Saturday, April 11, 2015

Musings on Power and Those Who Wield (or Yield) It

It is said that if you work in an elementary school, the two most important people to make friends with are the administrative assistant and the custodian.

I've always gotten along better with the custodians.

It has been my experience that developing a beneficial relationship with the administrative assistant often requires a level of obsequiousness that makes my insides squirm into rebellion. When I was fresh new teacher, I couldn't do it at all. I was still solid in the moral absolute that says any demonstration of signs of friendship you don't truly feel is a lie to avoid at all costs. I mean, I was perfectly polite. I just wasn't...political.

Then I grew up.

I've known administrative assistants that are purely professional, unruffleable women; some I'd swear are truly good people that turn b--chy when stressed; and one that is a truly horrible person who, through experience or plain inherent personality is downright cruel and shouldn't be allowed to work around children (but that's another story that I've already told).

But I've seen almost all I've ever worked with punish and reward teachers in an attempt to claim power in the relationship. For instance, at my last school we provided planning binders for our students. At the beginning of one year, the employee who previously ordered some of the necessary supplies for said binders had left the school the year before, and no one had thought to take up this ordering task. And all the teachers were left hanging. We all knew the administrative assistant had extras from the years before.

I happened into the office right behind another teacher who asked the administrative assistant if she had any extra supplies. She was sharply turned away. But because I had used my time to break down boxes and then made a friendly advance, I was told, "You know, I think I have some extra supplies from last year under my desk. You should take a look."

I had learned to finesse.

Disclaimer time: Of course there are thousands of lovely people who are administrative assistants at elementary schools in this world. My brush is wide, so wide. I apologize to you if you are one of these lovely people. But if you are, you know of the others so I hope you'll allow me my say.

I believe a certain type of person is attracted to the role of administrative assistant: someone who is inherently organized and appreciative of rules and order. Then this person is constantly bombarded by people who are not organized, not as appreciative of rules and order as she (or he). And this makes the administrative assistant crazy. Especially at the beginning and end of the school year. And the some really iffy power-struggling can appear (as above).

You know who else I lump in this rule-loving, power-grasping category? Flight attendants and other airline personnel. I just flew four straight hours to TX with a six- and three-year-old and then four straight hours back. My children were easier than the airline personnel.

On the way there:
Flight attendant: Is that a lap child? No? He needs to be buckled in; the plane is moving. (The plane was not moving.)
Me: I was hoping I could wait until the plane pulls away from the jetway. He's only three, and he'll have to be buckled in for four hours. 
Flight attendant: He must be buckled in now. The plane is moving. (The plane was not moving.)

On the way home:
Me: Hi! I need to get a tag for our stroller.
Airline employee puts on a sticky baggage tag, not the kind with the elastic band.
Me: Oh! I'm used to a different tag. Does this mean we'll pick this up at baggage claim instead of on the jetway?
Airline employee: This is the tag everyone always uses.
Me: Hmmm...I've never seen it used on a stroller before. Will we need to pick it up at baggage claim instead of on the jetway?
Airline employee (impatient): No. You will pick it up on the jetway after your flight. If you've never seen this before, everyone's been doing it wrong.

***Clearly, I've been helped by no one but cheerful incompetents for the last six years.

Later, boarding:
Airline employee: We'll let you board this time, but families are supposed to board between Boarding Sets A and B.
Me: But I have a boarding position of A41 here on my boarding pass.
Airline employee: Families board between A and B. (This had never been announced and I had been allowed to have get an earlier boarding position.)

***By the way, if Southwest think for a minute that I'll board later in the future because I have small children and they want me farther back on the plane, they've got another think coming. I'll board with my given boarding position, and they'll like it.

Flight attendant (from her position of making and delivering drinks): You should not have taken your child to the restroom right now; it's dangerous.
Me: Well, we had an emergency.
Flight attendant: It is not safe for you to leave your seat.
Me: Well, when given a choice between a child who pees her pants and bumpy walk, I choose the latter.

You know, I get the necessity of rules for air travel. It's dangerous. And there has to be some underlying structure for managing all the people in an airport. You know what else? I'm well-organized; my chosen profession is to teach bright, creative children who don't get the structure of language how to read and write. That's because I get rules and structure. I understand their role and their importance.

But come on, there's more gray in this world than there is black and white. Yes, you can count on or making a consistent sound most of the time; tch is almost always the correct spelling for /ch/ after a single, short vowel*; and if you're totally stumped and not yet a prolific writer, just start your topic sentence with There are... and you'll probably come up with something that gets the idea across.

But we're talking about human relationships here. Can't there be a little more of an assumption of the good in others? That people aren't asking questions just to get your goat, that mothers who don't buckle immediately or who weigh slight turbulence below the strong possibility of holding and comforting a urine-soaked six-year-old for three more flight hours still have some valid motherly impulses?

Yeah, I'm grumpy. I need a night's sleep.

* Don't throw such, which, and much at me. There are always exceptions!


  1. Ha! I love your SNARK girl!! I would be a bit grumpy after such treatment too! UGH!!! I mean, come ON!! I think both the school assistant admins and the flight attendants are all about projecting THEIR attitude and THEIR agenda... with little regard for YOURS. *sometimes*

    I bet if you used your 'finesse with the airline attendant, she would have started to offer you extra snacks for the kids and tell you to take them up to see the pilot anytime you wanted. It's all about softened the hard butter, I tell ya. ;)

    I'm glad you got this out- and I love the way you write about it here!

    1. Well, I'm trying for some compassion. It can be incredibly irritating to try to get people to follow the "rules" all day long. But I truly believe every rule needs to be bent in some circumstances.

  2. A rant feels so good. Somewhere in the "how to be a human being" manual, a chapter on "It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice" needs to be first. (or second to taking care of physical needs). I give you lots of credit for traveling alone with two kids on a four hour flight. The AA in my preschool was an amazing people/support person. One of my good friends, however, is the other kind in a middle school.

    1. Yep, a rant feels good even if it's unfair to some. I am absolutely certain you have some lovely friends in the AA position. In fact, that one I told about? I'd swear she is a lovely person who just kind got sharp at stressful times (as do I).

  3. Adore you. This was delectably done :)

  4. This was a very well-written, controlled, and justifiable rant. I try to tell myself that rude people are rude because they are having a bad day, etc., but sometimes they are just being rude.

    1. Yeah, I think these people were rude, but I'm not sure it was really intentional. I understand how aggravating their jobs could be and why they would just want me to obey without question. Then, on the other hand, I don't think I was disrespectful and I had good reasons.

  5. Ah, Sarah. What a rotten way to end a lovely trip. Sorry to hear about the flight attendant issues.

    I'm still pondering your first paragraph about being polite but not political and later about learning to finesse. I've never seen it that way. I've discussed it with a friend a while back, and my kids more recently. There is a big difference between brown-nosing to get something from the person, and just plain being kind in order to just plain be kind. Yes, being kind will probably mean some sort of benefit later on, but nothing is expected. Cranky people (who are cranky for a reason), once cracked, can be the nicest and most generous of people.
    And then there are people who will be jerks no matter how nice you are to them. Still gotta be nice so as not to be like them.

    1. Such a super comment, Christine! And thank you because it has taken me about four rewrites to craft a response that seems close to right.
      It's sort of hard for me to explain what I meant in that paragraph. I hope I have never been nor will ever become the kind of person who does something nice only for what I might get in return (brown-nosing, like you said). I think I'm impatient and mildly antisocial, but mostly nice. I think what I mean is that there was a certain level of effusiveness and extrovertedness required that I found (find) incredibly hard to put on. I never thought I was being rude before, but I can believe my restraint could have been seen as unfriendly to someone who is naturally extroverted. For instance, to start the conversation in which I needed to ask for supplies from the admin assistant with general chitchat and such took a lot of internal effort and energy. I'm much more comfortable asking my question and moving on because small talk feels like fake friendship. I guess that's what I mean by finesse. I recognize that kind of socialization helps with relationships I'm not hugely invested in so I've grown up enough to put that energy in. As a byproduct, I know I might get a reward. But, that's not why I'm doing it either. Is that clear at all?

    2. Much, much more clear! It makes complete sense. Since I am a complete extrovert, it never would occur to me that it would take so much energy and effort to chit chat. (Seems I'm still not so good at that Wakefield Doctrine thing.) But I know exactly what you mean. I've known people who have difficulty (some extreme) with getting to know new people.
      And thank you for taking my comment as I intended. Rereading it, I realize you could have taken it a whole different way. Sheesh. This A-Z and dishing out advice is warping my brain.

    3. Christine, you are a lovely person.


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