Bitter Praise: A Piece of Letting Go

Do you know that nice person, not a bad sort, sometimes funny, sometimes good company whose persistent need of praise, validation, and attention just makes you eventually froth at the mouth? Wise people write our their venom in a letter and then throw the piece away. I am not doing that here.

I have several of those needy people under my social roof. One I finally cut loose last week because I finally decided the returns of her friendship were too diminished by my irritation over her incessant ego and bragging. If you do not recognize such person, you might not really be able to relate to my bitter rant, and might be better off moving on to a breezier, more self-actualized blog.

I am getting meaner as my physical disabilities become more definite. In many ways, that is completely untrue. I find myself treating people in public more kindly, more openly. My family. . .I am happier to them, around them, partly because I recognize on a very literal level how quickly and fully life can be changed. But times when I deeply physically hurt, I do have to work not to bite others like a dog.

In this new mean streak, I have begun gleaning and tossing not just the outright rude, but the drains, the irritants. I no longer have the energy to pretend that they matter more than the people who do matter. . .like me. Or my loved ones.

At this rate, I should be alone soon.

Exhibit A, let’s call her Ms. Brittle, my Colleague/outside work buddy who manages to take every discussion quickly to its knees, only letting up once the focal point has returned to her. No matter WHAT you need to discuss-a shocking weekend arrest, your emergency appendectomy, near fatal car crash? Within minutes, you will be instead discussing the time her brother almost got a citation, the time she thought she had appendicitis, or how she almost sideswiped a parked car. . .relevant, perhaps, but not quite the same, and all presented without sympathy or acknowledgment of the person who really needed to talk in the first place.

I spontaneously broke my back inexplicably. No event. One early morning last October, Disk T-8 slipped out, and lodged in my spine, partially paralyzingly me from my rib cage down to my toes. Surgery removed the disk, but also the backs of four vertebrae, part of one rib, and left me with 14 pins, three rods, fused bone from collar bones to my waist, and on going partial paralysis and crushing pain. After living in the hospital for a month last fall, I improve in eensy increments; I still use a cane, have limited abilities (after living a very active lifestyle) and though I am working hard to forge a new path with this altered body of mine, I occasionally succumb to depression.

Said Ms. Brittle called on such a day, listened very briefly. . .like maybe four sentences. . .and launched into a very long, detailed story of how, once, when she hair-line fractured one bone in her foot and was wearing a temporary boot, she had to stop jogging for months. . .so, she “understood me.”

Whaaaaat? What the heck is the right reply to people who steal topics and focus on themselves with unrelated anecdotes? She often finds herself at the end of her conversation, sort of stumbling along, lost thread, because there really is nothing left to say.

Ms. Brittle calls herself a people pleaser, and laments what a burden it is. I snicker (as do a lot of her colleagues); oh, no, my Dear. You are not in the business of pleasing people. You are a praise seeker. People pleasers can only think of what others want and need. You crave validation.

She details her great teaching within her classroom in unsolicited emails to us all (should anyone care to copy her or receive her advice). Any administrative praise at work becomes quick emails and a FB post. If a student says something complimentary, she repeats it. She is one of those who often posts her children’s every function several times a day on Facebook, posts each lap she runs, or square she stitches on the fundraising quilt she is creating.

Lots of folks post that sort of thing. . .somehow the way she does it doesn’t seem like news. There is a difference between saying, “Enjoyed the gorgeous sunset while jogging this evening,” and “Score! Got another minute closer to my marathon rate!” A difference between, “My students rocked their AP exam,” and “I got more fours out of my kids than any of the other AP LIT teachers here.” There is reporting, and then there is bragging.

There is nothing that isn’t brag worthy for her. . .meals made, jokes she cracked in class, number of blog viewers, quizzes graded.   I recall at the end of the last school year, she had tallied how many essays she had reviewed for the year. At the time, she taught five groups of AP Lit. She, the martyr, figured because of that, we should feel admiration and pity when she sent the  total amount in an All Staff. What did she think: non-AP kids weren’t writing, and we, their teachers, were not grading? She was obviously surprised when a number of hostile people replied with grueling numbers of their own.

I have even heard her manage to make apologizing for trying to decline her assigned prom duty into a boast: “I am not one to shirk my duty like some people without first calling. . .” Calling before not showing up at the last minute makes her better than the others who just plain didn’t come.

She even once group messengered us this note to our boss, after boss chaired a meeting: “I will have you know, today I did you a favor, so you owe me. When I swallowed a scalding mouthful of hot cocoa, I refrained from screaming out bloody murder and interrupting your meeting! You’re welcome.”

Again. . .whaaaat? Every ounce of me had to fight not to counter post: “Oh, barf!” I am sure she thought her bragging demand was cute. I see it as strangely, self-absorbedly, ignorant.

Her ignorance bleeds into a sort of foot-in-mouthism. She once told the wife of a sober alcoholic, that she couldn’t bring herself to see Denzel Washington in Flight; “I can’t imagine him playing an alcoholic; he’s just too dignified to be believable as an alcoholic” Huh? She said to me and another Mom, both of whom are happily remarried to men who became fantastic step-fathers to our children, “If, God forbid, I were ever unlucky enough to get a divorce, I certainly would never remarry; I could never do such a horrible thing by bringing a step father into a child’s life.”

She is so self involved she obviously can’t hear herself think. I am sure whatever the topic is, her brain immediately shifts to herself, her imagination and experience. To her, the rest of us are just a rapt audience, rather than human beings with important stories, emotions, and knowledge of our own.

Enter Ms. Brittle’s end: This year, when I entered the hospital, my school shifted my teaching schedule around. I teach the sort of classes that, because of credentials, long term substitute teachers cannot teach: AP Lang and the Literary Magazine. Brittle ended up being assigned to take them over-she happily gave up her openly hated College Prep classes.

Somehow within a month SHE was the heroic victim. I don’t know what I was, but lying paralyzed in bed with a foot and a half of stitches, was far less deserving on the empathy scale than taking on two new course preps.

Instead of asking me to clarify or help, she stood in the hallway and cried tearfully to colleagues when I sent her an email asking her about various aspects of my classes. What is happening about fundraising for the magazine? What help do you need with Argumentation for AP Lang?   I cruelly overwhelmed her with my curiosity.

Good Lord! You mean I am the bad guy here? Poor, poor girl, Ms. Brittle is, burdened with gifted students and the expectations of their former teacher.  Her laments and complaints about her work load and my expectations went on for months, but always under the disclaimer, “I just want to do my best for the kids.”

That first semester, what made her often cry is that she wants praise, and being dumped into an uncharted course load made her uneasy. What if she didn’t do a praiseworthy job?

Interestingly, she didn’t even try.

Both those courses are what we call product-result bearing courses. Teachers can be judged by their kid’s AP test scores, and by their magazine’s success. When this Ms. Brittle believed I would heal and return to these courses the second semester, and thus, be the person upon whom the results would reflect, she applied very little efforts. She didn’t fund raise, advertise, or handle submission meets for the magazine. She let former student-editors run the show while she disengaged like a typical sub, rather than a teacher. What did she care? She fully expected that I’d return and be stuck with unmet goals.

She did the same thing in AP; AP Lang is a nonfiction course, not a novel or poetry course. It is densely entrenched in essays and argumentation. She-trained in AP Lit, not Lang- ignored my advice, lesson suggestions, etc. Instead, she took one of her old literature lessons from a novel, and together she and the class read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for eight weeks. (EIGHT??) She never even bothered to collect the class set of AP writing manuals from my classroom. If I had returned, I would have found kids who were two months behind. (And the irony of Faulkner’s title is not missed, here.)

But around her, she was gathering people’s praise for her burdens like white cat hair on black pants. They patted her head when she moaned about feeling anxious, they cooed over her every little endeavor. Let me be selfish here a minute: How did this painful, life-altering event that was really about my body and my students’ needs become her tragedy?

I am SOOO glad that I was able to give her the opportunity to feather her cap and revel in sympathy. Uggh! I, like many other of my colleagues, have had new course loads shoved on me when people have suddenly been fired, retired, or gone into premature labor. We did our job. We didn’t cry or brag. When I took over the magazine, needing new software, a new publisher, having no lesson database and no one with experience to help, I don’t recall any pats on the head. But then, I don’t ask for them. Constantly.

Cut to several weeks into second semester. Suddenly when she realized I was not coming back, and results would reflect her work, she stepped it up. First, she texted me numerous, “I feel like vomiting, I am so upset by this” messages, (which only verifies that she had not taken the courses seriously previously; also note, she was not saddened for me that I was still not able to work.) Then she finally, actually opened all my data folders and checked out the official AP Lang College Board website for the first time. She started fundraising for publishing costs. (And let the Facebook bragging begin. I never once posted pictures of all the cookies I baked and frosted, or hotdogs I donated for sales. . . I should have, I suppose). I had to suffer so many FB posts about the laborious hours she endured quilting for an auction or grading for AP.

She would call me only when she needed info like how much money she’d need to budget or a telephone number. Understand our school magazine was my baby; yearly, we won national contests, the top awards. I have always been proud of my former students, and I praised them openly in texts, email, FB. But I say, “Please congratulate these students. . ..”.

I felt like each time Ms. Brittle called, she needed advice, but strangely, she also battled against it. I’d say, “One thing to make sure you have done is. . .” and I’d hear in response, “Oh, I already figured that out on my own.” I’d start, “Keep Jesse from. . .” and I’d get, “Oh, don’t I know it. I already have Jesse wrapped up!”

Well, good. Why are you calling? It certainly isn’t to see how I am doing.

Such a weird dance. She’d whine about the steep learning curve, ignore/deflect my advice, then text me things like, “Finally created a layout on my own! Win! Let me send it to you.” She was seeking praise and validation for her choices. But also didn’t want to receive advice because that might hint at her inexperience or ineptitude. Sort of like when you are teaching a defensive teenager to drive, and it makes them angry when you instruct them: “I know that, already!”

And don’t think I am ignorant of my own bitterness. I am physically disabled from being with my students, and she doesn’t have the sensitivity to refrain from reporting her constant success? She can’t even lower her ego long enough to allow in a little advice from the veteran?

So I stopped taking her calls. She worked herself down to only bragging in text/FB posts. Originally, I had thought maybe she was just too anxious and self-conscious, so I tried to make her understand that these were her kids, now. I had only been with them for two months. Be free, let go. She let go in terms of my control, but not in terms of my compliments.

Last week, I finally got sensible enough to protect myself from her blabbing. Our school system is in the running for the Broad Prize, a very prestigious award that goes to one urban school system in the country. For one day, teams of reviewers will drift through the school, watching teachers and kids interact. Whose classes receive visits are highly orchestrated and timed. And obviously, any savvy principal will select students that are bright, well behaved, lively, so the 19 classrooms on the schedule are top heavy with gifted students since they are least likely to pull out a cigarette in class or say, out loud, “What fucking homework?”.

Guess whose class was one of the nineteen? One of my former AP Lang groups. Did Ms. Brittle say, “I am so proud of my students for being chosen?” Nope. Of course not. Instead she literally posts, “Look at me, I am so honored to be one of only nineteen people in the whole school. One of only nineteen. . .”

Sigh. I blocked that shit very quickly, and finally Defriended her a few weeks ago; that night I went to sleep with a sigh of relief, sort of like when you finally find and remove that annoying strand of lint from your eyeball.

But then this week: She begins texting me, asking if I can come to school this week. I cannot drive, so this takes planning. Judging from the time of year, I knew the magazines were back from the publisher. I knew that she wanted me to praise and validate. (A bit more background. This past January the magazine from Spring 2013 earned top honors from National Scholastic Press Association. I should have received certificates or plaques with my name on them; in the past, I tended to scan and give copies of these awards to the staff. No matter how often I asked Ms. Brittle, who got them out of my school mailbox, I never receivedthem; she has “lost” them. ) So I answer her question with a question: What’s up? She tells me the class wants me to come in so they can present the magazine to me. Of course they do.

Other than a few kids, this staff barely knew me before I was hospitalized. Though I received numerous calls, cards, texts, etc.. From former students who did know me, members of this literary mag class were pretty silent. They did not nurture any ongoing student-teacher connection. That had not bothered me. Why should it? After a seven month absence and loads of pain meds. I cannot really recall their names or faces at this point. I declined the invitation.

Through a few terse, self-righteous texts she finally reveals that the staff had not just dedicated the magazine to me, but NAMED it after me. Huh??

You soft-hearted people are thinking, oh, sounds so sweet, such a tribute. . .but really it is not about me or even for me; using my name is about this teacher, Ms. Brittle. Even when it looks like she is finally considering someone else, it really still is all about her. Truly . . .imagine me standing in that classroom on my cane, receiving this magazine that I had almost nothing to do with from kids I do not really know, who have certainly shown no interest in me. Why exactly am I there? For me to feel good, or for Ms. Brittle to feel good?

I am uncomfortable with show. I hate how awkward it will be when people buy a literary magazine with my name on the cover. My name. Like I am dead. Would it have been more considerate to wonder if I would even want my name used that way? Yes. Does Ms. Brittle think that way? Nope. Because in her mind, nothing could be better than anyone devoting an entire ANYthing to her.

I am the woman, who when a finalist for Teacher-of-the-Year, begged my principal not to make me sit on stage during the ceremony. When last year’s graduating class voted me “most inspirational teacher”, a page in the annual, I told only my husband. Anyone else only learned it if they bought or read a yearbook. When my admin said I was the only teacher in the school who didn’t receive any bad bubbles in the worst category on the yearly student perception surveys, I never told a soul. I know it seems conceited to report it now, but I usually do not repeat such things in broad ways. My behavior is foreign to this woman, who would have broken a finger trying to post these honors on FB at lightening speed.

The students of this course were still getting to know me; they had me for two months; this year’s magazine group was relatively fresh and unattached, so to put my name on the cover seems like a grand, showy, look-at-us gesture, orchestrated by someone who is an expert at grandstanding.

If you know teenagers, you know that when tragedy befalls a student or teacher, particularly death, huge numbers of them fall into histrionics. They sob, and beat their breasts, and plan giant candle light vigils; they skip class to sit in the gym with grief counselors. Because, somehow, they all knew somebody who sat near the dead kid in the ninth grade once, so they are devastated. Somehow this stranger’s death is really their own suffering, their own moment to be dramatic.

That’s what I feel here. Ms. Brittle should have recognized it for what it was and kept me off the stage. She should have taught kids a more personal, less intrusive way to deal with tragedy. She should have had the sense to think about what I would be comfortable with.  And frankly, the title was probably her idea in the first place, a way to draw attention to her “people pleasing” ways.

Last year’s NSPA award, also with my name on it, means so much more to me than this magazine since it reflects my team’s hardwork. In Ms. Brittle’s mind, I imagine she was very proud of herself for getting the 2014 magazine published, hoping I would fawn over it, and more hopeful that she would be caught and praised for so thoughtfully putting my name on the cover. A teacher’s name on a lit mag is really difficult to ignore; plus, it’s there forever. Once again, my injury has given her a chance to gain attention.

So when she happily asked me to come to the surprise party, so they could present “her” magazine to me, and I declined with a terse, “No, I would rather have received a few sincere, personal notes here and there, not a grand gesture,” she was stumped, then hurt, then righteously indignant. That’s okay. I’m fine with that. I got used to being the villain way back when I was still in the hospital. I wonder if she will ever understand how much it helps me to let her go.

See. I told you I was feeling mean.