As you may already know, I used to be a classroom teacher. In my first year of teaching, I taught seventh-grade "Core," which meant English and History blocked with the same group of students. I had the same group of students for two class periods in a row and they were stuck with me for two class periods in a row. 120 minutes. This is a long time for a twenty-two year old and an even longer time for seventh graders, especially if you don't naturally get along with each other.
That year I had one student, Isaac, who challenged me far beyond my rookie teaching abilities. Oh my goodness, it makes me sweat now just to recall him walking into the classroom! I could not seem to get him to stop talking to his neighbors or cracking jokes under his breath, nor could I find a way to get him to do much work. In my memory, he exists as a smallish, slumped figure, slid halfway down his desk chair. No work on the desk, no pencil, and often no backpack, either.
I talked frequently with my colleagues about Isaac, learning from his previous teachers and bringing in my supervisor to help me. I spent hours consciously strategizing about what I could do to improve the situation. Hours. (The whole time I'd simultaneously be dreading our next interaction, but still, I did work on it.) And, I very much brought Isaac into my personal life by telling my friends and family about how he was misbehaving, day in and day out. I most definitely had nightmares about losing control of the class with Isaac gleefully leading the mutiny.
You see, I thought Isaac was misbehaving on purpose just to piss me off. I thought he was intentionally disrupting class to prove my incompetence. Otherwise, why would he keep doing these things?? Why would he keep making the same choices?!
In my heart of hearts, I really believed he wanted to torture me. That he enjoyed showing up to Core and humiliating me.
I hate admitting that but it's true.
So I'll pause here and check in with you:
Who in your life seems placed on earth just to drive you crazy?
Who keeps annoying you on purpose, creating a special living hell that you can't escape?
Who enjoys tormenting you, goading you, provoking you?
For now I'll let you sit with that while we return to Isaac, about whom I don't have a happy ending to tell, unfortunately. He and I didn't get on the same sheet of music that year. I didn't find a way to engage him, neither on a personal level nor in academic pursuits. Honestly, I remember feeling relieved when he walked out of third period on the last day of school in June. He said, "Ms. C.? It's been real. Peace." And that was all.
Here's the thing. Since then, I've learned a whole hell of a lot. And one thing I've learned is that Isaac wasn't really to blame.
If anyone was to blame, it was me.
Because I allowed the misbehavior, even though I didn't think so at the time. I let him get away with actions and an attitude that hindered his academic success. And I resented him for it.
That was my fault. Not his.
If you're thinking that I didn't set a clean, strong boundary, you are correct! But that is a letter for another time - after teaching for five more years, coaching high school teachers for seven years, and becoming an auntie (!), I'm comfortable saying that boundaries are my JAM. I looove boundaries, and I've got tons to say on the subject.
However, for today, I'm telling you this painfully embarrassing story to explain that, more than anything else, including Isaac's attitude, his choices, the circumstances of the classroom, the school, and even the gang-ridden neighborhood, more than anything else, my assumptions shaped our fraught and very difficult relationship.
I assumed he was hurting me on purpose. That he wanted to torment me and had no intention whatsoever to succeed academically.
What if he was just doing his best?
That question stops me in my tracks. As it should.
I will never actually know for a fact whether or not Isaac was doing his best. That's not something I can know.
What I do know is that when I assume the best about him (instead of the worst), things change. Because I change.
So, now, let's return to you and your challenging person.
What if your person is doing her best?
It's true - you can't know whether or not that's factually correct. You'll never know. But perhaps you'll notice that, when you believe this person really is doing her best, the life that changes is your own.
I'd bet that this assumption makes your life better. I'd bet that you feel lighter and more relaxed around this person. I'd bet that you feel less angry and less threatened, regardless of what she does or says. I'd bet that you would show up in a more loving way, which would make you like yourself even better.
And that seems like an experiment worth trying, no?
While I can't return to my seventh-grade classroom and make amends with Isaac, I can treat him differently in my mind. I can assume best intentions on his part. I can retroactively assume that he was doing his best. It doesn't make me enjoy the circumstances any better, but when I imagine facing Isaac with this new assumption firmly in place, what I find is something happens that seems like a downright miracle (given how angry and afraid I used to feel around him). There's this softness in my face...and a warm, opening sensation in my chest...and even my head feels less constricted. I experience myself becoming more benevolent, more tender-hearted, more understanding, and this leads me to one of my most favorite places: genuine compassion.
And that certainly improves my tiny little corner of the universe. May it improve yours as well.