Nantucket Essays

Getting Paid in “Happy”

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

In the new millennium, we start the school year before Labor Day.  The state wants 180 days, the lawyers want us to watch the disclaimers, and everyone wants to be done before the beginning of July. So, before the sales begin, we trudge off to school with our binders, our pens, and our class lists ready to go.

Once the students finally arrive in their places with bright shiny faces, I touch on the classroom rules, the bathroom pass, and attendance before we get to the matter at hand.  I have been a teacher long enough and in one space, that half of the students know what I am about to say before I begin.

“The goal of this class,” I state “is for you to be fat, happy, and forty.”  My students, in their tight jeans and midriff shirts, shudder at the thought that they may one day be fat.  “Fat,” I define “means that you can order the brownie supreme should you wish to.  You don’t need to pedal a bike to get to work.  You can enjoy that idle American life that our grandparents dreamed of.  “Forty” is beyond imagining for my students.  “Forty” is the realm of parenthood and iced tea.  But, “Forty” signifies to them that life can be very long and forty-year-old you would like to see passing grades on the report card.

“Happy” causes the most difficulty.  I define “happy” as doing work that you enjoy most of the time.  No one, not even rap artists and swimsuit models, enjoy every hour on the clock.  My students, who see themselves as pro athletes, models, and backup dancers for Nicki Minaj, can’t understand how their professional life could be anything but “happy.”

And yet, when I asked them to look around at the people they know who work, they think that they are not happy (and they wonder how that modeling career failed).  They look to their teachers, and, more specifically, they look at the school janitors.  They think of themselves sweeping the floors, stocking the toilet paper, and emptying the trash cans, and they shudder.

Martin Luther King spoke of the school janitors and street sweepers: “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. “  Being “happy” in your work doesn’t mean that everyone looks at your job with envy, but that you look at your job with something approaching envy.  Not everyday, in particular, not the day after the Senior Prank, but most days the janitors leave the school better than they found it. Then I ask them to find one of the janitors who doesn’t have a smile.

That stops them.

I don’t share a sad fact with my students. Very few people are happy with the profession they chose. Many of us took the courses, got into a nice paying job, and then realized, ten years later, that being a mason wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.  Instead, it meant busy Sundays, sore knees, and a back that is one cobblestone away from traction.  Being a bartender seemed like a great idea when you were 18, but by 40, you have made one too many “skinny” Cosmos.

Sometimes we find ourselves in professions that fit us well in our youth, but have become tight and unsightly in the later years.  Sometimes we find careers that bury us amid poisoned personalities and sickly supervisors.  And sometimes life happens.  Kids arrive, parents falter, and the mortgage payment is due on the fifteenth.  Not every janitor has a smile.

For most of us who cannot hit a curve ball or tweak in front of millions, adulthood involves transferring one dream for another.  Perhaps I cannot play professional football and sign my name two hundred times a day, but I can coach it.  Perhaps I cannot rise in Blackrock Financial, but I can raise children. Perhaps my paintings will never make me rich, but I can still stand at the easel before I try to sell that compound in Polpis.

If, we are honest with ourselves when we look in the mirror, most of us have to admit that we have day jobs and hobbies.  We teach middle school science all winter in Connecticut so that we can spend the summer catching tuna at the Bonita Bar.  We make sandwiches from 10 to 2 so that we can be home when the kids get off the bus.  We paint houses so that when the wind and tide are right, we can ride the break off of Cisco for a few hours in the morning.

Ultimately, Nantucket becomes the best rationalization.  You paint houses, tend bar, cater the wine festival special dinners, and open scallops so that you can live thirty miles out to sea on an island in the sea of time.  To live on Nantucket is to make it work.  You find the labor that you have to do to keep your name out of the paper and the mortgage current.  Living on Nantucket is its own career.  One year the money flows in, the next it flows out; and in between you wiggle your toes deep into the sand and cling hard.  Or, more likely, you grab the hands of the people around you, then lean hard into the tide.

Labor Day is a holiday for adults.  It celebrates the transformation of careers into labor, with all of the trade-offs, disappointments, and treasures that came along with it.  We turn off the register, bury the phone in the glove compartment, and shut the computer off.  Then, we drive out to Fortieth Pole, back the truck towards the ocean, and start the hibachi.  We are all here, in the fading light of summer, enjoying the silence, and getting paid in “happy.”

Articles by Date from 2012