Irony is my favorite literary device. It enables the punch lines of so many jokes. It makes poignant the resolution of the most penetrating stories. And it is no mere literary construct. Sometimes life itself presents irony.
Twenty-six years ago, snow fell on York, Pennsylvania, where I was teaching, and everyone at my school had expected a cancellation. The school year was proving particularly difficult due to a new principal who was struggling, a staff who wanted to see him fail, and a population of students who were difficult to teach and who continued to suffer amidst the instability.
The snowfall overnight was lighter than expected, and school would go on as planned, only with a two-hour delayed opening. I predicted that nearly everyone in school would voice bitter disappointment. The countenance and tone of most people when they arrived later on bore out my suspicions.
A young teacher arrived at his regular time, however, and took advantage of his jump on everyone else by getting a lot of work done in the copy room. I was one of the few people who was aware that he was receiving treatment for depression, and he shared that morning his deep vulnerability when working in dysfunctional social environments. Our school had exacerbated his depression, and he struggled to cope. He made no mention of the snow, nor did he say that he wished to be home. I knew that few people, if any, would suspect his desperate state, since he did not socialize much. Despite this apparent detachment, he enjoyed a positive professional reputation.
At one point, a cross colleague entered the room muttering under her breath that school should have been cancelled, that no one wanted to be there, and a miserable day lay ahead for everyone. She did not appear to be looking for a response; she merely wished to express her frustration.
The other teacher then pointed out the bright side that the calendar would not have to be extended an extra day into the summer.
“I don’t know how you remain so positive!” the veteran exclaimed. “Nothing seems to get you down. Well, I just don’t have your strength.”
We often hear of Ian Maclaren’s advice to be kind to people–that everyone is fighting a battle that others cannot know about. I think often of the conversation in the copy room that morning, and I take delight in marvelling at how little I must know compared to how much there is to know.
Seven years after that experience, I had yet to undergo the full transformation I should have made due that experience. It would complete itself, however, in nearly an instant.
I was teaching at the lovely Catholic high school in northern New Jersey that I remember so fondly. Parent conferences took place in the gymnasium a few evenings each year, days after report cards went home. Teachers would stand with their gradebooks, and parents would line up with their sons and daughters, waiting to speak with teachers. My conferences typically lasted a few minutes each, and that evening, my feet ached, and I wished to go home.
As I finished with the mother of one student, a bright but unmotivated student stepped forward with her father. The conversation began in a routine fashion, but it escalated precipitously when the man accused me of withholding credit for a particular project. He demanded an explanation, though his daughter had not brought the marked assignment with her, and my more detailed notes on the project were upstairs in my classroom. The sudden change of tone took me by surprise, as did my almost dissociated response.
As if someone else were doing the speaking, I remember calmly beginning with a pledge to check my records and also to review my scoring of the project whenever his daughter would bring it in. Then I changed direction, scolding him for his presumption that I would try to put a student at a disadvantage. Being young at the time, I understandably had to stand my ground in a confrontation, but I was now taking on an aggressive demeanor. Knowing the man to be older, and sensing from his articulate, lightly accented speech that he was intelligent, I rammed my indignation down his throat, then prepared to get personal. Just as a voice in my head urged restraint, I saw the expression on the man’s face soften. I glared at him and told him I was concluding the discussion and would contact him after I carried out my review.
He walked away without responding, but I could tell my words had penetrated. I apologized to the next parent for having to overhear the recent exchange, and she said she understood. I carried out the remaining conferences only to see my earlier verbal combatant again on my line–now at the end of it–with a conciliatory expression on his face. He offered his hand, which I shook as he began to apologize for his earlier remarks.
As I listened, he explained that he had been a mathematician in Poland. He had taken his family to the United States during the communist era, seeking, as so many do, a better life for himself and his family. His foreign degrees and accomplishments, however, received no recognition when he arrived. His research, his publications, his reputation–all of it remained in Poland. The universities here would not consider his qualifications. He took up work as a carpenter, and he spent years working long hours to ensure every possible advantage for his family. He had found enough success to send his daughter to this Catholic school.
As he repeated his apology, he confessed that he had looked at me with my jacket and tie and seen in his mind every man who had refused to listen to him, to consider his work and his accomplishments, to give him an opportunity. He wanted me to forgive him.
That was the last time I ever met an aggressive parent with equal force. Ever since then, I have understood that the absence of an excuse for someone’s behavior does not rule out an explanation. My work–especially now as an administrator–leaves me open to provocation from all sorts of people, but since I am able to withstand abuse and retain clarity in my thoughts, I try to put that to work for all concerned.
Lest I should sound proud of all of this, I will add one more consideration. My last fistfight occurred in seventh grade. I won–but I also cried because I would rather have lost.
I hate feeling rotten, so, like the protagonist in A Clockwork Orange, I have learned a new response–and with it, the lesson that there is so much we do not know about each other.
I hope I will always remain mindful of that.