Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 15 2013

Becoming Heartless

A parent was near tears on the phone with me today, explaining why she’d stood me up for our meeting this morning. Her son was on trial this afternoon, facing serious sentencing, and her good friend was just hospitalized. Today was just not a good day.


I heard her to the end and then just said, “Okay. Could you come by after?”


Then I heard myself and realized that I might have just become a terrible person. This might be some sort of corner you turn in life, when you start hearing someone’s pain and responding like that and can’t ever turn back. There might be some awful line I just crossed, where I officially qualify as heartless. I just saw it happen.


But before you judge me too harshly, there’s some backstory to explain me (if not defend me). I need you to think about what it’s like to grow up with your mother actively refusing to be around. When your one parent won’t take care of you, won’t look out for you, won’t have your back and won’t bother giving you consequences. When you know that your school is fighting tooth and nail to get your mother to answer the phone – because you’re sick, because you’re in trouble, because you missed conferences, because you did something great, because your attendance is poor, because your new teacher wants to take you out for lunch – and you know she checks caller ID and then walks away. When you are quite literally screaming for attention and she won’t look your way.


I used to think Mom just hated us and was always venting to her daughter at home. The girl would sit in my office and just yell about what her mom was going to do. Her typical response to any consequence is some long ranting vent, usually involving some of these phrases:

“My mom says you can’t suspend me! She’s going to come in here and yell at you for this!”

“My mom says these teachers are rude to me and I shouldn’t let them treat me like that!”

“My mom says she’s going to come down here and give you a piece of her mind!”

“My mom says if anyone talks to me like that again, I can just go home!”

“My mom says she’s going to switch me schools so I can go somewhere better!”


It took me a little while of listening to this and not seeing follow-through before I realized what was happening. Mom isn’t talking trash at home. This girl is inventing a mother in her head. She’s thought about all the things she wishes her mom did to take care of her, and she says them out loud like they’re true. It’s this creation she’s inventing to convince me (and herself?) that her mother is going to support her and look out for her. It’s not the mom’s threat. It’s the daughter’s dream.


So maybe you’ll excuse me when I can’t handle the mother’s stories anymore. When I’ve put all the importance in the world on this meeting, when her daughter is in a severe red zone for academics and behavior, and when I’ve been calling all morning just to get Mom to tell me why she didn’t show up. I don’t know if I even processed the story itself until after. Maybe I can’t even hear the excuses anymore, but that would only because the girl screaming for attention has drowned them out.


Am I supposed to feel guilty? I genuinely can’t decide.

One Response

  1. Mike

    Well, I certainly don’t blame you for not handling the stories after all that. You probably get immune to excuses (and pleas for attention) after awhile, and it’s only natural. But that doesn’t in itself mean you shouldn’t feel shame for your response. I mean, for comparison, it’s also only natural to punch a source of disrespect square in the face despite the harsh punishments you know will be forced upon you from a culture that isn’t your own.

    To be fair, I’m in the position of sitting back (probably with an exaggerated expression of condescension) and asking you to show more compassion while still getting your job done effectively. But I’m not even sure that’s possible. I mean, your kind of job requires practical wisdom in almost everything you do. There is no formula or philosophy you can apply to every situation to reliably decide what to do.

    In conclusion, I have no answer to your question, because I don’t have all the details. If you can’t tell, it might help to ponder a while longer, but sometimes you just need to move on and accept that you don’t know. But do keep in mind that if you were truly, categorically heartless, you wouldn’t care whether you were or not.

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