Buying a used car and parent-teacher conferences: Eerie similarities

by Mr. Sheehy

We made an offer to a guy for a mini-van today. I suppose you could call it a low-ball offer, but the thing needed work, and I wasn’t interested in paying $1,500 immediately following the purchase of a pricey van. We’d checked the van out and then had our mechanic inspect it (the best $55 I’ve spent in a while). After the mechanic’s peek, I was far less interested in the vehicle, and I admittedly made the offer against my better judgment; I knew the seller would be put off by it and my temptation was to tell him simply, “I guess I’m not interested anymore.” Instead, I went ahead and said our max price.

A moment later I realized why we have laws against things like assault with a deadly weapon. Such a law may have been the only thing that kept him from running me over on his way out of the parking lot.

Though I didn’t do anything technically inappropriate (I think), I didn’t feel good about any of it, because I don’t feel good about being involved with making someone that angry. The entire incident reminds me of those terrible teacher-parent interactions all teachers experience periodically. Consider:

Both situations involve highly personal issues. With parents, you are telling them something about their children. In a direct sense, the problem is the student’s problem, but the negative situation is something the parent will feel responsible for as well. When you tell a parent that Frankie Jr. has expressed a negative attitude toward you, or is going to fail English 9, the parent feels the critique on his or her ability to instill values about what is appropriate or worthy, and it hurts. Similarly, when you tell a person that the struts and shocks in his van are leaking and need to be replaced, and he didn’t know it, you’re critiquing his ability to maintain a vehicle.

In both situations, you talk a lot about things that aren’t really the things you want to address. When I talk to a parent and the situation is negative, I just want to address the negative thing and get back to my regularly scheduled programming. But the parent often is thinking out loud and processing all the information while you’re still on the phone, and you find yourself repeating the same irrelevant things again and again, wishing you could simply say, “Frankie is failing and needs to do something to pass. Thanks for your time. Bye.” With the car, you’re hemming and hawing over tiny details to feel out the seller and whether he’ll budge on the price; but you just want to say, “This is how much I want to pay, okay?”

With either situation, you feel like garbage when it’s finished. It doesn’t matter how irrational a parent is when I talk to him or her. If she is angry at me (I’ll just use the feminine pronoun, because let’s face it–I can name on one hand the number of dads that call me), I feel exhausted and low when it’s finished. The same thing with the car. Sure, he was angry, and why should I feel bad? I didn’t want to pay any more than what I offered, and it wouldn’t have been much better to say I didn’t want to make an offer, so what is lost? I think that rationally, but it still knocked the wind out of me. At dinner I sat there with my head in my hands wishing I could crawl over to the sofa and lie down for a 15 minute nap.

When I played soccer in high school I played with full passion and little fear. Heading for a loose ball, I’d do what we called running through the ball, which meant if necessary I’d run people over in order to prevent the ball from moving in the opposite direction. It was fun–let’s face it–but I held no ill-will towards the guy I’d steamrolled (well, usually. There were a couple rare exceptions). One time a parent of a teammate noted this about me and commented on it to my mother: “Geoff is funny. He runs people over and then always helps them up.” I liked the crash, but I never wanted the guy I’d hit to be angry at me.

Nothing’s changed. I may be old and growing foreign to exercise, but I am still that guy, and I don’t like it when an interaction with me makes a person angrier than they were before it. It’s no good.

What I need now is some sort of redeeming thought to finish myself off and leave me feeling more upright about the day. How about this:

I cannot win angry parents’ favor; they will not like me. Even in the far future, some parents may think back to their child’s English teacher with disgust. With time, however, that unfortunate interaction fades in the light of the hundreds of positive interactions in which I engage. This little used-car incident will fade too, even though the one seller will always think of that tall guy with the curly hair as a — well, let’s not say what he’ll think. Instead, let’s say I won’t think much of him, except to wonder how much he finally got for that van, and how much the buyer had to pay to replace the shocks and struts.

Thanks for reading.