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Education Humor
With Regina Barreca

Beware the Thistle-Eaters


You know what I have a lot of trouble with? The martyrs of the teaching profession.

I have a hard time with a group I refer to as "Evil Do-Gooders."

It's the soulful looks of those wide-eyed self-sacrificers I cannot endure. They are the ones who, like tragic heroes and heroines of mythology, reappear once on a daily basis, but regard their fate as one of everlasting misery; they see everything that happens as part of the universe's plan to torture them.

Ask them to fill out a form, and it is as if a vulture has just descended on their entrails; ask them to serve on a committee, and it's like you've set wolves upon them; just doing their job makes them feel as if hungry sharks are about to leave them eviscerated and helpless.

You'll accuse me of being too harsh. You'll say that their routine of sad resignation and lingering disappointment is natural, given the state of our educational system. You'll argue that their sincerity and self-abnegation eclipse their whining and sighing. You'll tsk-tsk me for my annoyance at those who are kind and softhearted, wrapped up only in the happiness of others -- the poor wounded colleague who waves away all attempts to rectify a situation with the familiar refrain of "No, it's all right, it's just my bad luck. This is the sort of thing that always happens to me."

Like Eeyore, these folks sit in the corner of the faculty lounge and eat thistles, feeling excluded and unable to join in anyone's fun. The Evil Do-Gooder's very presence is a rebuke to those who find life to be more-or-less okay and occasionally -- dare we admit it? -- rather pleasant.

The Evil Do-Gooder saps the energy out of the room simply by being in it. It's not a happy thing.

A friend of mine came up with the term "Evil Do-Gooders" when we were preparing for an event following a poetry reading where I teach. I suggested we ask one young woman to help plan the dinner after the reading, but Julie quickly pointed out that Rosalinda inevitably "abused and soured" whatever role she's allotted. "She always agrees to telephone everyone who's coming to the dinner to find out their food needs and preferences," Julie observed, "And then tells them just how difficult it's been to reach them, and how overworked she is, and how much is demanded of her. Everybody she speaks to believes she's both a martyr and a prime-mover, that she's given everything to The Cause and that nobody else has done a damn thing."

Julie, an efficient, smart, and modest woman is not usually given to such diatribes; I was curious about the source of what seemed at first like an overreaction. For example, I asked her whether wimpy martyrdom is really strong enough to merit the term "evil"? Julie was off and running: "Absolutely. These folks moan about everything and then have the nerve to wheedle and connive to be complimented on the most trivial matters -- and it won't matter if everybody else is already doing twice as much. They control the power because they manipulate their position into one of unrecorded heroism. They volunteer on a regular basis just in order to be told that they're too good, too generous, and too nice. Meanwhile, they're emotional snipers, aiming their brave sighs and insincere smiles at the others who are doing the same jobs; they denigrate those who accomplish more with less effort. Their revenge on someone who is faster, smarter, or more accomplished than they are is to damn with faint praise."

I asked for an example. "When our committee formed, for the expressed reason of celebrating the successes of women in the profession, Rosalinda was asked to be co-chair. She spent all her time saying 'If I could only be as high-powered and driven as these women, I might be recognized as special' or 'Too bad I'm still so wrapped up in providing love and care for my family that I can't get ahead the way these women do.' She wrote a letter inviting people to an end-of-the-year party that read like a litany for the Evil Do-Gooder society. It opened with the line 'I write to invite you to a celebration for women who have learned that getting ahead is the main thing in life, a lesson not all of us have learned!' When Rosalinda asked to help with the event, therefore, we suggested cheerfully that for once she should attend as one of the honored guests, come to enjoy herself, and leave the work to some new volunteers." Telling Rosalinda to enjoy herself, Julie laughed, was like asking her to "kiss her elbow. Impossible."

To any Evil Do-Gooders we come across, therefore, we might just say: "If everyday in teaching is such a trial, perpetually unsatisfying and inevitably debilitating, then perhaps you should, for example, sell shoes. In other words if you can't stand squeaky chalk, move away from the board."

And then, to be friendly, we can offer them a nice plate of thistles.

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