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  • Writer's picturekatelyn russell

Lesson One

After the first couple of class periods, once the thrill of back to school has tampered down a little bit, I “start teaching”. By which I mean I start engaging students in content and skills relevant to the health standards. I ask them to define health and wellness and articulate the difference between them. They talk to one another and air their responses, and then I show them the definition of health from the World Health Organization:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

We contrast this with wellness. If you Google wellness (go ahead, do it), you get different definitions and numbers of dimensions, but they all center on wellness being an active process to get to health. I hate the word wellness. I removed it from the title of the class on the grounds that the standards are called health standards, not health and wellness standards. Wellness, to me, feels loaded and vague. There are “wellness retreats” and endless products that promote wellness. It’s commercialized and commodified - an industry that like all others is racist and capitalistic. When I see the word at school, I cringe. Wellness Committee. Student Wellness Clubs. Is it that thing where if you say and hear a word too many times it loses its meaning and starts to seem fake and made up because it all is fake and made up?

Sometimes, I imagine that I walk around with a giant neon sign pointing to me that says something like, “I teach health. Please tell me about your diet, your exercise routine, your mom’s issues with smoking, and then ask me what I think and I will have the answer.” I do not have the answer. I used to pretend like I had the answer but now I stare and nod with a tight smile, looking for a quick exit. If I knew what to teach, do, say, etc, to help people eat more fruits and vegetables, I would not be teaching health in the basement of a high school in central Massachusetts. I don’t say this to my students. Instead, I put on an air of knowing and we dissect the meaning of health versus wellness. Because it’s so early in the year, they spit back at me what I said to them. Wellness is an active process that one takes to get to health. Health is feeling good about your mind, body, and relationships, not just the opposite of being sick.

I suppose it comes down to this - I want a shred of dignity for my profession which feels like it occupies the bottom rung of the ladder in the school hierarchy. That starts with parsing out language and being really intentional with the words we use and what we call things. It starts with recognizing that we teach skills systematically, like an art teacher teaches drawing or a biology teacher teaches the scientific method. If I could just tell people to eat fruits and vegetables or reflect on what they had for dinner and make them magically do it, there would be no need for any of this. But it is not that simple. It’s like how Dr. Laurie Santos teaches that what we think about happiness is wrong - the things we think will make us happy don’t.

This is long-winded and tangential. I’m learning how to weave school and story together. Today, we examine social determinants of health. That’s lesson two.

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