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With Regina Barreca

Why I Didnt Call


Can you forgive me for not calling you back after you left a second message? Or was it even a third? I meant to pick up the phone first thing. I even thought about it when I was brushing my teeth this morning, which means it was an extremely early-in-the-day idea since I have to re-introduce myself to myself when, at dawn, I look in the mirror with a mouth full of Aquafresh and engage in a version of the following: "Who's that looking at me?" "It's you, Gina. Yourself." "You're kidding: that bleary-eyed middle-aged woman, the one apparently wearing a tumbleweed on her head, is me? Say it aint so..." etc.

And the day got away from me, like a cat slipping out of even the most affectionate arms.

Maybe it's because I had to write letters of recommendations, some of which were for students I barely remember.

"Oh, right, Elizabeth," I'd try to remind myself, looking over the paperwork. "Was she Beth? Or Liz? Lizzy? Lizzie? Ellie? Bethie? Liza? The one with the curly hair, or the one who always had her finger in her ear, digging around in there as if trying to break into a locked safe? Or was this the chubby, sweet one who always said 'My name is Elizabeth. I never shorten it; my mother doesn't believe in nicknames' which is when I decided I could think of a couple of names I could call her mother? She turned out to be a great kid, but the mother was a doozie. Talk about helicopter parents: that one had her own fleet made by Sikorsky."

You know I'm busy -- almost as busy as you. You're teaching, too, and your students are even younger and therefore even more needy than mine ("Ms. R., Kevin said the 'f' word"-- yeah, I know what I'd say to anybody announcing that to me 20 time a day, which is what you explained was happening in your third grade the last time we spoke). So does it matter that I meant to call? I mean, can I get points or extra-credit for wanting to do what's right and fun? Do good intentions make a difference in terms of your assessment of me?

I meant to do everything today but feel, now that it's close to midnight, as if I've done astonishingly little.

Sure, some of what I wrote on the list for today's tasks can be checked off, but something really important -- like returning a call from a friend I miss and with whom I want to speak -- didn't get done.

And there I go, using the passive voice that always signals a dangerous choice. I'm constructing my version of the day as if I had no control over what happened: "That didn't get done" versus "I didn't do it." This is like one of those warnings, for example, on a skin-care product label that benignly informs you that Certain side effects may be experienced after initial use. When translated into real language, this actually means something like Your cheeks will swell up like beach balls and your nose will feel like you just put it in a wall socket. The passive voice is not our friend. But isnt it easier to toss off Certain things didnt get done or Not all calls were made rather than admitting I screwed up?

But I want to own up to my mistakes and apologize for my lack of consideration.

So why didn't I just call?

I telephoned other people, I have to admit that. But, to be fair, these were business calls. Short, to the point, spoken in formal language although friendly enough. One call consisting of heartfelt apology to a poor soul who wrote more than a month ago, kindly asking me to speak to her group. Because her letter was handwritten, however, I put it in the non-business pile, meaning "not-urgent, get-to-it-when-you-can," giving myself permission to read it when I had a free moment.

This afternoons free moment came when I was on "eternal hold," waiting for an airline ticket agent to pick up, which is when I noticed the letter on the corner of my desk. When I scanned it (expecting maybe a note from a former student, kind words -- or an argument -- from a reader) and realized my mistake, my face flared like a lit match. I immediately gave up on "hold" despite all the time Id invested (which is sort of like walking out before the end of a movie) and called the woman. She was gracious enough to accept my apology. She had class.

In contrast, I felt like a fool and a fink.

The rotten feeling of being a fink is still clinging to me, clammy and discomforting as the damp weather. (Remember the term fink? Fink was one of those words we used to throw around as kids, an insult vague enough to keep a person out of trouble but piercing enough to bother an enemy or rival. It seems appropriate to my situation.)

So what can I say or do?

Im writing this note, sure, but my effort is what my aunts used to call a day late and a dollar short, compensation not quite up to whats required. My best argument for non-finkhood is this: I would have called if I could have trusted myself not to stay on the phone for an hour. I could have called if I missed you less, had less to ask, or listen to.

Am I actually saying I could have been a better friend to you if youd been less of a good friend to me?

Something is seriously wrong when I look at the logic of that last statement and I need your help to figure it out. Lets skip the phone call; lets meet for lunch. Its even better to see your smiling face across the table than to hear your voice on the other end of the line.

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
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