Last week, before school started at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center, I was standing at my desk answering emails in the office I share with the Assistant Principal when I heard a student in our lobby exclaim loudly that he was ‘fucking sick of being treated like shit by his boss” at work.
The lobby was full of students and also a couple of visitors to our school.
So I left my computer.
And our office.
And entered the lobby with a strong gait and clenched jaw.
Confident and secure.
Hands clenched in themselves.
When I entered the lobby, I stared at the student.
Until all was hushed.
My ego likes the ‘hush’ when I enter a situation like that.
My silly ego.
Someday I hope to fully get over myself.
And then I ripped the student for his language:
“Tony, what are you doing?
This is neither the time nor place for that language.
Shut your mouth.
Shut. Your. Mouth.
You got me?
Figure it out.
What’s your problem???!!!!”
Tony stared at me.
I stared at him.
Everyone in the lobby - visitors and students alike - stared at him.
Not at me.
So he looked down at his well-worn logging boots.
And got puffy chested.
And red cheeked.
With clenched hands.
But passively and in embarrassment and guilt.
So I went back to my office.
To continue answering emails.
Until another student, Sarah, came into the office.
And closed the doors.
With a fairly pronounced “slam.”
And then with more discretion than I had shown Tony, stared at me.
Behind my computer.
And my emails.
And my ego.
For just a moment.
In awkward silence.
But awkward and long enough that I felt the need to look down at my shoes.
Then Sarah spoke respectfully,
“What was that, H?
And it was disrespectful.
But you corrected him disrespectfully.
Respect isn’t taught by handling disrespect disrespectfully.
Isn’t that what you always tell us?”
I tried to stumble through a response but in the middle of the weak justification of my behavior, seizing a break in my words, she simply opened the door and left.
And did so with a strong gait, clenched jaw, and curled hands - righteous indignation essentially dripping from her shoes as she walked away.
I didn’t know what to do.
But I did know I was mad.
Soooooooo very mad.
But was it because she was wrong?
Or because she was right?
It didn’t take but a couple of anxious paces in the office and a few sips from the seltzer on the desk for me to realize it was the latter.
Tony certainly needed to be corrected but everything about my correction was wrong:
My posture (Akimbo).
With them all in full effect, I embarrassed Tony and made him feel guilty.
Embarrassment and guilt do not have the power to correct behavior.
Only love, understanding, and relationship do.
And I had all three with Tony but didn’t use them.
Instead, I gave way to anger and annoyance.
Hence, my red cheeks leaving the office to correct him.
My goodness, how many times do I have to learn the same lesson?
This was the third time in my school leadership that I had to be respectfully corrected by a student for my disrespectful handling of disrespectful language in the lobby.
Is there a clearer definition of irony (or hypocrisy) than that last sentence?
No. Respect isn’t taught or learned by handling disrespect disrespectfully.
And just because I was right to correct Tony, didn’t give me the right to be disrespectful.
Thank you for those reminders, Sarah.
And even as I write this, I feel my cheeks reddening, my chest puffing, and my hands getting tense.
Neither feel good.
And I don’t even have people staring at me - just the cat in my lap and the Golden Retriever on the floor whining to go outside.
But this is a confession after all.
So I need not to make two mistakes in this situation: addressing you disrespectfully and then being stuck in my guilt and embarrassment.
I will struggle to do so but will move quickly through them both to get to what Sarah wanted for me when she addressed me in my office and what I should have wanted for you when I ripped you in the lobby: accountability.
Because love, understanding, and relationship comprise accountability.
And Sarah had all three with me.
But did not choose anger and annoyance.
She chose Respect.
Even though there was the ‘slam’ of the door.
But I think that was simply to get my attention and in hindsight not a bad strategy at all.
Something had to snap me out of my false feeling of goodness and bring me back down to earth.
Where all school leaders need to be.
Thank goodness for the students that remind us of that.
Particularly my students.
Who remind me constantly that I need them for learning as much as they need me.