If I wait a minute or twenty I’ll act better

by Mr. Sheehy

In Team of Rivals Doris Kearns Goodwin described  President Lincoln’s habit of writing hot letters and not sending them. There are a few letters in his papers that were pretty scathing but were never read by the recipient because Lincoln never sent them. It’s a good plan, one that I should use more often in a digital age where I have written many notes that, given 24 hours, I might have deleted rather than sent.

Today I managed to follow the wiser model, however, halting the beginnings of two notes to one of my superiors concerning the quantity of server space I am allotted here at school. Technically we are allowed one gig of space, which is less than I carry in my pocket on the flash drive my brother gave me because his wife gets these things handed to her for free all the time at work. A couple years ago I sweet talked someone into lifting the ban on my space and now I have about 2.9 gig stored on the server, but I am being asked to pare down anything I do not use on a daily basis and to move things to external media. I am irked, I  admit, and my initial notes expressed that frustration. By the third, which I wrote the next day, I was able to ask a simple question clarifying what is being asked of me and to withhold any further opining.

Perhaps I can extend the victory to other areas, areas where intentional action is better than reaction (which encompasses just about everything, I believe). Take assessment in the classroom as an example. There are two types of assessment spoken of in the teacher world, summative and formative, but I know there’s a third category: vindictive. It’s an assessment that I think of when I look around the room and see students blowing off whatever it is I have assigned and I think of a task that will expose the most egregious offenders and penalize them for their lack of care. It’s a stupid way to operate, it makes me miserable, and yet I find myself tempted by it again and again.

I suppose one way to operate would be to create the hot assignment in my head and then not give it. It could work, I suppose, but in the hustle of teaching I think too often I would give out the assignment and perform the deed I could have done without. Plus, entertaining that notion does not seem like a helpful exercise; I doubt it is what Lincoln was doing when he would write his hot letters–his seem more like a quick venting than an imaginary revenge.

Perhaps his hot letter was a tool he used to grow duck feathers so that the incidents could run off his back without permeating to his heart. Perhaps not, but for my part I think it is better not to get angry, not to indulge in the desire for vindictive assignments and indignant letters:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

In a sense, not being angry or insulting others is an impossible task–who can accomplish such a thing in the reality of life?–but at the heart is the idea that our anger does not accomplish anything virtuous and it is better not to be angry than to hide our anger. The hot letter bought Lincoln time; the test of the man was what he did during that time.

I can be irked by the server space, bothered greatly by students’ dismissal, but can I reconcile myself with them?

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

There is room for disagreement even with reconciliation, but not for anger. I am a better teacher and a more grateful person when I can take a frustrating situation and react not with anger, but with thoughtful and caring love.  Hopefully I can take the time I buy by biting my tongue or erasing my hot letter and improve my reaction. Perhaps with enough prayer I can shorten the time I need between my reaction and the loving response. I envision a day where a hot letter is not even needed–and though that day might not come while I’m living, it’s a day I’ll enjoy.

Thanks for reading.