Tender Feelings

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Paul Marx

Sometimes a friendship ends when one of the friends is indiscrete about a sensitive matter. Or it can be a doctor who seems to be in a rush. Or a waiter who forgot to bring the coffee. Or a teacher who was too critical in front of a class. One mistake is made, and the relationship is over and done with.

I’m taking a class in Spanish at a senior center. Also in the class is a mathematician, born and raised in a Middle Eastern country. (Let’s call him Ali). The teacher is an attractive widow, born and raised in the Midwest. She’s pleasant, knowledgeable, well-traveled. She’s a docent at an art museum, belongs to a foreign-relations club, and plays golf.

The teacher doesn’t know it, but she hurt Ali’s feelings. At the end of a recent class, Ali felt the teacher (Let’s call her Ann) had humiliated him. As a result, he decided to drop out. He called me up to tell me about it and say goodbye.

“Why only me?” he asked. He had written an essay about a well-known singer in the Middle East. In class, the teacher went through it word by word and pointed out how what was said could have been said better. Usually when students brought in an essay, they read it aloud in Spanish, then read it aloud a second time, and then gave a line-by-line translation. Never before had Ann picked apart an essay to the extent she did Ali’s.

But there were mitigating circumstances. Ali had brought in the essay and distributed copies three weeks before. He then missed the next two classes, and the class decided it would be better to wait for Ali to be in class than to go ahead and discuss the essay without him. On the day he was back, Ann departed from the usual procedure and began to read the essay through herself. She found errors in every line, pointed them out, and offered corrections. In my opinion, the departure from the usual procedure was accidental. After the essay had been tabled twice, Ann was anxious to get it off the table, and so she took charge.

When Ali called me and said he was dropping out, I tried to persuade him not to. I said I thought Ann had absolutely no intention of hurting his feelings and that the usual procedure had been changed as a result of unforeseen circumstances. I urged Ali to forget the whole thing, rejoin the class, and see whether Ann behaved in a hostile way towards him again. But Ali would have none of it.  

I was convinced Ann’s treatment of Ali would be no different in the future than it had been before the fatal day. She was a kind person who hated the idea of hurting someone’s feelings. As a teacher in high school, she told the class once, she never failed anybody. That was something I held against her. I thought teachers should flunk students who deserved to flunk.

I told Ali to wait a week or two before shutting the door about coming back. I was sure  he’d soften after hearing my defense of Ann. But he called again two weeks later, and was just as adamant. I had enjoyed Ali’s presence in the class and wanted him as a friend. But further defense of Ann got me nowhere.

I said nothing to any of the other people in the class and said nothing to Ann. In the weeks that followed I found myself wondering about how I’d handled the Ali business. I could’ve told Ann about Ali and suggested she call Ali and tell him she had no intention of hurting his feelings. In effect, I’d be telling Ann to apologize. She probably would’ve done it. I do know people, however, who strongly resist the idea of apologizing when they feel they’re not guilty of anything. I didn’t want to argue with Ann about apologizing.

I could’ve suggested to Ali that he call Ann and tell her how he felt the day she publically worked over his essay. I suppose I didn’t do that because of how strongly Ali asserted his version of what had happened. I didn’t want that argument. I could’ve told one of the other people in the class what had happened and asked that person to call Ali and explain that Ann had no desire to hurt him. I didn’t do that. I’d hoped Ali would come back and didn’t want him to think that other people knew his tender feelings had been hurt.

When we first discussed the issue, one of the points I made to Ali was that it was not a good idea to make a judgment on the basis of a single instance. A judgment is sound, I told him, only if there were at least three instances. It might’ve been my fondness for that principle that made me not tell the teacher or any of the students why Ali was staying away. If he continued to stay away, his hard-headedness would be good proof of the wisdom in the maxim that you shouldn’t cut off your nose to spite your face.