I am not resigned

Dear Principal Armbruster (not your real name!):

You’ve made me cry five times over the last two years, but today wasn’t one of them. When I looked into your eyes, thanked you for everything, and quit my job, you said, “OK, thanks” with less emotion than you did last Christmas when I brought you a plate of Santa-head cookies. It was such a graceless, off-the-charts display of Diminished Interpersonal Capacity Syndrome (DICS) that I walked away laughing. It was like you’d run out of latex patches to keep the air from leaking out the holes.

I wasn’t expecting a hug or anything. Still, why not make an effort to be graceful? Of course you’re pissed that I’m leaving before the end of the year, but also? To you and your closed fist of a head, I was a regulation widget easily replaced by another regulation widget: I was a teacher.

You and I always disagreed re: the importance of the human touch in education (I am for it) but I always wanted you to succeed because you were an older woman with power; an older woman charged with making unpopular decisions. I’m close to several women like this — women who have far more power than you do — so I know: That shit is difficult. I figured, Of course she can’t be too nice. People will run right over her.  So when you shat on lesson plans I was proud of, or ordered me to “drill and kill” rather than have the kids write memoirs, I did the Christian/Buddhist/Reform Jew/Land Dyke thing and bathed you in a white healing light. Did you feel it? I’m curious about whether it works, or if it just keeps the white healing light-sender from crying a sixth time.

I used to picture you exhausted and stomped on by the little demon hooves of peri-menopause, dealing with demanding parents, antiquated facilities, and condescending doods. I imagined you going home, putting your feet up, having a glass of wine and talking to your buddies on the phone — finally able to be yourself. I thought there must be a “yourself” in there.

But every time you made it true, what people say about women in charge, I cringed. I saw a lot of people leave your office furious; in tears. I thought about putting up a sign: CALM DOWN. SHE’S LIKE THAT TO EVERYBODY.

So when people said you didn’t like women, I filed your vibe under “internalized misogyny.” Or Asperger’s, which often goes undiagnosed until midlife. I suggested this theory to one of the Exceptional Ed teachers, who sniffed and said, “Oh, she’s an ass burger, all right.”

I was on your side.

I wonder why you never used my Great Wall Of Mommy Issues — WHICH YOU CAN SEE FROM SPACE! FROM OUTER SPACE! — to your advantage. You belong to a micro-generation (1957-1962) that I love — a hiccup of women too young to be Boomers but too old for Gen X; too dark and fucked up for the ’80s but not dark and fucked up enough, or for the wrong reasons, for the ’90’s. You were shaped by social changes you didn’t create but had to bend your lives around:

like this

I’ve spent a lot of time naked with your generation, Principal Armbruster.  I’ve curled up on your generation’s chest, traced little fingertip designs in its sweat, and listened to its vague, pre-verbal memories of the Kennedy assassination. It was dresses to school every day for you, and Vietnam on TV every night. It was gym suits and maxipads with belts; Steely Dan records; Title 9; Pong. It was a growing suspicion that, not only were the people in charge a bunch of liquids trying to do a solid’s job, so were the people trying to take charge.

This created one of two (or both!) things in you: An un-killable, side-eyed hope you lace into the steel-toed boots of your souls, or a white-knuckled conviction that life isn’t about what you have or could become, but about what you’re in danger of losing. My girlfriend (b. 1959) posits that the latter has something to do with growing up without real job security. The sands were always shifty, so you either accepted it and developed an edgy sense of DIY absurdity or became the sort of person who soothed herself by crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s and just generally micromanaging the shit out of everything. Hypercontrol over yourself and others = a charm you weave against disaster.

Lorrie Moore, my favorite writer, describes your generation pretty well: “We used to watch you guys, the eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, on LSD at the public beach, or playing Duck, Duck, Goose in Horsehearts Park with your beads and long-flowing Indian smocks. But when we got to be that age, and we went to the park, or to the lake, and there wasn’t a Duck or a Goose or a hit of acid anywhere. There was only Ford pardoning Nixon.”

All of which is to say: YOU’RE MY KIND OF GIRL.

So I’m sorry you never warmed to me. The students did, though. I have a drawer full of their letters and cards; their photos and silly little gifts (although nothing from Exam Thief; his friend The Knife Dude; and Janessa in 6th period who always says “Fucking Dyke” before my name, like it’s my official title. An honorific).

Which is kind of cool, actually. I want it on some business cards.

Anyway, every experience is improvement kibble, so here’s what I’m going remember about leadership — and women in leadership — in case I ever have the role:

1. Any organization takes on the fundamental character of its leader.  Employees are like tofu, which as all dykes know takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with. A leader is habanero chile or chocolate mole or absolute fucking poison, and that’s what her organization becomes a hot, steaming potful of. We like to think we can work as professional islands, but every workplace has a culture and nobody’s immune.

2. People always remember how you treated them, even if they pretend they don’t.

3. People never forget being humiliated — or treated well.

4. If you humiliate subordinates they’ll do as you ask to your face and sabotage you quietly. If you treat them well, they’ll support you even when you aren’t asking them to. You’ll have built up a goodwill savings account instead of a debt.

5.  Make standards and expectations the same for everyone. If you like some employees better than others, HIDE IT. Pretend you’re a movie character: The Supervisor Who Likes Everyone The Same. It’s acting! Have fun with it!

6. Don’t shift blame. It’s transparent and it’s cowardly. No one will ever say “coward” to your face, but they’ll think it real loud inside their heads.

7.  Catch employees doing well and draw attention to it. Know when their birthdays are; send hand-signed cards. Be a human.

8. If someone screws up and you need to have a Conversation, let them keep their dignity.  Don’t make it personal, don’t be petty, don’t hold a grudge. Women, despite what people like to say, have great empathic skills. Use them. Don’t make it true, what people like to say.

9. Know that everything you say gets repeated, verbatim, all over the building. Don’t talk to people in a way that ensures, when your words are repeated, the audience begins to shriek, “NO! NO!!” in rising horror and disbelief. For example, when an employee requests a day off for Rosh Hashanah, don’t request a doctor’s note. This will become legend.

10. Your employees are fundamentally on your side. Don’t assume they’re always trying to get one over on you, or that they’ll slack off as soon as you leave the building. They want to go home feeling the satisfaction of a job well done as part of a well-run team. They’re motivated to please you out of pride and integrity– not out of fear, unless you make it that way. Don’t make it that way. Don’t make it so that, at the staff meeting, one employee turns to another and whispers, “Hey, what rhymes with ‘sociopathic twat’? I’m writing a poem about Armbruster’s people skills.”

All the best to us both,

Phonaesthetica

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13 thoughts on “I am not resigned

  1. another wonderful, moving, inspiring post–and especially thank you thank you for your description of MY “micro-generation” (JFK was assassinated the day I turned one)–I always kinda blamed myself–
    love. what are you going to do now??

  2. can’t wait to hear about it. and to clarify, I meant I kinda blamed myself for the derailment of the women’s liberation movement, not for jfk’s assassination on my birthday–

  3. Phona!!!! a masterpience. Very well put, microgeneration, of which I am a part, only I don’t remember JFK’s assassination, I do remember Milne’s “Now We Are Six,” and I never touched illegal drugs ever. Never slept with men, never dated them, was a very butch dyke, got out in the streets, was part of a huge movement of social change I am very proud of. Another nail hit— we were subjected to ferosius competition for jobs, even summer jobs were hard for us to find throughout our ENTIRE junior high, high school and college years! Jobs were impossible to find after college graduation. So I am very insecure about work and overcompensated for it naturally.

    We might have had one slight advantage; we had the world’s best public school teachers!!! I LOVE them to this very day!!! Love as in LOVE. They gave me everything, and I have never forgotten the history, poetry, music, and science I learned. I never forgot.

  4. I also was very lucky being able to work my way through college, but I still had to work very hard. As a very butch dyke I faced ungodly hostility, bullying, catty meanness from het women, you name it. But lucky thing number 2– I had the feminist movement on the rise, I had radical feminist books, I had an international lesbian separatist movement bar none, and there were no trans invasions, no men, we were powerful devoted women who worked to create the rape crisis centers, we published not one but two monthly feminist magazines out of a group of 45 dykes give or take… from Britain, from Japan, from Thailand, from USA, from Canada (madly in love with French Canadian women still insanely so), Korea, Nigeria… madly love the dykes back then, the LOVE, the fights –love them big old radical lesbian 70s era fights. Treasure the passion, the insane passion of it all.

  5. Watched my friends die young. Grief is something I have to keep at bay. Our generation, well we tried. But I want you to know my heroic beloved high school teacher, your classes will never forget you! They will, 38 years from now, be writing passionate love letters to women like you, and the guys too who taught us poetry, who stepped up and tried to help me after I was beat up by the jock boy–the crime, reciting an English love poem IN CLASS to a girl. The teacher stepped up, not knowing lesbian be, it was the 70s, there was no awareness back then, for I was not very aware of who I actually really was.

    You are that heroic teacher!! You tell a truth so touchingly, and I will say, that you will never know how many times I have cried reading your insightful, beautiful prose, and how angry I am on your behalf. That idiot of a boss, how could she?

  6. SheilaG, my theory on the brilliant public school teachers is, brilliant women didn’t used to get to attend law/business/medical school, or become serious artists — the only available professional options were teaching or nursing. Therefore, the best and the brightest went into teaching and funneled their fearsome creative and intellectual heft into it.

  7. We destroyed our school system. Hey I opted out for higher paying jobs. I was a lesbian who had access to non-traditional jobs, and I wanted them. Back in the day, spinster women still ruled the high schools, closeted, brilliant, compassionate. A free public education that included Latin and Greek. A free classical music program, free music lessons, gradeschool orchestras with conductors in bow ties. We read Shakespeare, we read William Blake, we studied anthropology, were in awe of the moon landing. Heck, we even had Jesus Christ Superstar.

    What i didn’t have was metal detectors, racial integration that meant anything, and I had no lesbian role models. I was on my own, with only my inner life and ambition to carry me forward. But I had the early feminist movement, Volume 1 Number 1 of Ms., Sappho Was a Right on Woman….. I had the Bach Double Violin Concerto, Tennessee Williams, Largo from the New World’s Symphony that our entire orchestra cried over one magic fall afternoon in rehearsal, we were that good!

    Oh how my heart breaks for the children of today, they have been so cheated. So what do I do? Well I am out in the streets with the kids of today, I am angry over their out of control student loans, they crash in my home when they need a place to stay, I hold them in my arms as they cry — their best friend committed suicide, their mother killed herself, they’ve lost a job, but they somehow want me in their life right now, and so I am there for them. We are different generations now, me the late boomer, they the kids of 1982– their mothers were radical feminists like me, they smoke pot, I drink red wine and smoke a cigar. If I had had daughters, they would be it.

    That my dear woman is the very best my gang could do. I have doubts, I wish women’s revolution had gone further and we didn’t have the sell out women bosses who so disappoint you. I hope I am not one of those cold people, and I feel a debt that I must repay. Life was hard yet noble. We were proud of our revolution, and the big lesbian triumph, but some got left behind, some killed themselves… they didn’t make it, and some idiot dissed you.

    But you will be remembered by your students, for they are like me.

  8. Yes Phona, we had brilliant women teachers because the best and brightest women were never allowed into “male” professions. I love teaching and have always lectured widely, but I went into business, started up companies, kept going. America didn’t realize it was living off of brilliant women it would not allow into law or medicine, and now that those spinster brilliant women are dead, they have not adjusted.

    The derailment of the women’s liberation movement was the right wing attacks and the backlash which jump started in 1980, but it was gathering storm. The male medical machine wants to throw the trans wrench into lesbian communities…. but I would not necessarily blame women for the derailment, although I find hetero women and their… stuff just infuriating at times and all the choosey choosey fun fem sexualized porn nonsense just aweful. But what do I know? I’m just a radical lesbian feminist from the 70s who studied ancient Latin and Greek from spinsters of another era.

  9. well, not entirely, of course, but I had the benefit of coming of age in the early ’80s into a still-vibrant, active, strident feminist movement. I flung myself into it, but in some ways, i took it for granted. It was full of music and ideals and challenging theories and ACTION (Shulamith Firestone! Andrea Dworkin! Kate Millet! Toni Morrison! Alice Walker! Olivia Records–Take Back the Night all over the continent — ETC) — I became a lesbian because I could imagine loving women because feminists carved out the room for me and gave me permission and responsibilities — some of which i failed. I think partly i was too late to the table, partly i dropped the torch they passed (look at that, metaphor salad) –I don’t know. it’s complicated, but i see younger women, and younger lesbians calling each other ‘queer’ or ‘trans’ and being all, like “transgressive” and “genderfluid” and I think, “damn. I wasn’t there for them the way the feminists were there for me”. I don’t know how I could have been, and I know that the backlash has been gaining strength and the state and institutions of power can adapt to any reform we can think of — but still I think I got something that isn’t there to get (or as readily) for women now. anyway. whatever, it ain’t over. and we will rise again, to be sure. Your identification of the “micro-generation” was a revelation for me, Phono, bless you and all your loved ones for that.
    xo

  10. Yes Easilyriled, this is interesting stuff you report on. Our group of radical lesbian feminist separatists knew that there was no compromising with patriarchy. And I was always very lovingly connected to the first generation of lesbian feminists… women born in the 1930s. We respected these “elder” stateswomen, we believe fully in our cause.

    I had no lesbian community early on, only myself and my inner reflections on what I wanted in life. I can say it was very simple for me. No children, no men, study hard, keep on the revolutionary trail. Then of course I met so many other lesbians worldwide, so it was an international movement for me. I was not even living in north america most of the 80s, but was very connected to the UN conference on women. I don’t think I have ever been to a Take Back the Night March, but we did found rape crisis centers.

    I have always been there for younger women.

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