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:
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,