Cait came home complaining yet again about one of her teachers. Being familiar with this teacher, I knew that her complaint was more than legitimate. The rant started as soon as she walked in the door from the school bus.
She launched in, “Mom, she’s incoherent when she’s giving directions. Nobody understands her!”
I didn’t even have to ask who she was talking about. Knowing the litany, I joined in on the next refrain, “She won’t even answer questions when you ask for help!” We finished in unison.
Cait did not find me amusing.
“Don’t you care?!” she glared at me.
“Come on, let’s go for a walk and I’ll explain something to you.” Cait grabbed a snack, I grabbed Kiera, and we headed down the road. She still needed to vent. I continued to listen.
“Mom, this is what she said today when I asked her to explain a complicated problem on the first day of a new unit. She said, “Life is like a brick wall. You have to keep pounding and pounding until you break it down.” Cait looked at me, “Can you believe that?! So why is she a teacher if she’s not interested in teaching?!”
“That’s the thing, honey,” I answered. “She is teaching. Not the class material. Not even really about brick walls. But she is teaching.”
Cait looked at me like I had two heads.
“She’s teaching you a very valuable lesson about Petty Tyrants. And I’m going to teach you a valuable lesson about brick walls.”
“Huh,” Cait said. She was expecting me to go into my usual rant about how Tenure is a failed system that essentially protects bad teachers.
“Here’s the deal,” I said. “Are you willing to get your classmates together to make a formal complaint to the principal to try to get rid of her?”
My peace-keeping, don’t-rock-the-boat, daughter’s answer was no surprise. “No.”
“Are you willing to let me make a formal complaint to the principal?”
“No!” Cait looked at me with horror, “Mom, promise me you won’t do that!”
I continued, “Are you willing to write her a letter explaining how you feel about the situation?”
“Are you willing to let me talk to her about the difficulties you’re having with her?”
Cait grabbed my arm on that one. “Mom, please don’t.”
“Are you willing to request being switched to another class?”
“That would be so embarrassing.”
“Are you willing to let me home-school you?”
“Okay. That’s the definition of a brick wall.”
By this time we’d reached the dip-down where we veered into a field so I could let Kiera off-leash.
“Your teacher has supplied the pile of bricks. You’re the one who’s built the wall. By you not being willing to try anything else to solve the problem except to ask for help a few times and then give up, you’ve closed off any hope or possibility for change.”
“Mom, she’s the brick. Nobody’s going to change her. She doesn’t like kids and she doesn’t like teaching. She should have quit years ago.” Cait shot back, angrily.
“And the reason why she hasn’t is because of fear and lack of imagination. So she uses what power she has to take out her frustration on you kids. Which is essentially the definition of a Petty Tyrant.” I looked at Cait, “And, believe it or not, a Petty Tyrant is a great spiritual gift.”
“Mom, only you!” Cait smiled at me. “Okay, I’ll bite. A great spiritual gift—”
“Okay, bear with me because this is going to take some explaining.” Kiera had finished her zooming and had returned to rest by my side. I clipped on her leash. “The thing is, honey, as much as you try to avoid conflict, it’s part of life. And often conflict comes in the form of another person, complete with deeply ingrained, predictable behaviors. A person who you’ve now allowed to throw you off-balance, making you feel trapped and irritable.”
“Yeah, that sure describes Ms. Jones.” [Not her real name.]
That’s what I mean by Petty Tyrants –people who run the gamut from being out and out bullies to people who are just unwittingly talented at creating frustration and irritation. Nobody really likes being around those people, and wouldn’t be if circumstances didn’t force them, like you with your teacher.” I looked at Cait, “There are two ways people typically use to cope with them. Can you guess what they are?”
“I just know that I’m not going to bother asking her another question. I’d rather teach myself by reading the book,” Cait said.
“Yeah, that’s one of the ways. It’s called avoidance. Some people avoid by trying to just shut them out or ‘yes’ them to death in the hopes of shortening any contact and getting away as quickly as possible. Other people have the opposite reaction. They get angry at the Petty Tyrant and try to push to change his or her behavior. How successful do you think either of those strategies really are in the long run, or even the short run?”
Cait shuffled her feet. “Mom, this is all giving me a headache. Can you just tell me the point?”
“Here’s the point: There’s only one way through. That’s to try to consciously work with this person without avoiding them or becoming aggressive or petty yourself. Here’s the key: The great thing about Petty Tyrants is that they’re incredibly consistent. But most people fail to take advantage of that fact by having a plan for how to deal with them. As a result, they find themselves getting quickly frustrated by the same attitudes, words or behavior time and time again.” I put my hand on Cait’s shoulder. “Like you have. Interesting, huh?”
“Okay, Mom, great. Fascinating. I get what a Petty Tyrant is. And Ms. Jones sure qualifies,” Cait said with irritation in her voice. “So where’s that big spiritual gift you were talking about?”
“Yes, the gift. I’m getting to that,” I smiled. “Petty tyrants have a special ability to show us what we’re made of. Wittingly or not, they strip away our trained cultural responses, our false politeness, to expose who we really are when push comes to shove. That’s the hard part of the lesson. It’s also the end of their control over us and the beginning of the gift.”
It was getting late, so I headed Cait and Kiera out of the field so we could start home. Once on the road, I continued, “The gift is that now the stage has been set for growth. Your growth. But you have to accept the gift. You have to choose whether or not to develop the skills necessary to overcome being distracted and reactive, so you can act with integrity– with directness, rather than aggression or avoidance.”
Cait looked up at me. “Mom, do you have any Petty Tyrants trying to shower you with gifts?”
I laughed. “Absolutely, honey! I have more gifts than I know what to do with!”
That made Cait laugh.
“That’s the thing, Cait. There will never be a shortage of Petty Tyrants because so few people choose to accept the gift of learning to speak with compassionate directness. That’s why there’s little hope of Petty Tyrants waking to themselves.”
“It doesn’t have to be. Not if you accept the gift. Because, you see, once you accept that initial gift, you get to find the truly spectacular gift.”
“Yeah, what’s that?” Cait said.
“The gift of finding value in all people. Even Petty Tyrants have redeemable qualities once you can look past what irritates you. And once you can do that–practice compassion with a person who seems on the surface to be so undeserving –you’ve found the key to unlock their heart.”
“Sounds easier said than done, Mom.”
We’d arrived back at the house.
“Yep. And you’ve got a lifetime to practice.” As I opened the front door, I turned and looked Cait in the eye, “And since there’s no time like the present, why don’t you start with Ms. Jones?”