Of all the annoying emails that have jammed my inbox since the dawn of the internet era, one kind stands over the rest as being particularly damaging:
This type of email typically comes from a superior and looks something like: Do you have a few minutes today? I want to discuss something with you.
That’s it. Curt and to the point, but like an iceberg, you know there’s a whole mess of trouble lurking below the surface.
WHY do they think sending such a horror-inducing email is a good idea? Is there a class in leadership school called How to Write Chilling Emails?
I think the reason I’m so traumatized by the Vague Meeting Request is because the first time I ever got one was my second year of teaching. Mrs. King would like to meet with you after school, my principal’s secretary wrote.
Since at that point I’d only had one passing interaction with Mrs. King in the hallway, I didn’t know what to expect. She seemed like a busy lady, which explained why we’d never formally met in the year-and-a-half I worked for her. Maybe she’d finally gotten some free time and wanted to catch up.
When the final bell rang, I went downstairs and sat on the long bench in front of her office. You know, the one where the bad kids sit when they’re awaiting their judgment.
Ms. Winter, my assistant principal, walked past on the way to her office, and I smiled. “Just sitting on the bad kids’ bench,” I chuckled.
She did not return the smile. “Do you know why you’re here?” she asked.
All thoughts of being welcomed and showered with compliments went RIGHT out the window. My stomach slithered down the legs of my Dockers. “I guess not,” I croaked.
Ms. Winter grimaced and shook her head. “It’ll be okay.”
The door to Mrs. King’s office opened, and I walked into a full-on interrogation.
“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked.
Clearly, I do not. Maybe if your email had provided some more fucking details, I could’ve been more prepared.
Mrs. King opened a manilla folder on her desk and pushed a series of photos toward me. They were screenshots of a Facebook post I’d made the week before, a photo of my 10th grade class. Every student had their head on their desks, completely disengaged from the lesson I was teaching. I’m the best teacher ever, the caption read.
“Do you want to explain to me what this is?” she asked.
I didn’t answer, because how the fuck do you respond to a question like that? It’s a Facebook post, dummy.
Okay, so by this point, I understood I was in trouble, but I really didn’t get why. Keep in mind, this was my SECOND year teaching. I was like, 26, and I was still used to posting every sarcastic thought I had on the internet for the world to see how clever I was.
The real reason I made the post was that I thought it was a self-deprecating moment that expresses the typical anguish of a teacher. Here I am, up here teaching my BALLS off, and these kids can’t be bothered to pick their heads off the desk.
But what I said was: “I thought it was funny.”
Her eyes widened. Uh oh, wrong answer. “You think it’s FUNNY that you can’t engage a classroom, and then you share your inability to do so with the world?!”
She launched into a diatribe about how I was violating the students’ privacy (I was) and how it not only presented a bad image of my teaching, but the school as a whole (it did). She also pointed out that every student in the photo was Black, and there were some significant racial overtones. This, I hadn’t even considered. I taught at a low-income urban school. EVERY student in my class was Black.
Then she turned good cop on me, telling me that since I was a newer teacher, she was willing to let me off with a warning and a letter in my personnel file—the teacher’s equivalent of a permanent record. She said she’d be happy to leave it at that, but she couldn’t guarantee that this issue wouldn’t grow larger. “If someone important were to see this, there will be serious consequences, and I can’t protect you,” she said.
If my stomach was in knots before, it turned into a pretzel factory when she said that. Can’t protect me? From WHAT? Is the school district going to put me in the town stockades for a fucking Facebook post?
Despite being reduced to a puddle on Mrs. King’s office floor, I did manage to get in one quick jab when she asked me if I had anything else to say.
“Well Mrs. King, I’ve been here for almost two years, and this is really the first time we’ve been able to meet each other. I’m so sorry that it couldn’t have been under better circumstances.”
From then on, every time ANYONE asked me for a “quick chat” or a “swing by my office,” I assumed the worst. Even staff or department meetings without clear-cut agendas made me sweat. I’d come into the cafeteria under the assumption my boss had decided to fire me in front of 200 people. In other news, we want everyone to know Sam Hedenberg is being let go for negligence today.
I became so worried about getting canned that every time a superior asked to talk to me, I’d try to get in front of it. “Am I fired?” I’d ask as soon as I sat down. If my boss chuckled and said no, I could relax.
This habit carried into my new job, a small startup with 15 employees.
“Why do you ask me if you’re fired every time I want to talk?” my boss finally asked. I explained my traumatic experience on the bad kids’ bench, and from then on, he’s made it a point to include a brief note about WHY he wanted to chat.
You see that, leaders of the world? Is it really so hard to say, “Hey, do you have some time? I wanted to catch up with you about the Mullins account.” Do you not realize that every time you make a Vague Meeting Request, you’re giving your anxious employees dry-heaves?