Of Brick Walls and Petty Tyrants

She launched in, “Mom, she’s incoherent when she’s giving directions. Nobody understands her!”

I didn’t even have to ask who she was talking about. Knowing the litany, I joined in on the next refrain, “She won’t even answer questions when you ask for help!” We finished in unison.

Cait did not find me amusing.

“Don’t you care?!” she glared at me.

“Come on, let’s go for a walk and I’ll explain something to you.” Cait grabbed a snack, I grabbed Kiera, and we headed down the road. She still needed to vent. I continued to listen.

“Mom, this is what she said today when I asked her to explain a complicated problem on the first day of a new unit. She said, “Life is like a brick wall. You have to keep pounding and pounding until you break it down.” Cait looked at me, “Can you believe that?! So why is she a teacher if she’s not interested in teaching?!”

“That’s the thing, honey,” I answered. “She is teaching. Not the class material. Not even really about brick walls. But she is teaching.”

Cait looked at me like I had two heads.

“She’s teaching you a very valuable lesson about Petty Tyrants. And I’m going to teach you a valuable lesson about brick walls.”

“Huh,” Cait said. She was expecting me to go into my usual rant about how Tenure is a failed system that essentially protects bad teachers.

“Here’s the deal,” I said. “Are you willing to get your classmates together to make a formal complaint to the principal to try to get rid of her?”

My peace-keeping, don’t-rock-the-boat, daughter’s answer was no surprise. “No.”

“Are you willing to let me make a formal complaint to the principal?”

“No!” Cait looked at me with horror, “Mom, promise me you won’t do that!”

I continued, “Are you willing to write her a letter explaining how you feel about the situation?”


“Are you willing to let me talk to her about the difficulties you’re having with her?”

Cait grabbed my arm on that one. “Mom, please don’t.”

“Are you willing to request being switched to another class?”

“That would be so embarrassing.”

“Are you willing to let me home-school you?”


“Okay. That’s the definition of a brick wall.”


By this time we’d reached the dip-down where we veered into a field so I could let Kiera off-leash.

“Your teacher has supplied the pile of bricks. You’re the one who’s built the wall. By you not being willing to try anything else to solve the problem except to ask for help a few times and then give up, you’ve closed off any hope or possibility for change.”

“Mom, she’s the brick. Nobody’s going to change her. She doesn’t like kids and she doesn’t like teaching. She should have quit years ago.” Cait shot back, angrily.

“And the reason why she hasn’t is because of fear and lack of imagination. So she uses what power she has to take out her frustration on you kids. Which is essentially the definition of a Petty Tyrant.” I looked at Cait, “And, believe it or not, a Petty Tyrant is a great spiritual gift.”

“Mom, only you!” Cait smiled at me. “Okay, I’ll bite. A great spiritual gift—”

“Okay, bear with me because this is going to take some explaining.” Kiera had finished her zooming and had returned to rest by my side. I clipped on her leash. “The thing is, honey, as much as you try to avoid conflict, it’s part of life. And often conflict comes in the form of another person, complete with deeply ingrained, predictable behaviors. A person who you’ve now allowed to throw you off-balance, making you feel trapped and irritable.”

“Yeah, that sure describes Ms. Jones.” [Not her real name.]

That’s what I mean by Petty Tyrants –people who run the gamut from being out and out bullies to people who are just unwittingly talented at creating frustration and irritation. Nobody really likes being around those people, and wouldn’t be if circumstances didn’t force them, like you with your teacher.” I looked at Cait, “There are two ways people typically use to cope with them. Can you guess what they are?”

“I just know that I’m not going to bother asking her another question. I’d rather teach myself by reading the book,” Cait said.

“Yeah, that’s one of the ways. It’s called avoidance. Some people avoid by trying to just shut them out or ‘yes’ them to death in the hopes of shortening any contact and getting away as quickly as possible. Other people have the opposite reaction. They get angry at the Petty Tyrant and try to push to change his or her behavior. How successful do you think either of those strategies really are in the long run, or even the short run?”

Cait shuffled her feet. “Mom, this is all giving me a headache. Can you just tell me the point?”

“Here’s the point: There’s only one way through. That’s to try to consciously work with this person without avoiding them or becoming aggressive or petty yourself. Here’s the key: The great thing about Petty Tyrants is that they’re incredibly consistent. But most people fail to take advantage of that fact by having a plan for how to deal with them. As a result, they find themselves getting quickly frustrated by the same attitudes, words or behavior time and time again.” I put my hand on Cait’s shoulder. “Like you have. Interesting, huh?”

“Okay, Mom, great. Fascinating. I get what a Petty Tyrant is. And Ms. Jones sure qualifies,” Cait said with irritation in her voice. “So where’s that big spiritual gift you were talking about?”

“Yes, the gift. I’m getting to that,” I smiled. “Petty tyrants have a special ability to show us what we’re made of. Wittingly or not, they strip away our trained cultural responses, our false politeness, to expose who we really are when push comes to shove. That’s the hard part of the lesson. It’s also the end of their control over us and the beginning of the gift.”

It was getting late, so I headed Cait and Kiera out of the field so we could start home. Once on the road, I continued, “The gift is that now the stage has been set for growth. Your growth. But you have to accept the gift. You have to choose whether or not to develop the skills necessary to overcome being distracted and reactive, so you can act with integrity– with directness, rather than aggression or avoidance.”

Cait looked up at me. “Mom, do you have any Petty Tyrants trying to shower you with gifts?”

I laughed. “Absolutely, honey! I have more gifts than I know what to do with!”

That made Cait laugh.

“That’s the thing, Cait. There will never be a shortage of Petty Tyrants because so few people choose to accept the gift of learning to speak with compassionate directness. That’s why there’s little hope of Petty Tyrants waking to themselves.”

“That’s depressing.”

“It doesn’t have to be. Not if you accept the gift. Because, you see, once you accept that initial gift, you get to find the truly spectacular gift.”

“Yeah, what’s that?” Cait said.

“The gift of finding value in all people. Even Petty Tyrants have redeemable qualities once you can look past what irritates you. And once you can do that–practice compassion with a person who seems on the surface to be so undeserving –you’ve found the key to unlock their heart.”

“Sounds easier said than done, Mom.”

We’d arrived back at the house.

“Yep. And you’ve got a lifetime to practice.” As I opened the front door, I turned and looked Cait in the eye, “And since there’s no time like the present, why don’t you start with Ms. Jones?”



44 thoughts on “Of Brick Walls and Petty Tyrants”

  1. Dear Karen Shanley

    My name is Max Ray. I am employed part time by the Monroe County, Kentucky school system in Tompkinsville, Kentucky. Part of my duties involve developing text sets to be used as supplemental reading in various classes. I am searching the Internet for appropriate material to be printed for classroom use and putting the material I select in pdf format with the intention of offering it to other schools.

    I came across your blog while searching for information on bullying and found your story, Of Brick Walls and Petty Tyrants very appropriate for supplementary reading for a class I am developing a set of articles for. I would like your permission to use your story for educational purposes. I would give you credit and include your web address on all the files I develop. I would not change anything or claim credit for anything as being my own work. If I do offer these text sets to other schools, I will do so for a fee, but only to cover my work in compiling and preparing the material for school use.

    Thank you for your consideration,

  2. Write From Karen

    Oh Karen, this is fabulous! I’m compiling entries for the Write Stuff Creative Carnival and couldn’t resist commenting. What a wonderful mom/teacher YOU are!

    I don’t know if you’ve ever entered anything in the Carnival of Family Life, but I’m getting ready to host the next one on January 14th. If you haven’t already submitted something, I would love to include this entry in that carnival, too. You can find more info and a link to submit your post at writefromkaren.com.

    Again, excellent post and look for it to appear this Saturday (Jan. 12th) on Write Stuff – take2max.com/writing.

  3. Albert | UrbanMonk.Net

    This post is really awesome, I put a comment on my own blog, but thought I’d post it here as well ;)

    This is like reading a Zen parable. But in a modern western world. Very unique and beautifully presented.

    Albert | UrbanMonk.Net
    Modern personal development, entwined with ancient spirituality.

  4. Cait is very lucky to have the opportunity to participate in such dialogues and she will have to have a wider experience among people who have never had the privilege before she will truly appreciate and embrace it.

  5. Sarah @ Real Life

    What a wonderful way to handle this challenge! I only hope I have this much wisdom when we encounter something like this.

  6. I like how you handled her complaint. If I ever say that I might talk to my daughter’s teacher, my daughter gets very pale and starts pleading me not to, but I haven’t been good with proposing solutions.

  7. Mountain Dweller

    A great post and response to a difficult situation. I’ll try and remember that line of thought next time my kids complain about their teachers.

  8. Karen,
    You are so WISE!!! I want to be like you, spouting great words of wisdom to my children in a kind and gentle way, so that they are able to take what I say and ruminate on it, as I imagine Cait does with your words.

  9. Karen, I like to think that a softer version of the tough as nails teacher was hiding underneath the whole time. I hope that she has been able to show that side to more students, as she did me.

  10. Teetotaled, I hope so too. I’m really glad for you that you had the fortitude to stand up to her. I’m sure that quality has served you well. Hey, ya wanna come over for tea and give my daughter a few lessons? :) The more sources she hears it from, the better!

  11. Mrs.G. there’s an interesting psychological study that shows females in particular feel they are being bad if they stand up to authority. So I totally agree that teaching our girls to say no when they need to is huge.

    Teetotaled, I wonder if your teacher changed at all after her experience with you?

    Jen M, my daughter is in 6th grade and I can see this problem is only going to get worse through the grades as they throw more homework and expectations on these kids and essentially leave them to sink or swim by themselves. Apologies to all the good teachers out there — I don’t mean to be lumping you in here.

    Nutmeg, yep that’s it in a nutshell. But that would have made my post pretty short! LOL! I know my daughter would have appreciated the short and sweet version, but then I couldn’t have gotten her to walk so far with me. Always thinking, I am… :)

  12. Why don’t you live near me? My seventh grade daughter is always at odds with her teacher. I hear the same things from her every day, then she wonders why she’s not doing well in her class…what a great mom you must be.

  13. Your story reminded me of a teacher I had like that in high school. She used to tell the whole class(constantly)that we would fail the regents (back when not everyone took it and the scoring was different). She and I made a bet that I would ace it (because I really enjoyed the challenge and it annoyed her!). I ended up with a 94 and she took me out for Chinese to celebrate. I was given the chance to see the woman behind the teacher many kids did not like. I can still remember that meal!
    She even wrote one of my college recommendation letters for me.
    People always surprise you!

  14. I too am showered with gifts LOL!
    Hard to always realize it in the throw of things, but boy do I think you are right – it is a gift.

  15. I think it is so important to teach our girls how to speak their minds AND deal with conflict. I work so hard to encourage my daughter to let someone know if she doesn’t agree…we practice saying no. It has taken me too long to get to this place of not always being the nice girl and I’d love her to “get it” while she’s young. Love this post.

  16. The main thing I’m trying to do with Cait is to show her she’s not helpless. That she always has options — and that she should always take a look at what those options are, whether she chooses to exercise them or not.

  17. Caffienated Cowgirl

    And that is a fabulous post!

    I knew many like that…and your daughter sounds like me when I was her age. It took many years to fully appreciate the lessons that were being presented to me. And while I look back now and wish I’d understood them sooner, I realize that all things come in time and sometimes it’s better not to rush.

  18. Well you are definitely right but it still doesn’t make me want to revisit school! I am so glad those days (and teachers) are behind me.

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