I Suck at Badges. Reading Emails. Following Rules.
“Do you have your badge with you?” He smoothed his lapel, his gum chewing at odds with suit and tie.
“Yeah, I do,” I assured him. “It’s buried somewhere in my bag, but if you hang on a minute, I’ll set this other stuff down and dig for it.” My arms were laden with folders, grade book, stapler, pens, and the invisible but weighty emotional baggage of sixteen weeks. Next to my feet sat a maroon satchel containing dry erase markers, staples, paper, keys, phone, lipsticks, bandaids, snacks, clips, and extra ballpoints. “Do you want me to find it?” I asked the man helping me gain access to my classroom.
“No, that’s okay,” he eased back, grabbing the badge hanging from a lanyard strung around his neck and swiping it in front of the door.
Then, after a pause, he couldn’t help himself: “But do you have your badge? I’d like to see if it works.”
As we negotiated, dozens of students pushed past, nerves hustling them to seats so that they could boot up the computers and get ready to write.
It was final exam day. We were running late. To everyone’s surprise, the classroom had been locked, leaving students milling in the hallway, wondering if the teacher was going to show, joking that maybe the final would be canceled.
The teacher showed. The exam wasn’t canceled.
Unfortunately, the teacher had no key.
When it comes to my job, there isn’t enough Me to engage with All.
Many of my colleagues have more adaptable circuitry and thrive when they explore the breadth and depth of All. Teaching? Just go in there and do it. Meetings? A meaningful way to make an impact. Changes of staff in the various campus offices? Chances for new friends. Updates in policies? Not hard to track; just read the emails! Planned social hours? FUN! It’s great when we hang out and get to know each other better!
Not so for me. Teaching is exhausting; meetings of questionable worth; revolving personnel impossible to track; new policies a buzzing that will change pitch again in a few years; planned socializing an outright hardship.
Confoundingly, I present as expansive, breadthy, and depthy, yet the truth is I am someone who has X to give, and in my equation, there are seven-foot-thick cement walls forming parentheses around X.
Indeed, if I hope for career longevity, I have to pick and choose which things matter the most, which things dovetail with my abilities, which things not only tap but also fill. I have X. Work pushes for All, striking chinks into my walls.
Many days end with me, squatting, piling sloughed off cement chips onto my open palm. There. I stacked them into a little tower, I reassure myself.
He stood in the door frame, peering into the classroom with curiosity, his eyes alert, watching with wonder the energy of students settling into their seats. Thanking him again for his assistance while dragging a trash can to the doorway and using it to prop the thing open — “in case anyone needs to run out in the next couple hours and use the bathroom” — I promised the man in the navy suit I would dig out my badge and test its efficacy before leaving the classroom that day.
Shucking off my thanks, he asked one last time, “Do you usually meet in this classroom?” YES. “And you’re scheduled to have a final exam in here right now?” Um, YES. “And the door has never been locked before?”
No, never in the entire semester of class meetings held in this room, on this day of the week, at this time, had the room when locked when we arrived. Never before had we been locked out. Of course, haha, isn’t it just the way that something unusual would happen on the very last day, when everyone’s already stressed out?
As much as I projected bright and confident to the suit wearer, I felt sheepish that I hadn’t remembered faculty badges are programmed so they can open classroom doors with a quick swipe. I mean, months before I had read the email about it.
As I hit “Delete.”
I was probably eager to move onto the string of student emails — the daily peppering of “Could you maybe…?” “I messed up…” “When you told us to _____, did you mean…?” “My grandma…” “I don’t have the textbook…” “My meds aren’t….” “I have to be in court…” “How do you cite a government document when there is no author?”
Even more, although the gum chewer wasn’t overt about it, I knew I was busted.
I’d also read the emails about staff and faculty being urged (some might say “required”) to wear their badges at all times while on campus.
Here’s something really interesting that goes on behind my thick cement walls, though: we don’t wear badges and name tags there. Rather, we use words to say our names to each other. We look at each other and talk. Or, if a stranger breathlessly topples over the top of the 15-foot-high barrier and stirs up a puff of dust as he lands at our feet, we might just pat his shoulder and point, wordlessly, to the barrel of beer next to the blacksmith’s forge. We don’t need to know his name; he can just be there. Maybe later we’ll get to know him. Without the gimmick of a name tag. Moreover, if we get brave and drop the drawbridge so we — in full armor! — can gallop our fine steeds across the moat, say, to a fundraiser in a fancy house or to a cocktail party, we know immediately that we’ve made a terrible decision if we spot “Hello, My Name Is” tags in the foyer.
One time I pinned a stack of fifty such tags to some William Morris wallpaper with my lance before clanking out in a rage.
I do understand why a workplace might want employees to wear badges. I get it. However, I’m an ornery juvenile — or maybe I cleave to an old-fashioned notion of college dynamics; at any rate, I sidestep the policy.
My badge is in my bag.
As the man in the suit, his cud in full chew, started to turn, raised a hand to indicate his departure, I offered a suggestion.
“You know, there were a couple of classes, not just mine, waiting in the hallway when I first ran down to the administrative offices to ask if anyone had a key. That’s never happened before today. The doors have always been unlocked when we show up — until today. But when the assistant in your office, the one who handles the switchboard, tried calling Security and Maintenance to see if anyone could come help, no one answered the phone. Then she realized that they all are out of the building right now, down at the main entrance to the college, because there have been multiple accidents in the last half hour on that stretch of road heading to the stoplight. It’s super icy, I guess, and a bunch of cars have slid off or crashed into each other. It’s apparently quite a pile-up. So I’ll bet the people who usually oversee opening the classrooms are otherwise engaged.”
His eyebrows jumped off his forehead and hovered two inches above his hairline. Cars crashing and sliding at the main entrance? What?
“Yeah,” I affirmed, turning to face my students as I reiterated. “Everyone might want to use the back exit after finishing the final because the main road is a mess.” I didn’t tell them the switchboard operator had cupped a hand to her mouth while whispering confidentially, “They never put salt or dirt out there. They can’t be bothered.”
The man in the navy suit had follow-up questions, but as his mouth opened, his voice was overridden by those of the students. Just as the president of the college started to ask me for details about the crashes, a firefighting student in the second row, his face scrunched, called out, “Wait, what do you mean ‘back exit’? Where is that? How do I get to it when I’m done today?”
The president’s mouth continued to move, but he couldn’t be heard, for the tall-haired guy in the back row shouted an answer, “So, when you get in your car, you’ll follow the main road, but the other direction. You’ll want to head that way.” He gestured out the window.
Simultaneously, three other voices chimed in with instructions and commentary.
Taking a step backwards, eager to return to his natural habitat, the president gave me a wave, and I reiterated, “I’ll be sure to test my badge, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll get it updated. Thanks again!”
Two hours later, the room was empty. As I sat marking essays, cross-referencing paper and online grade books, wondering if the tennis player was going to earn enough points to pass the class, the room went dark. I flailed my arms like an orangutan feeling the beat; the lights switched on. A few minutes later, it went dark again. I put my hands over my head and swayed back and forth, my body bending side to side. I pretended it was 1986, I was at a Boston concert, and they were playing “Amanda.” An imaginary Bic lighter reached high. The room stayed dark.
While this felt like an insult to Boston, I knew automated technology was finicky. Sometimes it took standing and walking to trigger the sensors. Then again, maybe it was time to pack up and head to my office, a place with thick walls and eternal light.
Before loading my arms with papers and folders, I leaned down and dug through my bag. Ah, yea, there was my badge. It was clipped to an anchor and on a retractable string. Well now, that had been very organized of me. Apparently, at some point, I had carefully attached it for easy future access. Huh.
Killing the just-back-to-life lights, stepping into the hall, I let the door fall closed against the dim, hushed classroom. Satisfyingly, it clicked as it locked.
Then, in a moment of anticipation and “What if…?” — the best kind of moment — I waved my badge in front of the key pad.
There was another click, the sound of a door unlocking.
It worked. All along, like Dorothy longing to get back to Kansas, I had everything I needed. I just didn’t know it.
In his suit, behind his desk, protected in the confines of his office, he was a perfect figurehead.
Even though I had the key, even though I was fully capable without involving him, I’m glad the president was pulled from the easy comfort of his snug office. I’m glad my need extracted him from his cocoon. I’m glad he rubbed shoulders with the people he serves, glad he entered the fray, glad he saw how easily his voice could be drowned by those of his constituents. It was important that he be relegated to the sidelines while the chaotic masses created an energy that rendered him superfluous. It was important that someone’s desire for help woke him to the disorder just outside his door.
The president may have a badge.
But the rest of us — with our muddy boots and overflowing arms and shouted ideas and stressed-out hearts — together, we are the power.