Angry for All the Right Reasons: 9 December 2020

Woman posing with "what?" gesture, not understanding a person or situation

The last few weeks, I have been bobbing between a very numb depersonalized state to a fully-feeling, almost “normal” person again. It has been disorientating and a painful reminder I’m not quite out of the woods yet. But — I think you’ll agree — having some emotions some of the time is a lot better than having no or muted emotions all of the time.

On Tuesday, for one reason or another, I got angry. Anger is good because it is feeling something rather than nothing. But the anger was pounding strongly within my chest, trying to get out , pressing hard against any weak spot it could find, and it felt very extremely uncomfortable.

One of the reasons why I was angry (but not the main reason, which remains a mystery) was a student who was supposed to have her first aid certificate in to us when she started her course at the beginning of February 2020 hadn’t turned it in yet.

The Government requires all students at The Place Where I Work to hold a valid first aid certificate in order to gain the qualification. Not our requirement but the Government’s requirement. There is no flexibility in this.

Well, the Government requirement isn’t what made me angry. I stepped up to the plate to remind the student (face-to-face) in early August that her first aid certificate was overdue. I was reassured it was going to be done and dusted the next week.

Something deep inside told me to document this exchange, so I did. I wrote an email to the student to reiterate the conversation and carbon copied my colleagues so they were aware of the conversation too.

Second week in August arrived: no first aid certificate.

My colleague Paula went in for major surgery in early September, so I took over her role as well as mine. I emailed the aforementioned student in both September and early October before we close for school holidays — my first full break since being in America in September 2019 — and again, nothing happened.

I put the warning out before the October school holidays: the first aid certificate must be done before the end of the month.

Over the October school holidays, there’s a flurry of worried emails. She can book an appointment on 6 November 2020, that’s the earliest she can get. Is this okay? It’s beyond the deadline I’ve put down — a deadline so getting the certificate in doesn’t inconvenience me work-wise — but I okay it when I get back to work after a much-needed break.

6 November rolls by: no first aid certificate.

This student’s last assignment is due by 11 December and her final exam is on 14 December 2020. Our education team will not examine her without her first aid certificate. We cannot grant an extension because that goes beyond two data returns we do for the Government, and I get the “please explain” from them. I’m not willing to go through all that rigmarole because the student, who has had plenty of opportunities to complete the first aid certificate before and during the course, has not done so.

Tuesday afternoon (8 December 2020), I check with our team. No, no one has heard anything about this student doing their first aid certificate, and there is still no first aid certificate on file.

She has an appointment to turn in her final assignment on Wednesday, 9 December 2020. I email her the day before to tell her she needs to hand that first aid certificate in.

In response, I get: “Oh, I am going to come in and talk to you and Paula about it before / after my appointment to turn in my final assignment.”

Paula has interviews and appointments booked back-to-back. I have 5 business days to finalise a ton of work before we close for the Christmas / New Year break for 4 weeks. This year, since I’ve had sweet fuck-all breaks this year, I want to have the entire 4 weeks off before I end up having a nervous breakdown and leaving work permanently.

So I emailed the student back — and at this point, that anger I spoke about was churning strongly deep within me — that no, we will not be seeing her tomorrow because it’s unprofessional to expect us to drop everything to have a conversation with her where she would promise us the sun and deliver us darkness (again). Basically, I said the promises and platitudes she would give us would ring hollow after she’d given us these before and not delivered.

Plus our final reporting for 2020 was due to be extracted on 31 December 2020. No first aid certificate would mean she wouldn’t be completing her programme by then?

The email wasn’t rude but it was blunt in some aspects. The bluntness came from anger, from being repeatedly lied to, from being taken as a fool for a few times when all I was offering was care and understanding, and from her expecting us to add significantly to the hours of work we had to do before the end of the year to hear her use her energy and time to spin another tale instead of her using that time and energy to complete her first aid certificate and let us actually do the work we needed to do for all our other students.

Two of my colleagues were carbon-copied into the email. Both did not feel I overstepped any lines. They felt my email was throwing down a gauntlet and telling truths.

The anger dissipated for a while. Enough for me to get some sleep that night. I kept telling myself that it wasn’t my circus and they weren’t my monkeys. The student was an adult, she chose not to be an adult and take responsibility, and now she was having to face the consequences of her lack of action and lack of responsibility. To hear those facts told to her was a hard truth but one she needed to accept and embrace, especially if her inaction would lead her to fail our course.

In the morning, I found I had received a confronting email from her boyfriend. I saw it at breakfast when I was looking at other stuff on my phone.

I didn’t read it outright. But I got anxious and angry, and I felt a strong bundle of energy wanting to explode within me, so bad that in the car driving away from home, my hands were cold and numb, I felt nauseous, and I reminded myself out loud: The student is an adult. You told her on several occasions what she needed to do to pass. She knew before she started the course that she needed the certificate. She was reminded again at orientation. She was reminded again over the 11 months she’s been studying with us. She made the choice not to comply. All these choices were hers to make. You are not to blame for any of this, and you should not be made to feel like you are to blame. Then it spun around to the boyfriend.

First off, it had nothing to do with her boyfriend.

Second off, it had nothing to do with her boyfriend.

Third off… yeah, you got it. It had nothing to do with her boyfriend.

At work, I looked at the boyfriend’s email after I started dealing with other, more important issues.

He told me off for speaking the truth to the matter to the student. Somehow he demanded I apologise for nicely saying she hadn’t followed through and this could affect her graduating. I’m not sure how telling the truth instead of sugar-coating it made it a matter for me to apologise.

I didn’t call her names. I didn’t swear. I wasn’t bullying her or being inappropriate. I only called her out, and somehow that was enough to demand an apology for?

The first few lines of his email were enough; I wasn’t going to read any more of the drivel it contained. I didn’t have the time, I was pissed off, and I had other more important things to do.

I wrote the boyfriend back. Typical “Privacy Act and subsequent amendments prevent us from discussing a student with someone else” and so on (which is the truth) and then outlined the timeline of when a student would be told they needed the first aid certificate, and how we chase those people up if they haven’t completed it.

Kinda a read-between-the-lines type of email, i.e. your girlfriend had a million opportunities to comply but didn’t, and that’s her fault, not mine.

That didn’t end it, though. He wrote back that I was “talking around the issue”, and again, I read the first sentence of his email and wrote back to remind him that again, this was an issue for the student herself and not him. Instead of expanding upon that, I left it at that.

Another email. Oh, he was going to complain to the Tertiary Education Commission! He knew how this all worked, because being a Millennial, and me being a mere Gen-X-er having worked in this same role for 25 years, I had no idea (he assumed) what I was talking about.

I called his bluff.

The Tertiary Education Commission dealt with funding and outcomes around funding, I explained. It was actually the New Zealand Qualifications Authority that dealt with complaints as they were the organisation that registered providers and monitored them.

I also supplied a link to our internal complaints procedure. I reminded him (again) he was not one of our students, and the student in question (his girlfriend) would need to be the one to lay the complaint. Any student who put the complaint directly to NZQA would be told that they did not follow the complaints procedure we and NZQA agreed to and therefore would be required to exhaust all the measures in the internal complaints procedure before involving NZQA.

For good measure, I threw in the fact that NZQA (to my knowledge) had only seriously investigated 1 complaint in the 35 year history of the school, and that ended up being another organisation which was responsible for the issue. Basically… If you feel you have such a powerful argument, it would have to be amazing to get NZQA involved.

I mean, what was her argument? “Scott spoke bluntly and truthfully to me about me not turning in my first aid certificate so I could pass”? That would be laughed out of any court room or any common-sense hearing.

So I was angry. Angry and anxious. Anxious enough my hands had gone numb for the second time while writing the emails back. But then I remembered about what my counselor said about anger and anxiety being different things. When I harkened back to that conversation, the anger and anxiety unwound from one another: anger giving me strength and power, anxiety melting away.

And I have the right to be angry. I have the right to have my emotions. I have the right to express them.

Do I just blurt out whatever I feel when I have that anger?

No, not usually. It’s usually considered and measured and made sure that the points behind that anger thump to the ground like a heavy medicine ball: full of weight, full of heft, full of meaning, full of power.

I have the right to my emotions. But I just need to learn now how to adjust back to having them.