Neither Absorbing nor Reflecting, Microwaves Pass Right Through

photo from flickr at snlsn (click for his photo stream)

photo from flickr at snlsn (click for his photo stream)

I finally realized it had to do with the microwave. It took almost ten minutes of awkward phrases and uncomfortable squinting and confused pursing of lips, but I finally got it. “Mi’ja no has rotten lunch. You have wrong words at her.”

Prompted by a guilt I wasn’t sure I deserved, a lump filled my throat. I felt my chest prickle and redden.

Trapped between walls of condescension, I resisted the urge to defend myself against this mother’s fury. Hands on hips, then crossed over her chest, the angry mother glared up at me in defense of her daughter’s lunch. I didn’t have the words to explain the misunderstanding, and the fluent Spanish-speaking teacher wouldn’t be back to the Deans’ office for 45 minutes. My obvious discomfort equaled guilt in everyone’s eyes. I looked over at another teacher who just raised her eyebrows and looked away, relieved it was my turn.

Don’t put your hands on your hips, I hissed silently to myself. Don’t roll your eyes. Don’t laugh it off. I had learned a few things in the years spent as a teacher in the NYC high schools. Rule #1: Don’t minimize anything; let people vent. And so I did.

Unable to resist, I explained, in half-formed sentences, that when I had wrinkled my nose and waved my hand in front of my face – it wasn’t about the smell of the roll. It was that the store-bought bun, wrapped in wax paper and folded into a brown bag, was crisping and toasting. It was an attempt to explain to a teenaged girl with special needs and a delicate ego that her lunch was burning in the microwave.

I should have followed Rule #1. My explanation didn’t matter. No amount of desperate, fumbling, self-deprecating apologies could explain away the girl’s hurt that had grown and twisted itself into a mother’s self-righteous anger over the last week. It didn’t matter that it had sprung from a misunderstanding. It didn’t matter that I had become nothing more than “that white lady” to this family. Some truths take time to emerge, and some never do.

I made a choice out of privilege that day, and it feels dirty to admit it. That mother needed to defend her daughter against me, and I should have just let her rail against an imagined slight. And then I should have apologized. Sometimes privilege means swallowing your pride.

This was just one time that working with scores of different nationalities and cultures and classes and languages and abilities put a notch in my ego. It was just one time that I learned that sometimes a shut mouth is the most effective form of communication – the best way to help. The best way to be a teacher. It was just one time that taught me that humility is truly a precious and awesome trait to nurture.

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About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to the car culture, dealing with leaving a career I love, and spouting off along the way.
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38 Responses to Neither Absorbing nor Reflecting, Microwaves Pass Right Through

  1. outlawmama says:

    WHat I love about your writing is that it’s honest without being smothered in self-loathing. I love how you do dialogue as well– with the mother and with yourself. I found myself wanting to argue that you were not “privileged” and I’m not sure what that was about. I am in a big denial phase trying to will everyone to be the same and it’s all fair and equal. Thanks for reminding me about the real world and how it can work. and I think my therapist will retire if I ever learn to just keep my mouth shut and not always DEFEND DEFEND DEFEND. Everywhere with the defending my position. It’s really counterproductive.

    • It totally is counterproductive, but it’s also really difficult. I certainly have my share of knee-jerk reactions – and some battles ARE meant to be fought. Some frustrations need to be aired. But in work, and when dealing with people who have loads more frustrations than I do, I try to keep it in. (Not to mention all the kooks running around with pistols cocked – both figuratively and literally!)

  2. Erica M says:

    Okay, I teared up at this. I hate misunderstandings that hurt other people’s feelings. Especially when I can sometimes forget Rule #1, so I am the bad guy before I have the chance to explain. Such a good story, Kristin.

  3. johar1 says:

    Me gustó mucho m’ija. Te quiero jinchita.

  4. This is a really great post. Although, I am not sure I’d classify the desire to clarify a misunderstanding as “privilege,” I certainly get the whole rule 1 thing. It’s so hard though, when you didn’t mean to hurt someone and want them to know that.

    • Hmm. It wasn’t the desire that was the privilege – it was having the ability to CHOOSE to clarify it. I was in power – as a teacher, as an English speaker, as someone in authority (dean) – and the mother was the one who felt insulted and abused. My choosing to let her rant at me didn’t take away anything. I was secure in my job, my position, my life – nothing to prove. I don’t know if that makes it clearer. I wasn’t sure how to get that across!

  5. welcometograndcentral says:

    It all would start for me like this- I would speak anything that came to mind. I was 32 and way old enough to know better. Finally, I made a new best friend. We were both teachers. She tought me one of the best lessons I’ve ever learned: You can think anything, but you don’t have to say everything.

  6. Robbie says:

    I LOVE the way you tell this and the lesson learned. Having worked in ethnically diverse populations and really getting to know the families I am starting to better understand their frustrations. Keeping your mouth shut isn’t always easy but it is sometimes for the best.

    • It’s a truly transformative experience to realize you can actually imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. Even if you get to return to your own bubble of frustrations at the end of the day.

  7. marcyl says:

    Oh man, I’ve been in this situation. It is so painful on all sides. I wish I could really learn this lesson. One time it took me over a week of arguing back and forth, and someone finally advised me to just say “I’m sorry,” even though I didn’t think I was wrong. That was all that was needed.

  8. ilene says:

    Humility is a good trait to nurture. I love the inner dialogue you had with yourself to face the situation with the required amount.

  9. Great post, great lesson. I’m not one to keep my mouth shut, ever really, and I do tend to take up every single fight imaginable. Lately I’m about to say things in certain company, I try to think if I’m going to have to follow it up with “that’s not what I meant.” It’s more a personal thing than a work-related thing with me, but I definitely understand.

    • Yeah, but in a situation when there is a language barrier and someone truly misunderstood and was defending her kid – my usual “Oh haha, how funny that you thought I was saying that!” would not go over well. I mean, she took a day off of work to come into the school! That demands respect, especially when you get paid by the hour.

  10. What I wouldn’t give to learn this lesson … Defensive reaction is my first go to often coupled with over-explaining. I’ll take this reminder to breathe, pause and let go with me today. Or at least for the next 60 seconds. Wonderful story here. I always enjoy your writing and your ability to weave important messages with specificity and restraint.

    • Me too, actually. Either that or stewing and hiding away like a grumpy turtle. Sometimes I just have to chant: “It just doesn’t matter.” a few times. And usually, it’s true. Or at least it matters a lot less to me than to the other person.

  11. That is so very hard. To step back and take it. Sometimes you have to think that in the long run what will matter more. It is hard to back down, but so many times putting another person before our own selfish desires (no matter how justified) is the thing that will ultimately bring us peace.

  12. Joe says:

    A good friend of mine always used to say, “A closed mouth gathers no feet.”

  13. iasoupmama says:

    Oh, man I’m feeling this one right now. I’m in a position where I’m not in control and the person causing issues does one thing after another to hurt me. And I’m biting my tongue because I know I’m in the right, but I also know that opening my mouth will hurt all of the people I love the most. So I’m biting my tongue — it’s been bleeding for two months now…

  14. Vanessa says:

    I always hate it when I say the wrong thing and offend someone without meaning to. So often, even without the language barrier explanations don’t change the words already said.

  15. I retired from teaching and can understand this situation. I could always rationalize the parent with it is better than one who did not care.
    I felt a lot of sadness for the child in these situations. Parents can make a hypersensitive one incredibly unable to handle the world. I had a student who was so smart that I knew would only graduate high school and not med school or something she was capable. Mom was so paranoid of people picking on her.
    Take care and you have the right approach. http://annbennett2.blogspot.com

    • Thanks Annette! In this particular case, the student actually resented me for a while – no idea why – and she reveled in the altercation. But the mother’s anger was authentic and she was truly hurt.

  16. Oh, some of my worst moments as a teacher were when I couldn’t just take the blame. When you are young, you feel such a need to defend yourself.
    Wait, I’m older and that still happens. I hope I’ll learn this lesson some day.

  17. Being a teacher is so hard, SO HARD. Learning to make those difficult choices at the expense of ego it such a challenge.

  18. sometimes we can’t help ourselves, even when we know better. It’s so hard to do the right thing at the right time and sometimes say nothing. great post.

  19. samanthabmerel says:

    “sometimes a shut mouth is the most effective form of communication”

    You are so incredibly right.

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