Sunday, September 8, 2013

When We Worked Together, I Didn't Really Like You

I completed my student teaching at a local middle school, and I’ve mentioned several times to several people in the intervening years that it was not an enjoyable experience. This was the first step that led to my disliking modern education, and I offered a plethora of reasons for why this was in the years since then, but it wasn’t until recently that I truly began to understand that it actually had nothing, or at least little, to do with the state of education. It’s true that I never truly had the desire to teach middle school and that I earned the degree only because it was more convenient than getting the degree that I wanted, but I convinced myself that I would use it and any subsequent middle school teaching position as a steppingstone toward what I really wanted to do with my life. I’m sure that colored my experience to a degree, but largely, my experience was a negative one because I was a fairly negative person, displacing my annoyance and anger and stresses regarding other areas of my life and projecting them into the school situation. I was immature, arrogant, and convinced, quite unfoundedly, that I was smarter than those around me. It’s only been in the intervening years, mostly the last seven or eight months, that I’ve come to the realization that my dissatisfaction during this experience was because I was dissatisfied with myself as a person and the direction my life was going.
                Unfortunately, my disliking myself and taking it out on those around me is not relegated to this particular experience, as I’ve done it, it seems, most of my adult life. When I was working at a grocery store to make ends meet while going to college, and then again later while teaching for the first time, it is true that I acted as though I thought I was better than those around me, that I was always right, and always the smartest person there. This attitude, I believe, became a more prominent characteristic after I graduated. I didn’t actively look for a middle school teaching position as I should have, especially considering I had a wife and young son at home; instead, I passively skimmed job openings, and when I was presented the opportunity to adjunct and facilitate study sessions, I took the jobs, no questions asked. It was never a discussion between Amanda and me, and in fact, I called her not to ask her what she thought I should do, but to tell her that I had a job. This led to my working at times three or four jobs at the same time, most of which I enjoyed, but all for meager wages, trying to scrape by those first few years. During this time I was rather irascible, and it was easy to blame it on the fact that I was working multiple jobs and still barely making it, that I had a college degree and one of my jobs paid fifteen cents above minimum wage, the fifteen cents coming only when I asked for a raise for my years (albeit intermittent) of hard work. But in truth, the reason for my displeasure lay much deeper within, the truth coming through the aforementioned realization that has been slow coming through introspection, self-evaluation, and the devotion to change.
When I was sixteen, maybe seventeen, I worked at a local fast food restaurant, one that has tried to position itself as something else, something slightly better, but in truth, it was nothing more than a fast food restaurant. I don’t recall much of working there, as it was rather un-enjoyable and nearly a decade ago, but one particular night stands in my memory quite distinctly: shortly after Christmas, my grandmother lay in ICU after having suffered a heart attack and mini-stroke. I called off from work to stay at the hospital with my family, but once she became stable, as stable as the doctors could get her, I went into work to collect my check. I don’t recall what led me to do so, what could have been so important that I needed what was likely no more than sixty or seventy dollars, but for whatever reason, I went. Word had spread of my grandmother’s condition and the reason for my not being there as a worker, so as I entered the restaurant, a couple coworkers with whom I went to high school stopped to ask me of Nana’s condition. And as I was telling them what the doctors had said, the general manager, a different manager from the one to whom I had spoken hours earlier when I called in, threw open the doors to the kitchen and criticized me, in front of customers and workers alike, for interrupting his business. I explained that they were merely concerned  about my family, to which he responded, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m concerned too. What do you want, your check or something?” though in reality it was more like “yeahyeahyeahI’mconcernedtoowhaddayawantyourcheckorsomething?” all in one exasperated breath. I answered in the affirmative, and he stormed back into the office, grabbed my check, came out front and threw it at me before storming back into the kitchen. I’m not a violent person, but there was enough rage welled up within me, that, when mixed with the fear and anxiety concerning Nana’s condition, I could easily have physically attacked this man, never mind that he was at least twice my size and nearly forty years older than me. I literally saw red, and it must have been only by the grace of God that I was able to turn and walk away.
                Word spread quickly. By the time I showed up to work the next morning, everyone knew, whether they had been there the previous night or not. One of the other managers, an older woman who, in truth, was always one of my favorites there, took me off to the side and asked me to tell her exactly what had happened the previous night. When my account of the event matched what everyone had told her, she nodded and told me she’d take care of it. And she did. I’ll never know exactly what she said to the older man, but when she told me later of their conversation, a particular part of it stuck in my mind, and it has lingered there ever since. The GM claimed ignorance concerning my plight, and I’ve come to accept that this may well be true: I was nothing more than a sixteen-year-old kid who ran food and washed trays. There were a dozen kids just like me working there then, and on the rare occasions I go there today, I see the same thing. I didn’t matter to him, as I was nothing more than a body he had to pay. But the other manager, Marge, quickly stopped him when he claimed “I didn’t know.” It’s her response to his claims, his attempt to refuse responsibility for his rudeness, that has so long stayed in my mind: “That’s the point,” she said. “You never know what people are going through.”
                That’s not to say that just because I remember Marge’s statement that I have always lived by it. I wish I could  say I have, but I’d be lying. There are times that I get so wrapped up in my own world, my own life, that I allow my solipsism to color interactions with those around me, but now more than I ever I try to consider what people are going through before I answer them with a sharp tongue, a four letter word, or indignant silence.  And I’d like to say it was that night at the restaurant that changed my ways, but it wasn’t, for it wasn’t until years later that I truly began to try to change how I interacted with people, and a lot of it had to do with a speech I read.
                I first read David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech when I was in college. It was published for the first time in The Best American Non-Required Reading, edited by Dave Eggers. A friend bought it for me for Christmas because she knew I loved Eggers and she thought I would enjoy it. I read it cover-to-cover, and although DFW’s speech was included, it didn’t make a profound impact on me at the time. Sure, I enjoyed it, but I was so wrapped up in everything else that was going in my life that I supposed I didn’t really take its message to heart. But I would be reintroduced to the speech several years later during my first year as a college teacher, when I used the opening of the speech for a group activity during a Supplemental Instruction training session in which I took part. The speech begins with a short didactic parable that poses the highly philosophical question “What the hell is water?” The next semester, I would begin using the speech in my college classes as one of the writing prompts students had to answer, and I would continue to do so for the next couple years, as students always praised this speech as the best work we read, the most profound, and the writing most likely to change their lives. I don’t intend for that last quality to be taken lightheartedly or sarcastically, for I found that my students, those who truly cared, those who understood Wallace’s message and the implications it can have in our everyday lives, got so much out of answering the question “What the hell is water?” They would answer it based on the short parable only, trying to put together some meaning based only on the short scene and the fact that Wallace was addressing students graduating from college. I would then give them the link to the entirety of the text, and students were responsible for reading it before the next class, at which time they would compare and contrast their initial understanding of “water” with their understanding after finishing the text, and for many of them, I could see the proverbial light bulbs go off.
                Wallace suggests that the situations he proposes, the understanding of others situations based on a reading of the scene that focuses on critical thought and seeing things from others points of view instead of solely on how everything affects us, aren’t necessarily likely, but they are possible. Is it likely that the person driving the gas-guzzling Hummer with the Jesus fish who cut you off in traffic is driving the Hummer because he/she was previously in a bad accident and now needs such a massive automobile to feel safe, and actually cut you off because he/she is taking a sick child to the hospital, thus making you the person in his/her way, as Wallace suggests? No, not really. But if you think that maybe that is the case, that maybe that is why the person cut you off, you’re far less likely to flip them off, lay on your horn as you follow them for two blocks, or yell curses that only you and your small child will hear. At least I know I am.
“When we worked together, I didn’t really like you.” This came from friend of mine as we sat around a fire pit a few days ago, drinking beer in the early morning hours. “But now that I’ve gotten to know you, I consider you one of my good friends.”
                “It’s okay,” I told her. “When we were working together, I didn’t really like myself either.”
                She explained that she’d heard from others what was going on in my life: the unhappy marriage, the stressors of being a new and unexpected father, working jobs I didn’t like while I dreamed of something else. And she was right: those were the things in my life I had yet to learn how to handle, the things that I was allowing to drag me down as a person, allowing to negatively color my world. Neither my wife nor I was happy in the marriage, but neither of us had moved forward toward a divorce yet, each suffering in our own way; I loved being a father, but I hadn’t found a way to healthily manage the stress; and I hadn’t found my dream job, something to which I mistakenly believed I had a justifiable right. Instead of accepting and dealing with these situations, I would instead snap at those around me, be rude to customers who annoyed or challenged me, acting as though I was better and smarter than those around me, whether at the grocery store, or at the middle school while student teaching, or even at the high school last year. I never took into consideration that those around me were struggling as much if not more than I. When a customer at Food Fair asked me to meet him on the parking lot when I matched his rudeness with rudeness of my own, I cursed the guy as he left, even considering calling the police for what I perceived as a threat because I wanted the guy to face the humiliation of dealing with the police and possibly getting arrested, but I never once stopped to consider what he must be going through to make him as irritable as he was. All these years later, I wonder if he is okay, I wonder what he was facing, what he was struggling with, and I hope he found peace from whatever it was.
I recently wrote a letter to someone I wronged, someone to whom I was incredibly rude and arrogant, several years ago. I apologized for my actions, explaining what I had discovered about myself in the intervening years. I’ve not heard back from this person, nor do I expect that I will. Ultimately, I merely wanted her to know that I had come to accept that I was rude and arrogant, and that I truly am sorry. And none of this is to indicate that struggling in one’s life is a justifiable reason for rudeness or for treating people as though they are lesser, but to suggest that maybe, just maybe, if we who are the victims of rudeness will stop long enough to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, stop to consider why they are the way they are, consider what is going on in their lives to influence and color their negative actions, maybe we can refrain from perpetuating the negativity in the situation. Who knows, maybe responding in kindness may even have a positive effect on the person.
                And I think now of Mike, the restaurant GM at whom I spent so many years being angry, even to the point that I coldly rejected his kindness years later when I was nothing more than a paying customer. It is obvious to me now that when he spoke to me all those years later, he had no idea who I was, that the night so long ago was long forgotten, or if it was remembered, the college graduate to whom he was now speaking was nowhere in the scene.  And I wonder what in his life has led him to be how he is, what has colored his interactions with people, for I wasn’t the only one to have “trouble” (and I use that term as generally as I can) with him over the years. I suppose I’ll never know, but I’ll often wonder.
                  In his speech, DFW asks if this is easy to do, if developing this attitude of seeing things from others’ perspectives is easy. The answer, of course, is no. At least not at first, but it, like so many other things worth doing, becomes easier with practice and the passage of time. And it, as Wallace proposes, has far more to do with how to think than with what to think, what he calls the value of a true education. And I’ve found it’s worth it.

For those interested in finding out Wallace’s answer to “What the hell is water?” you can read the entirety of the speech here:
I wish I could claim many of the ideas represented above, but like so many writers, so many far greater than I, I’ve borrowed from a genius.

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