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  • michelle m. davis

The Happiness Equation

Growing up, I wasn’t the pretty girl, the funny girl, or the athletic girl… I was the smart girl. I liked what I thought it meant, and I embraced the label. One day a week during elementary school, a small group of us left the classroom to be with other “gifted” kids to do stuff like dissect frogs, create versions of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and compose Haiku. Later when I earned the highest score in my 6th grade Social Studies class with renown teacher/historian, Mr. George M. Meiser IX, I was rewarded by getting to spend the day touring Berks County’s historical sites in his 1930 Ford. Freshman year I represented my class at the Hugh O’Brien Youth Foundation Conference. Three years later, my GPA designated me as class valedictorian. At every step of the journey through elementary, middle, and high school, people told me I was smart, and I loved the way that it made me feel. I truly believed I was working towards solving a very specific equation for success.

A Successful Career = Good School + Strong Grades + Hard Work

Then came college. I knew it would be hard, but I had absolutely no idea what was in store for me! Thank God for that Freshman Seminar first semester. I’m not sure if it was the interesting professor, intimate group setting, amazing location on the second floor of Linderman Library, or the fascinating topic of Roman Mythology, but it was the only class that I earned an “A” in that semester. That certainly was not the story with the rest of my courses. Never before had a teacher given me a “D” on an English paper. I think I even scored a “D+” on a Psych test and received my first final grade of a “C” ever, in Economics, a four-credit prerequisite course for my major. This added insult to injury!

I squeaked by with a 2.99 at the end of the year. But, if I was going to solve my success equation at Lehigh, I needed to work on my grades, and fast. Doing this required taking a step back and looking closely at this situation. What was happening? Realizing that my environment differed significantly, I examined how others operated. Lehigh students are extremely talented and motivated. Here, my peers competed like champions, often having more conviction to achieve than I could muster. As many were student athletes, their “on the field” experience armored them with the confidence that I lacked. My classmates demonstrated little fear and approached professors when they had questions. They didn’t idolize these individuals and revere their PhDs. They saw them as accomplished men and women who could help them get where they wanted to go. And, they never hesitated to question. If my fellow students didn’t understand something, they would get help or stay up half the night until they understood the topic, often taking time out to go to Pub Night and have a few beers. I quickly realized that I was no longer “special.” As a Finance major taking prerequisites such as Micro, Macro, and Accounting, the coursework consumed me, definitely too much for me to memorize. Now I had to understand in order to learn.

Suddenly, I was lost… everything I had done in the past to be successful no longer applied.

It became clear that I earned the “smart girl” label in elementary and high school by working hard. I set goals, and I met them. I wasn’t afraid to ask questions when I was confused because I felt comfortable with my teachers. At times, I could do the work but didn’t understand it. So I became a master at memorizing. All of these strategies functioned great in high school, but when I got to college, it was another story. I quickly recognized that I needed to change course… to learn how to study wisely so I could once again “be smart” and earn the necessary grades to complete my success equation. This wasn’t going to be easy, and I might have to swallow some pride. There had to be another component. What did I need to do?

Perhaps it was my internal competitiveness, a caring professor, or a really smart college boyfriend, but I figured it out. By discovering how I learned and what made sense for me, I could compose quality papers and perform better on tests. I made sure I went to every class and typed my notes as soon as I got back to my room. Utilizing the Learning Center, seniors read drafts of my essays and gave feedback. And, I started studying way in advance of every test, giving myself extra hours to grasp the material. I would reduce my notes from pages to just one index card, using specific words to trigger information that I could recite in my head. I’d pretend that I needed to explain the topic to a younger student, and this necessitated that I fully grasped the material. Finally, I slowed down when I read. I reread and thought about concepts until I understood them. No longer would I do “all-nighters,” hoping to comprehend the material by 5:00 a.m. To succeed, I needed to develop new strategies on how to learn…and work even harder that I ever had before.

College ended well. I graduated Magna cum laude with a 3.7 in my major. Not bad after a disappointing freshman year. Luckily, I landed a desirable position with a prestigious bank in Philadelphia. The somewhat revised equation I was working so hard to solve was seemingly complete.

A Successful Career = Good School + Strong Grades + Hard Work + Respected Job

However, after one year of banking, I soon realized that I was miserable. I hated my job. I didn’t feel that it mattered whether I or another trainee did the work. It would be the same result. It occurred to me that I wasn’t making a difference in the least. Overwhelmed with this dilemma, I began questioning my future. “What the hell am I going to do with my life?” It was time to stop and regroup. What did I want? Who was I? What was my purpose? Could I make a difference? If so, where and how? I felt anything but smart.

I had done everything I thought I needed to do – why wasn’t I feeling successful? What components of the equation needed to be replaced, and how could I do that? Did I just waste my time and my parents’ money getting a Finance degree from Lehigh? Was I a failure? But wait, was it really a bad experience? Would I have learned how to learn had I not chosen this major or this school? Most things happen for a reason, and it is up to us whether or not we recognize life’s lessons through our experiences. Could I find a message in all of this?

Similar to the roadblock I hit during my freshman year, once again, it was time to pause, look for the learning opportunity, and figure out my next step. What did this teach me? Who was I, and what did I want to do with my life? What was my element? Where did my talents and interests intersect? These are huge questions for a 23-year-old.

After a great deal of contemplation, introspection, research, and speaking to those I respected, I took a 180 degree turn from banking and entered the field of education. From what I saw and heard, I knew that I could do this… I could teach. I could make a difference. And, hadn’t I fought my own battles with learning? Could I help others understand?

I quickly earned my Masters in Elementary Education at St. Joseph’s University and even received the Graduate Honors Award. I knew I discovered my passion. Teaching elementary kids during the day and undergrads and graduates as an adjunct at night, I found my calling. I felt smart but most importantly, I felt happy. I had found the missing addend to my equation. And it became my goal to help my students figure out that missing link for themselves!

A Successful Career = Hard Work + Passion = Happiness


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