; I too am doing a job that is hellishly difficult and feel lost in a world that is indifferent to whether I succeed or fail. At the end of the movie when Chris is offered the job he has worked so hard to get, I burst into tears. And this time there is no stopping me.

“Don’t cry, teacher!” Kemal whispers as I fumble for my Kleenex with one hand and blot my tears with the back of the other.

“ArrrCHOO!” Aycan sneezes behind me. She’s shivering again; the auditorium air-conditioning is definitely a little too efficient and even I am a little too cool.

But inside, I’m warmed right through.


Blythe said...

Why I still see movies in the theater sometimes: Because we are all more human(e) when we huddle together to listen to a story in the dark.

Every time I visit you, you make me laugh or cry.

Charlie said...

I think this is called a bittersweet story. On one hand, it's about dealing with the 20 Stooges. On the other, your pursuit of happiness that frustrates but keeps hope and the dream alive.

Wonderful writing, Mary.

Charles Gramlich said...

some you never reach. but others make it worthwhile.

Tabitha said...

I *loved* that movie. I found many parallels between both Christopher and his son and myself. We grew up very poor, and my mom still isn't well-off. But I fought my way through college and got a good job, and then turned around and gave back to her. Because Lord knows she killed herself trying to keep a roof over my head, so the least I can do is keep one over hers now.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Interesting observation regarding the range of attentiveness among the students regarding the film - between boredom and being brought to tears. It makes you wonder at what point individuals break out of the shell of "self" and begin to experience empathy for others? Or what experience or event in their life causes that to happen... is the realization inevitable given time or perhaps, in some cases, they never are able to dwell outside their own ego. Interesting.

Kit said...

It's a wonderful movie - I'm in awe of his achievements and determination.
Glad some of the students were gripped too.
Keep on pursuing your dream. Your writing is as gripping as the movie!

Carole said...

I gritted my teeth each time your students interrupted you. I felt like I was in the auditorium with you. Good observations and excellent writing.

Movies based on real life stories almost always help me get rid of excess tissues.

Vijaya said...

I loved this movie ... and to see your student's concern for you gives me a warm feeling.

I think to be content and joyful is true happiness.

Tabitha, are we related? Alas, my mom died over 20 years ago.

Mary Witzl said...

Blythe -- You're right: it's so much more of an experience when we share it with others, whether they're people we know or not. I can't sit and watch a movie by myself -- it just feels wrong.

I hope you laughed at this one. I looked awfully silly when the lights went back on.

Charlie -- Thank you. My 20 stooges kept me from losing it entirely, but it was sweet to see their concern. I saw the movie 'Up' with them a few months ago and just barely managed to keep from sobbing my heart out. It meant a lot to me that a couple of them were crying too.

Charles -- I hardly reach any of mine, but when I do, it's always worth it.

Tabitha -- I'm so glad you liked it too. A lot of people whined that it was a feel-good movie with a Hollywood ending, but the acting was so good and so believable, I didn't care.

I worked my way through college too, but what you did is incredible. I felt worlds apart from the privileged kids who got tons of money from their parents AND their tuition and costs paid and I can imagine that you must have felt this too.

Robert -- Some of the kids I teach come from very poor communities. Last year, I taught a boy who could hardly afford fruit and vegetables and grew steadily skinnier until he graduated. Although I didn't do an intensive survey, a lot of the students who are less economically advantaged seemed to connect with this film. Most of the kids I teach are obviously spoiled by their parents and have never known poverty. They told me they were bored by The Pursuit of Happiness and preferred 'action' movies. Hardly surprising, I suppose.

Kit -- Thank you for saying that about my writing! I live in hope, just like Christopher in The Pursuit of Happyness.

Carole -- I do have students who never interrupt me, who sit in my classroom obviously listening to me, offering pertinent answers to my questions and engaging in discussions. I'd say they make up about 5% of my students. On the last day of class, I'm making those students chocolate chip cookies. And they all get a hug whether they like it or not.

Vijaya -- I agree. I also think the pursuit of happiness is happiness itself, if we have the sense to recognize it. You can spend your lifetime pursuing a goal, but in the end, how you spend your journey is what really counts.

Library girl said...

Just what I needed to read today. xxThank you Mary :)

Robin said...

Those kids are a trip. It's very sweet that they wanted to comfort you when you cried.

In my typical pathological Woody Allenish way, I saw no parallels between Christopher and myself. I only felt horribly guilty that I didn't have to suffer enough, and wondered if I should sell my favorite shoes as penance. I also contemplated barfing up my popcorn as extra self punishment.

Anonymous said...

That's so sweet that the children tried to comfort you.

That's an amazing movie. I need to see it again.

Falak said...

Happy Endings are always heart warming. This was a beautiful post.

Miss Footloose said...


I love the real-life human-ness of your story, to see the behavior and reactions of kids from a different culture and feel them to be so genuine and recognizable.

We need more of that sort of writing to spread the word that it's not all weird or strange or dangerous "over there."

Kim Ayres said...

Your writing, as always, is superb Mary :)

e said...

The kids sensed something before your tears came, from the sound of things...We are all so much more alike than we realise...

Hold on to those dreams of yours...I wish I could say I still had some but I am not sure anymore...Thanks for sharing here.

Mary Witzl said...

Library Girl -- Thank you. These comments are just what I needed to read today, so we're more than even!

Robin -- But I felt guilty myself, and very privileged: how easy I've had it all these years even when I thought I was roughing it. And the shoe scene in the movie had me on the edge of my seat. I'm still wondering if he ever got that shoe back and how he managed to get home afterwards.

Medeia -- It really was sweet. They'd all seen me enraged, amused, and VERY confused, and to that mixture we added my blubbering tears and red-rimmed eyes. Our final exams are next week; it's all too likely I'm going to see some of their tears next.

Falak -- Thank you. It was a classic Hollywood ending, but it still warmed my heart.

Miss Footloose -- You do this on your blog too, don't you? It's the best way of sharing our hard-won experiences with the world.

All the kids in my class are such individuals, even the obnoxious ones who do nothing but horse around and can't sit still for one minute. Before we got here, I had no idea what they would be like. I wish I could show more people back in the U.K. and U.S. how similar to us people here are, how, for the most part, we have the same hopes, fears, and dreams. There are plenty of differences, of course, but our similarities are far greater.

Kim -- Aw, thank you!

e -- It's so hard to keep the dreams from drying up, but once in a while a little inspiration can go a long way. I tell myself that I'm finished, then after a week or two, I go right back to my writing and dream-spinning. It gives me something to come home to, and it beats doing housework any day. Here's to your keeping your dreams alive too -- one of the hardest jobs I can imagine.

Marcia said...

So well written. I never know quite what to say about your stories, Mary, except they have emotional depth and speak for themselves.

AnneB said...

Movies at their best are a visual literature! Fascinating that this one grabbed some of your more lively students.

Anne Spollen said...

Love this post. What connects us is so much more than what divides us.

Mary Witzl said...

Marcia -- Thank you so much for those kind words. It means a lot to me that good writers come to read what I've written and comment on it.

AnneB -- This movie resonated with most of my poorer students, but not so much the ones who have obviously never known poverty. Not surprising, really, but a little sad.

AnneS -- I absolutely believe that, but I just wish I could get other people to see it too. So many people seem to concentrate on the things that they don't have in common with others.

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