I was in a meeting once when I was twenty-two. I mean, I went to a lot of meetings that year, but you have to start a post somehow. In the hierarchy of titles on business cards, I was the least important person in attendance at this meeting. I was also the youngest, by many, many years. And I was wearing the best accessories. I don’t know if this is important (but nearly a decade later, it sticks out… so I think it may have been, even in a small way), but I was also the least male person in attendance. That is to say, I was the only woman there.
The meeting was called because, well… it’s kind of a long story (and a weird one, at that), but one person felt he had been wronged and felt like blaming his entire Rolodex. (This was before we had iPhones, people.) Needless to say, I was in his Rolodex. I was not, however, responsible for what he was claiming. I was too busy trying to do my job (and avoid the speed traps in Rhode Island). We sat in the room for a long time, as the man aired his grievances, pointed his fingers, and shuffled around papers.
Sometimes people just need to talk. So I listened.
I tend to have a long fuse. People who have witnessed me having a meltdown (namely: my entire family, my husband, and the catering director who tried to display plastic gourds at my wedding) may beg to differ, but it’s the truth. In some situations, the fuse is months long. In others, hours. While other people in the room tried to interrupt, or raised their voices, I sat and simmered and waited.
When I finally had the chance to defend myself, I knew I needed to do just that. When I was done, the room was quiet for a solid minute, but it was one of those extra-long minutes. (Slight tangent: How awkward were those extra-long twin mattresses we had in college? What use is the additional foot to short folks like me?) Back to it: I felt like I had talked back to a grown-up, but I willed myself to keep composed and not retreat (under the table, meanwhile, I nearly broke my own hand).
Finally, laughing (but not in a happy kind of way), the man looked me square in the face and said, “You look like a lamb, but you’re really a pit bull.”
(For the record, he was referring to the breed of canine, not Mr. Worldwide.)
I nodded, stood slowly, and said something that I must have heard on a television show about members of the British Parliament, something like, “Gentlemen, if there is nothing further to discuss, I bid you adieu.” And then I cried in my Ford Focus for twenty minutes, feeling undercut and embarrassed. At the time, I didn’t know any pit bulls (I wrongly thought they were all vicious and demented, and chained outside tow lots), so there was no opportunity to even pretend I had just been complimented.
Ten years have passed, and I still think about that meeting. Time has helped me to realize– or maybe affirm is a better word, because I think I knew this at the time– that this guy’s lashing out probably had very little to do with me, and that his opinion of me likely didn’t matter to the others in the room. They knew me for my work ethic and the reputation I had built during my short time on the job, and as neither a dog nor a baby sheep.
I think about this meeting when I hear people being called names.
I think about this meeting when I know I need to stick up for myself.
But I think about this meeting most when I realize there are people now entering the workforce who are ten years younger than me. They’re twenty-two year olds who drive Ford Focuses, and maybe they’re finding themselves at terrible meetings, too. I am reminded that how we talk to people and what we say matters. How we treat people and how we make people feel matters. Words and feelings stay with people long after interactions end. (That whole “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” thing is straight up crap.)
Even when– or maybe especially when– we get to end of our fuses, we’ve got be kind to one another.
Afterword: In a perfect world, our spare bedroom would be filled (in a responsible way, not in bad, animal hoarding way) with pit bulls (and Clark) and I’d give each animal loving, individualized affirmations every day. And then I would write and illustrate a series of children’s books about pit bulls and lambs roaming the city and countryside together, teaching good manners to rude, self-important adults. Literary agents, call me. Maybe?
Also On Tap for Today:
- Baking up my kind of soul food: gluten-free apple crisp
- Some delicious heirloom tomato recipes for the tomato whisperer
- Looking forward to meeting with my mentee this weekend
What do you remember most about your first job?