As I sat down to think about today’s post, I found this article waiting for me, thanks to a friend who had shared it earlier in the day. The not-so-hidden messages of “good little teacher” and “be quiet, good little teacher” are powerful indeed, and they resonate with the messages of earning love by good behavior that we’d talked about last night in my weekly Book Group’s conversation about the Henri Nouwen book we’re currently reading. Like the dutiful elder son in the parable and the painting, “good little teachers” firmly believe that, if we just work hard enough and do good enough things, “They” will somehow notice and reward “Us,” or at least acknowledge what “We” have been doing. And, of course, “good little students” feel the same way when their teachers’ scarce attention is devoted to “the bad, lazy ones” and “the troublemakers” and, on occasion, those few “annoying” students who already understand the New Thing and need something different. Maybe, those “good little ones” think, just maybe, if I do the worksheet packet with extra-special care … maybe then Ms. X will notice me and appreciate me? Maybe I’ll get the gold star, the sticker, the “good little worker” label.
What about me? we “good little ones” are asking. Maybe if I’m extra good, I’ll get the attention I seek. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m really, really self-sacrificing, someone will notice and reward me. As I was writing this post, a friend called me to vent about that very issue in an organization with which she regularly works … and as the school year came to its end last week, and as my summer commitment began, I found myself struggling with those very thoughts and feelings.
I’m sure you noticed the irony of being self-sacrificing in order to receive attention and praise. But in the heat of the moment, in factories, farms, schools, and even families, it’s hard to notice the irony.
But even on the farm in the parable, it didn’t work that way. The father in the parable seems surprised by his older son’s anger and resentment: “You are always with me,” he says, “and everything I have is yours.” It’s not that the father takes his dutiful son for granted … or is it? Does he just assume his son knows how much he cares for him and values him?
The parable, the article, and the book are all helping me find a new and much-needed perspective on factory schooling, on colleagues’ reactions, and on the responses of the Powers That Be that I know best. I spent several hours Monday writing “common exams” (which my Latin colleagues may or may not actually use) and a “Latin II placement exam” (which may or may not be helpful given the small number of middle-school programs in the district) in the Curriculum Team work session I mentioned yesterday. It was a good, productive day, with lots of time to work, some excellent opportunities to talk with each other, and an amazing noodle dish that one of our Chinese colleagues had contributed. Good food, good friends, a good mixture of time alone to work and time together to share and reflect … a great way to spend the first Monday of summer.
And yet … there was more work to do than time available. Our relevant Power wasn’t there, due to a bunch of other commitments, so there wasn’t a way to ask critical, big-picture questions in real time. There was confusion about how much time we’d agreed to spend, about what to do when we finished, about whether we’d been granted an additional day to work or not.
So, even in the midst of a joyful community, there was still a lot of factory-thinking … or should we say Older Son thinking? It was easy to slip into the mindset of “good little teacher doing what we’re told” … and from there, it’s a short trip, indeed, to resentful “little teacher” complaining about how They don’t really appreciate Us, and about the “bad lazy ones” who don’t do their fair share.
It’s a short trip, indeed, from dutiful to resentful, from family working together to resentful Older Son refusing to join the party.
The parable, of course, is deliberately ambiguous, and the painting depicts a single moment in time. We don’t know how the older son responds to his father’s invitation, and we don’t know what happened before or after in narrative time. Like any excellent Story, the parable invites us to imagine, to create a back-story and a What Happened Next. And like any excellent Story, it invites us to think about implications for our own lives, our own families, the organizations within which we work.
A school, a school district, any organization or business, is an ongoing mesh and series of relationships. Sometimes things function smoothly, and sometimes we feel as though we really are striving together toward a common goal. But sometimes, just when we least expect it, someone demands his or her share of the property, or somebody leaves to seek fortune and fame elsewhere, or someone makes us feel unappreciated and disrespected. What lessons do the parable and the painting hold for Ms. X, Mr. Y, our Powers, our students, and me at times like those? What lessons do they hold for builders and sustainers of Joyful Community, and for those who wish to join in?