Changed for the Better

Changed for the Better, episode 28

Jacqueline Smith-Musselman


As we go through life, our identity is defined by the things we do and the relationships we hold dear. In this episode, Jacqueline Smith-Musselman reflects on all of her identifiers, including the bliss (and terrors) of motherhood and her dream job as a Kindergarten teacher. We also talk about the benefits of therapy, maintaining joy, and the struggle to balance it all.

A Spring Valley graduate of 2008, I remember Jackie Smith as an energetic, bubbly young woman with an infectious laugh. She quickly embraced our performing arts offerings in dance and Thespians, starting as an understudy and working her way up the ladder to leading roles and being my assistant director for her senior fall show. As we reminisced, she recalled so many formative experiences, including the annoying time when she had to kiss her older brother’s best friend onstage.

There’s a now legendary story about Jackie in 42nd Street that still makes her blush. While she was in the dressing room, waiting for her next cue, far away from audience earshot, she was hyping herself up to put forth her best performance and yelled “I’m Maggie Jones, [expletive]!” Her body mic, unfortunately, was on. Looking back, it was a hilarious, if not mortifying moment for her, that now provides a great teachable moment about microphone etiquette. I tell that story to each new cast, both because it’s an entertaining and instructive story and it’s a way to keep Jackie close to my heart. It makes me laugh out loud every time I tell it because I remember her enthusiastic joy in the moment.

Embarrassing tales aside, she continued her theater studies at Muhlenberg College. However, like so many of us who got bit by the theater bug in high school, she finished the Bachelor’s degree and realized that the theater business was not part of that passion. Her attraction to the craft was rooted in the creativity, collaboration and community that were the hallmarks of her high school Thespian experience. After graduation, she realized that those qualities were not reflected in the same way outside of the school environment. Like many other early 20-somethings, Jackie had a confusing post-college experience. After spending four years in a course of study that she decided was not the direction she wanted to go, she had some serious figuring out to do.

Jackie took the first job she could find working in sales and quickly came to the realization that she wanted to work with kids. She went back to school to get her elementary education teaching certification, worked at a nursery school during the day and got her credits in at night. After she had her first child, she temporarily went back to sales to spend more time with him in his first year and then landed her first teaching job in a 4th grade classroom in Allentown, PA (a coincidence that is not lost on her from her 42nd Street days). Two years later, she then settled into her dream job: leading a Kindergarten classroom in Bethlehem, PA.

To be honest, I can’t think of a better person to be at the helm of a room full of five-year-olds. Jackie has always loved children (full disclosure: she babysat for my kids when they were small) and is the perfect blend of joyful, smart, funny, enthusiastic and kind. She models exactly what little ones need to see, providing the strongest foundation for them as they leap into their first big-kid school adventure. She is actually amazed by the little people in her charge:

You get to experience them, realizing who they are outside of this tiny little home life that’s all they’ve ever known. I get to see the beginnings of who they are as people.

The teenage years: J-Smith

Jackie described her teenage self in three words: eager, unsure and scared. I’d add energetic, personality plus and socially connected. I liken her freshman self to her Kindergarten babies, eager to soak up all of the excitement and learn all of the things. The Thespian veterans gave her the moniker J-Smith, an identity that she took on proudly as she navigated her path in dance and Thespians.

I asked her what about those dance and theater experiences helped to keep her centered and regulated. In a moment, she confidently stated, I think everything. She thrived on the structure and routine in a safe space where she was surrounded by happy, creative people that enabled her to explore her own creative side.

It was a chance for me to explore my creative side and figure out what I enjoyed and who I was; I didn’t know who I was.

Her middle school experience, sadly, was traumatic. She came from a Catholic school and was thankful to enter the public school, even though she had no friends to back her up. She did have her brother, Billy, who was her rock. He had a great experience in the the public school and that gave her all the fortification she needed. She auditioned for the fall show as a freshman and got an understudy, an unexpected opportunity which bolstered her confidence immensely. She was the only freshman in a cast of primarily juniors and seniors, and she decided to dig in and do her part. What she also didn’t expect was to be taken under everyone’s wing and completely supported by every member of the company: cast, crew and adults.

Jacqueline was one of the few teens who actually loved high school. So much of her experience was wrapped up in the Thespian activities, and even with all of her mental health issues she quietly navigated, high school was the grounding force that kept her centered and calm.

It’s really a big part of who I am today.

As she enveloped herself in the salve of Thespians, she was struggling with some intense demons.

My mental health issues were significantly worse than I led on. There were points in my life in both high school and college where I didn’t think I’d have any future.

That is a heavy burden for a young person to carry on their shoulders with no therapeutic support. It’s so hard to admit that when you are in the middle of those traumatic thoughts, and it seems that there is a desperation to find ways to cope and defy those feelings, or else succumb to the weight of them. Hearing Jackie recall those feelings reminds me just how fragile adolescents are, and how important it is to reach out to as many as possible to give them a lifeline. Teachers can’t fix their lives, but we can show them a view of themselves that they couldn’t possible see for themselves.

How has Jackie changed since high school?

My whole journey has been learning to love myself. I had some pretty serious mental health issues in high school. Since then, it’s been learning to love myself and taking those parts of myself that I think are ‘me’ at my core and have always been ‘me’ and appreciating them. I like to think I haven’t changed that much. But I think that a lot of my insecurity caused me to put up this facade of ‘I’m the best, I’m cooler than you.’ It was a coping mechanism, it was me figuring out how to get through life. As I get older, I’m learning to let that down and try to be true to myself.

The main difference between her high school and her adult self is the confidence that she has gained and the ability to recognize her strengths. She considers herself to be a great Kindergarten teacher and acknowledges her capacity for growth in her field. Embracing her role as an entertainer-educator, she translates so many lessons from her Thespian days directly to her work, from managing her classroom to being a team player to building respectful interpersonal relationships.

Jackie has also learned that being silly and uncomfortable is what helps her to grow further into herself. Becoming a mom has also drawn back the curtain, exposing all of the terrifying truths of being responsible for the creation and flourishing of new humans. The good news is that Jacqueline has happily accepted the challenges of motherhood and emanates joy through the process of raising of her children. She is grateful for her husband and children, her brothers (who are still her best friends), her house, her dream job and all of the blessings that have come her way in this phase of her life. The best part of that is that she manifested all of those blessings, and she told me how magical her life is from the happy place of her new home.

My life is amazing right now. I just can’t believe I got here.

What would she say to J-Smith today?

It’s okay to say no.

A big part of Jackie’s upbringing was rooted in manners, which on the surface seems proper and sensible. However Jacqueline, as a young female in a household rooted in extreme manners, learned “yes, please” and “yes, thank you” as the only options in her personal decision-making. In that regard, as much as she might miss her high school experience – her friends, teachers, and activities – she doesn’t really miss the adolescent version of herself.

I was a ‘yes, thank you’ kid. I was raised to exist. I was taken advantage of so many times in so many different ways. I didn’t know how to stick up for myself. I wish I knew that it’s okay to say no. I don’t feel that I was really allowed to be who I was. I think the only time I existed in the space that I felt safe and comfortable in was Thespians. The parts of me that were allowed to come forward and be authentic, those are the parts of me that I’ve done my best to carry with me now.

When I asked her what has gotten better since she became an adult, her answer was simple:

Everything.

What does Mrs. Musselman grapple with now?

Balance.

When you are a parent, with a job you are passionate about, it’s like trying to hold a platter full of fine china in each hand. Navigating through the world when everything you carry is so precious to you, adds a level of stress because every step you take becomes so important. The addition of mom, educator and grad student to her list of identities makes life very complex with little wiggle room. Oh, and she also has a side job working with adults with disabilities. Of course, that begs the question: How do I do this?

I’ve had times in my life where I’ve had to balance things before; there’ve been times when the things I’ve had to balance haven’t brought me joy. Everything on my plate right now; the reason I have to balance them all is because they all bring me immeasurable joy.

I get it. I live it. There are plenty of things we have to deal with that do not give us joy, and often those things are out of our control. But, for the most part, I have learned that the things we choose to spend the rest of our time and energy on should absolutely bring us joy. If we can choose to have a family and choose to pursue the career we are passionate about, more power to us. Thankfully, Jackie has carefully curated the activities and relationships in which she pours her time and energy. Bottom line, if it brings her joy, she makes the space.

Mrs. Musselman’s sage advice

Jackie reflected on the difference between high schoolers from 15 years ago and today’s teens. She thinks they are “cool” because of how connected they are to societal concerns, largely driven by the access afforded by social media. She is very optimistic about our future in their hands.

There are so many good things about this next generation. They’re aware of the world around us, the political climate and society, and the unfair expectations society has for us. I was very egocentric, which I know is a teenager’s brain.

She laments that her generation, the millennials, are not progressing enough. They may be aware, but she feels that they are unwilling to step out of their comfort zone the way adolescents do now. She’s seeing how the young generation of social justice warriors are picking up the slack by actively doing the work, speaking up to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. Her only advice to them is this:

Keep going! Keep pushing! Push the boundaries, advocate, step out of your comfort zone. Everything that you’re already doing, take it to the next level.

Self-care for a busy working mom

Three things immediately came to mind when I asked Jackie about her self-care practices:

  • Therapy Jacqueline, like myself, is a huge advocate of the benefits of therapy. She even takes it a step further: We should be looking at mental health the exact same way we look at physical ailments. It blows my mind that we don’t.
  • Stop and Breathe She shares the power of mindful breathing with her classroom of 5-year-olds. They sit on the carpet, inhale and exhale slowly a few times. Jacqueline marvels at the simplicity and efficacy of the act.
  • My circle Spending time with her favorite people: her husband and children, her brother, cousins and family friends. She considers them her core; the ones who bring her joy, gives her a sense of calm and the feeling of being centered.

Watch our full interview here!

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