Sometimes you don’t realize you’ve been played until much later — especially if you’ve been played by a veteran.
This turned out to be the case last week, although I didn’t realize it at the time, when my wife confronted me with what sounded like a perfectly reasonable request.
“Alden,” she said, “I’d really like it if you’d read this book and then we could talk about it together.”
I should have realized that something was up when she used my full name. Normally my wife calls me by my initials, A.B.B. Someone once misheard her and thought she was calling me “A.D.D.” — as in “Attention Deficit Disorder.” That’s sort of like saying, “Hey, I.B.S.! Yeah, you, Irritiable Bowel Syndrome! Can you pass the remote?”
The use of my full first name is normally reserved for Major Infractions, the kind for which I usually end up performing some act of domestic penance, like committing to large-scale vacuuming projects. I can’t tell what’s worse about the full-name technique: its devastating effectiveness, or fact that my wife learned it from me.
For years I’d regaled her with battlefield stories of how I, a high school teacher, have employed the full-name technique to great effect on unsuspecting teenagers. When I first started teaching, I knew I needed an identity, a way to respond when I wanted to motivate students. Unfortunately, most of the obvious ones didn’t fit. I’m not a Bobby Knight-style yeller; I don’t throw tantrums (or chairs). For a while I tried cultivating a “speak softly but carry a big stick” persona — sort of like Joe Pesci’s character at the end of “A Bronx Tale” — the gangster who barely has to whisper to communicate how dangerous he is. Unfortunately I suffered from something of a credibility gap. While it’s completely terrifying to hear something completely innocuous whispered in your ear — provided it’s done by an unhinged gangster, such as, “You might want to start picking up your socks . . . ” (because you know that if you don’t, he’ll kill you and your neighbors and your neighbors’ pets), it’s somewhat less intimidating coming from a guy wearing an Oxford shirt who drives a minivan, when he whispers, “If you don’t do your homework, you may end up with a C- this semester.” Just a different effect.
I tried on other teaching personas: the “I’m just trying to help you” guy (had no effect), the groovy “everybody just chill out, man, and let yourself, like, feel feelings” guy (led to speculations about my drug use), and finally, the highly-exasperated, “I might quit teaching at any moment because of you kids!” guy (actually seemed to encourage them). None of it worked.
That’s when I found the answer: disappointment! No kid, deep down, wants to let down his parents, so I figured — why don’t I channel some of that? Why can’t I make telling me they forgot their homework feel like they have to tell dad they accidentally wore his favorite suede jacket as a raincoat? I even stumbled upon the perfect model in the character of Lester Freamon, the savvy, wizened detective in the crime series “The Wire.” None of the young detectives in his unit ever wanted to disappoint Freamon, mostly because 1) he was the most badass, genius criminal investigator since Porfiry Petrovich, and because 2) they knew if they did come back without the goods, Freamon would give them a disappointed, fatherly look over the top of his reading glasses and make them feel like complete failures. This act was so effective that it became a running joke on the show.
Very soon, bolstered by a few years’ teaching experience, and by some jots of grey in my beard, I started emulating Freamon and sending severe looks of my own across the top of my perfectly imaginary reading glasses. I’ve even considered buying a fake pair just to enhance the effect. I also began to approximate Freamon’s wise, all-knowing tone — which I carried a step further by always using a student’s full name (just as his parents might).
“Christopher Jonathan Snutterson,” I’ll say slowly to some poor junior — most of whose friends have never heard his full name, preferring something shorthand and sensitive, such as “Snut-bag.”
“May I speak with you a moment — outside?”
By the time I get this young man outside the classroom (“public praise, private reprimand” is the educational catchphrase), and deliver the next line, it’s all over:
“Young man, I am disappointed.”
I’m not angry (which is often a shortcut to shutting down the adolescent brain) — just let down, which sometimes doesn’t register, but sometimes stirs something primal — and I play it to the hilt (and in some sense, of course, I really am let down). I tend to use this approach almost exclusively on young males, with whom the paternal subtext is particularly effective: “Young man, as a self-appointed father figure in this particular situation, I expected a lot more from you.” Sometimes it doesn’t work, but often it does. My greatest reward came last fall when one mother told me that her son’s grades had improved dramatically simply because he’d been too guilty to disappoint me.
I rarely use this technique with girls. (But then again, girls never call each other “Snut-bag,” do they? They just make catty comments under their breath like, “Do you really think you’ve got the boobs for that dress?”)
So imagine my frustration when I realized that the Lester Freamon technique was just as effective when turned back on its creator — me! In fact, my wife has gotten quite good at it, although the subtext is somewhat different. “Alden Bancroft Bird,” she seems to say, “I’m your wife and I make your sandwiches and don’t you love me?” It’s less about disappointment, and more about eliciting sympathy. It’s completely unfair. Plus, I’m powerless to use it back on her. The same look that projects “fatherly” and “benevolent” to misbehaving but desperate-to-please teenage boys comes off more as “paternalistic” or “condescending as hell” to the women’s-college-educated demographic.
Not to mention that my wife is capable of a sort of Jedi mind trick that instantly causes any semblance of moral authority I have to vanish. We’ll be taking a casual stroll at Sea World when she will suddenly do something that would seem to give me an overwhelming upper hand — say, knocking me into a tank full of live sharks. There is thrashing, and crimson water. Finally park officials hoist out the remains of a man who is basically okay, but missing jaw-shaped chunks of his body. You would think I’d be untouchable at this point, but then she’d give me that look (my look!) which says: “You’d better not make a big a deal out of this, or, god forbid, make a face. If you do, have fun recovering from blood loss in your new bachelor apartment.”
But what about the book, you ask? The one my wife had strongly suggested I read and then we discuss?
The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Need I say more?
This post is dedicated to my friend and coworker Laure Angel, an outrageously good educator and human being who never needed a gimmick or “look” to bring out the best in her students.