Be a Joy to the Joyful

“If there’s a book of jubilations, we’ll have to write it for ourselves.”

This is going to seem like a plug for a musician. And in a way it is. But it’s also a post about joy, and the way any person can be joyful, not only because it comes from within, but because it affects those around us too.

A couple of weeks ago, I went yet again to see Josh Ritter play. I keep going not only because it is a joyful experience, but because it is an experience whose joy is so manifest.

This time it got me to thinking about the joy of doing what we do — teaching — and the power of communicating it.

Ritter is a singer and songwriter in the “singer/songwriter” tradition. His work is distinguished by beautiful melodies and fluid, hyper-literate acrobatic turns that earned him a mention as one of Paste Magazine’s “100 Best Living Songwriters” when he was only 29.

My wife and I went to the show with two folks who had never encountered Josh Ritter: Annie, a close friend whose husband was out of town; and Dusty, a friend made more recently, whom I met through his fantastic blog, only to discover that he lives in the same town I do.

Mostly the show seemed to be a chance for Josh and his band to run through tunes from his new album, Sermon on the Rocks; he played 11 of the album’s 12 songs. But even in such yeoman’s enterprise there is something immediately appealing: It is clear that Josh loves what he does. There is no song — no anthem, no ballad, not even an elegy — that does not find him with an enormous grin. Seeing him through the fresh eyes of friends led me to consider anew the positive feeling he creates, almost entirely by being so positive himself.

Here are a few photos I took at the show. What amazes me is not merely that he’s always smiling. It’s that even in the silhouette you can tell that he’s smiling. When he sings or speaks, you can actually hear him smile.


We asked Annie, who is not usually one to effuse, how she liked it. “I loved it!” she exclaimed. She’s buying tickets for her family for the February show already announced.

Dusty, who writes with a folksy spareness I admire, noted on his blog: “I don’t think I’ve ever encountered someone whose little light shined so joyfully.”

And all of that got me to thinking about teaching. (You were wondering, weren’t you?)

A wonderful teacher I hired many years ago once said to me, “You are always so positive.” That surprised me, since I think of myself as a little, um, vinegary, critical of everything (especially myself), dwelling on things that can be improved rather than living in the company of the things that are just exactly perfect as they already are.

Because I am aware of that tendency, I need to work to project a positive impression, not only to mitigate my own critical nature, but to light the way for others as well — in Josh Ritter’s words, to ”be a joy to the joyful, be the laughter in the grief.” Needless to say, I’m not always successful. But everybody around me — including me — is better when I am.

So much of what we do as teachers and administrators is simply perceived by others. Our classrooms can be places of enervation and frustration, and they can be places of joy. They are probably both at various times.

But we can look at the kid who’s late for the twenty-fifth time and glare, or we can remind him that we’re still rooting for him on the twenty-sixth. We can remind the mother, distraught over her daughter’s weak reading, that her skills are lagging — or we can remind her that even though her daughter is still struggling, she has made so much progress since September, and that, yes, she will read just fine, as pretty much all of them, even the ones with learning challenges, do. We can work to displace the things that are hard for us, and to emphasize the positive in people — and then work again, to become better at it.

If schools eventually come to reflect their principals and heads, classrooms come to mimic their teachers. Like anything else, a positive attitude can be practiced, honed, and improved — even by those whose little lights are just joyfully average.

For the curious and the intrepid, here are two great tunes performed live.

The first, “Kathleen,” is a tale of an awkward boy who finds the pretty girl at a party, and offers to drive her home: “I won’t be your last dance, just your last goodnight, Every heart is a package tangled up in knots someone else tied.”

The second, “Lantern,” is an upbeat plea for two lovers to stick together through the world’s darkness: “If there’s a Book of Jubilations, we'll have to write it for ourselves. So come and lie beside me, darling, and let’s write it while we’ve still got time.”

There are many more equally endearing songs by Josh Ritter available at the normal sites — some lyrics are more direct, some more impressionistic. But they all remind me that — after a knowledge of children, a personal authenticity, and a love of subject — beauty and positive thoughts are the best armor we can carry into a day, a year, or a life in teaching.

Peter BravermanComment