When I was a graduate student at Emerson College, I got a teaching fellowship and found myself for the first time teaching writing comp to a roomful of freshmen.
And while I never met a captive audience I didn’t like, this group had its share of challenges—the most memorable being a very tall, very wise-ass kid named Ben who clearly just didn’t want to be there—in this class, in this school, in his own skin.
He asked questions like, “Why do we need to title our work?” and one day opened up a big book of sheet music right in front of me, casually flipping through it while I talked about essay structure.
I went to speak to my advisor about it, a badass woman who said what she thought without apology. She told me to ask him to step outside at the start of class. Oh god.
So that’s what I did.
I wrote a prompt on the whiteboard, gave the assignment to the class. And then:
“Ben, would you step outside with me a moment?”
I don’t care how tough or tall or irksome you are. You get called out of class by your teacher, and you’re going to shrink a few inches. Both of our hearts were pounding as I led us out of the room and closed the door behind us.
We sat down on a window ledge.
“Ben, what is going on.” And then I STOPPED TALKING, as instructed.
“What do you mean?” he said, shifting uncomfortably.
“You tell me,” I said. PAUSE. “Because it’s pretty clear you don’t want to be here.”
And just like that, the whole dynamic shifted, palpably.
His facade crumbled like King’s Landing under the blazing fire of unwanted attention.
He wasn’t happy, he said. He’d wanted to go to the Berklee School of Music, but he didn’t get in. And now he was here.
I told him that I understood how disappointing this might have been. And if he didn’t want to be here, then he had a decision to make.
I told him I didn’t care if he decided to stay or leave—in fact, if he wanted to leave, I would help him. But I was not interested in trying to win his affection for this course or this school or me. That’s not my job.
I gestured to the closed classroom door.
“What I am obligated to do is make sure that everyone in there gets the best possible experience here. And you’re making it hard for me to do that. And so this won’t work.”
I never had a problem with him again.
If I had to guess, this was a kid who’d had people (cough cough, his parents, cough cough) trying to win him over to do what they wanted, and had made it his go-to response to be resistant in ways that helped no one, including him.
And I was not his mama.
I was barely 28 at the time, and I learned a powerful lesson then about what it means to keep your commitments—and what your job really is.
Because there isn’t a classroom or an office or a meeting or a PTA that doesn’t have a Ben in it—someone who doesn’t really want to be there and makes it unduly hard on everyone else.
And if you ask me, far too many of us choreograph days and decisions around that person, navigate them as if they’re an old tree rooted into the ground, just part of the landscape, part of life, and part of our job to endure the people who least want to be there.
Look, I don’t love confrontation, either. And while I get it, some people ARE old trees planted into your life in ways that are hard to navigate (family being a prime example), there are lots of ways to deal with people who are NOT permanent fixtures.
That lesson stays with me to this day, as a grown-up running her own business. Because I know that it is not my job to “make” people fall in love with what I want them to do. I don’t actually care what they do. That’s not indifference; that’s the job.
Trying to bend others to my will or agenda is a losing battle. And it doesn’t serve them or me.
I offer what I can do, and if they want that, we do it. I don’t make empty promises and I don’t waste time convincing you to like it or me. If this isn’t for you, you are free to leave, or take what I create for you and take every last of its teeth out with a plier. I will sleep regardless.
This is not about giving zero F’s, etc—this is about being open, but unattached to outcome. This is about being process-, not ego-led. And it has helped me tremendously.
My uncle, the late Rev. Robert Barone, was also a professor, at the University of Scranton and stood in front of rooms full of freshmen for decades. I told him about Ben at the time, and here’s what he said to me:
“You’re only ever really talking to one, maybe two, people in the room. Everyone else is along for the ride.”
Make sure you’re giving the best of yourself to the right people.