Difficult People

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It was just after hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans. The city was all but uninhabitable and many citizens had to find places to live until the water had receded and the damage to homes and buildings had been repaired. The greatest number of them came to Houston, Texas where the citizens welcomed them and the schools embraced their children. 

I was working at Paul Revere Middle School in west Houston at the time. There was an enormous apartment project adjacent to the campus that had seen better days and therefore had a number of empty apartments. The management made a deal with the city of Houston to offer residences at low rates and so many of the displaced families began to move into the dwellings and to register their children at the school. 

In the beginning the clerks who helped to complete the paperwork for each child and the counselors who assigned them to classes were inundated with applicants. The teachers were overwhelmed by the influx of new students into their classrooms, often having to ask for more desks and chairs and textbooks to accommodate them. All in all the situation was chaotic and tensions were on edge. As an administrator I sensed that all parties were at a breaking point as parents complained and yelled about the long waits and faculty members threatened to quit if they were subjected to anymore overcrowding in their classrooms. I sensed that something had to be done to calm everyone.

I had little idea what might work, but I was ready to try anything. I went to the teachers’ lounge and brewed a big pot of coffee and used all of the change in my wallet to purchase soft drinks. I organized cups, sugar cream, and cold drinks on a rolling cart that I brightened up with a couple of placemats. I rolled my beverages to the area where the parents were waiting and the faculty members were working feverishly. I planted a big welcoming smile on my face.

As I greeted each parent I told them how happy we were to have their children in our school. I introduced myself and inquired about their names while asking if they wanted something to drink. Most of them chose the coffee and smiled their thanks. I asked how they were doing, where they were living, what they had lost. I wanted to know what the school might do to help them. As I spread my meager effort at good cheer the atmosphere changed. People became calm and even understanding about having to be patient as they waited. The faculty members felt the pressure on them decrease. The environment became almost convivial.

Over many decades as a teacher and a school administrator I learned that most of the anger that I encountered came from the anxieties that parents and students were feeling. When they became overwrought and highly charged the best response was to demonstrate a sense of empathy. Most of the time all they needed was assurance that somebody had heard their pleas and understood what was so upsetting. It never took much to settle their feelings and work toward goals for helping. Only once did I fail to simmer things down.

It was an open house evening that had started quite well. The classrooms were decked out in fine student work and everyone seemed to be having a good time when yelling came from down the hall. I quickened my step in that direction as the insults being hurled were beginning to sound like violent threats. I reached the source of the commotion and saw a parent thrashing her arms and screaming at a teacher who appeared to be on the verge of either crying or hurling her own insults in answer to the parent. 

I introduced myself and quietly suggested that the parent accompany me to my office where we might discuss her concerns. At first the woman meekly followed me into the hallway, but after we had taken a few steps she turned on me, asking who I thought I was to interrupt her session with the teacher. Her vulgar language grew louder and louder as I did my best to let her know that I truly intended to hear her out and then help her. She would have none of it and she began to rage that she was going to follow me to my car at the end of the open house, follow me home and beat me when I got out of my car. 

To say I was stunned was an understatement. I was so taken aback that I rather quietly told her that she was going to have a very long ride because I lived across town from where I worked. I also let her know that many former students resided near me and they had great fondness for me and felt very protective of me. When I told her exactly where I lived her eyes became as big as saucers and she proclaimed that I lived in a gang infested part of the city. I simply smiled and said that I most surely did and that she was welcome to follow me if she still wanted to do so, but I had to admit that my former students might not like it if she tried to beat me up when we got here. 

The woman stuttered nervously  and immediately left. I suppose that I had resorted to a tactic that appalled even me, but it had cooled the situation down and the woman later apologized to everyone. She explained that she was having great difficulty with her son at home and was frustrated to learn that he was doing no better at school. She simply lost her cool. I suppose that I had lost mine as well. 

There is always a reason why someone behaves badly. Take that into account when they are raging. More often than not a bit of kindness will soothe them. Of course there are also times when pushing back is the only way to stop their rants. Bullies only seem to respond to strength.

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