All That We Don’t Know

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.

7 thoughts on “All That We Don’t Know

  1. There are so many times we do not know what others are struggling with – thank you for the reminder to remember that.

  2. I like how you started with irony and then showed it so well through your stories. These stories seem to be living strong in you as you remember how we don’t know another’s full story. I think your post will stick with me today. Strong lesson!

  3. Thank you for sharing your trials, and through them an important lesson. Your thesis reminds me of the martial art technique of using someone else’s power to your own advantage. It seems that you are able to do this here – to consciously side step the attack to allow the force it to dissipate our fall to the wayside while remaining intact and collected yourself. To find that being an aggressor is not sweet revenge but loaded with regret is familiar to me also (thankfully not often or recently) and is a painful place to be. I am inspired by your ability to keep that lesson close to heart, even in the most confrontational of situations, and I have the good fortune to see that commitment in action. Thank you for a great slice and unflappable leadership as well!

  4. Your slice brought me back to one particular conference years ago. I, too, responded with force, and later apologized. It’s hard to be kind “in the moment” but it’s important to be kind anyway. Thank you for this post and for the eloquent way you describe this gentleman and his demeanor. You learned an important lesson that night.

  5. You speak to my heart with this post, though I at times fail to live up to my own resolutions. Your story sets the stage so beautifully early on for the lesson you wish to impart. Both the young man at the copy machine and the disgruntled veteran teacher had a story. A story not privy to all. And just as the parent’s demeanor towards you as well as your reaction to him had back stories that neither of you was aware of, they played a huge role in both the former and the latter meetings between the two of you. “The absence of an excuse for someone’s behavior does not rule out an explanation.” This is the crux of it all! And sometimes, as you show us in your slice, if we wait and watch, we discover the story that is the explanation. Kind of all boils down to communication, which we humans are not so good at, are we?

  6. This was beautiful. It sounds like a transformative experience. You SHOULD be proud- of the human learning you did after going through this. Some would brush it off and hitch up their pants and indignantly agree that they deserved an apology. You took the other path- empathy. Understanding. Learning. THAT is something to be proud of.

    It is often true (in my own limited experience) that the people who have the shortest fuse and the loudest roar, have the most rattling around inside their brains and hearts to shout over. We can all learn to treat others with more empathy. Thank you for sharing your memory and your learning.

  7. What a wonderful post. It made me think about encounters I have had with parents over the years. Now I try and help my son gain perspective when parents come at him for different things. Most times it’s not really about us. Kindness is right for any situation.

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