Dear Prudence

Painful Lessons

A teacher who treated me cruelly years ago might be my new colleague. How do I make sure she’s not hurting other children?

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Dear Prudie,
When I was a child, I had a teacher who bullied me every day. I was not a terrible, out-of-control kid, and to this day I still do not know why she was so cruel—I used to come home in tears. We lived in a small town and my parents were going through a separation, and the teacher went so far as to remark on this to the class! My grades began to slip, which gave her more fuel for her bullying. I told the principal and my parents, but they thought I was exaggerating because I wasn’t doing well in her class. Eventually, my parents divorced and I moved away. I moved back to my hometown to go to college and recently got a master’s degree in education. I am applying to schools in the district I attended as a child and was disturbed to find that my former bullying teacher still works in the same school! I’m horrified that such a cruel woman could continue to teach. I do not want to end up working with this woman, though I need the job. But I know an outright accusation won’t win me any favors. What should I do?


Dear Stumped,
I bet that for years this woman has picked a vulnerable child in her class to use for her own twisted psychological needs. It’s surely not a coincidence that she chose you, a child whose parents were splitting. Abusers are wily, and they often target students whose parents are absent or preoccupied. I talked to Richard Fossey, a professor of educational administration at the University of North Texas, and unfortunately he said there’s no good or easy solution here. This teacher has tenure, and she may have been clever enough, as she was in your case, to be very selective in choosing her prey. Let’s say you report your experience to the principal (which I would love to see happen). As Fossey points out, you will be an unknown neophyte who lacks job protection. All this teacher has to say is that she has no idea what you’re talking about, but that you’re obviously unbalanced and vindictive. She could end up victimizing you again!

Fossey suggests that to have a better chance of being effective, if you get the job, first concentrate on establishing yourself and showing that you are a great addition to the school. While there, you can do some subtle detective work. It’s possible this teacher has dealt with her problems and reformed—although Fossey says abusers usually don’t. You can listen for whether this teacher disparages students when she talks about them. Or look for evidence that she is still at her sick game. Only then would it make sense for you to have a discussion with the principal. It could be that there have been complaints about her over the years, and you might provide useful ammunition. (Fossey adds that in the case of sexual abuse by teachers, no matter how long ago, it should be reported to the authorities.) I think this woman should be dragged out of the profession, so I’m discouraged that there’s no clear way to do it. One other possibility is that you find a job in a different school district. You then would be safer if you went to the principal of your former school and explained that as you were looking for positions, you were disturbed to find that a teacher who bullied you daily was still at the school. You could say you know it was a long time ago, but you had to speak up because you don’t want the same thing to be happening to other children. And for a chilling look at the difficulties of removing a dangerous teacher, rent the excellent movie  Doubt.


Dear Prudence: Cat-Calling Creeps

Dear Prudence,
Two colleagues and I own a business. We are all good friends and do great work together. Our dress code tends to be somewhat formal, but we don’t have a specific uniform. One of us has been showing up lately for professional events braless, very obviously so. This concerns the other two of us, because we have a relatively conservative clientele, the market has been extremely cutthroat for the service we offer, and we always want to put our best foot forward. Is one of us “nipping out” a big deal? The two of us who wear bras have been trying to dress by example, but our third colleague doesn’t seem to notice. Should we mention it and, if so, how? Should just one of us take her aside? Or should we drop it?

—Mountains out of Molehills?

Dear Mountains,
There you two are, trying to put your best foot forward, but all anyone notices is her bouncing chest. If her lack of undergarments is so obvious, your female clients are going to wonder what’s up (or not) with your partner. And your male clients are going to have a hard time focusing on your actual message when she’s sending such a distracting subliminal one. So she doesn’t feel ganged up on, before the next presentation, one of you should bring up the two of hers. Do it with as little drama as possible. Say something like, “Marissa, we’ve noticed that at the last few meetings, you’ve been going braless. That is just not a professional enough look for the image we’re trying to convey. So please truss up your gals.” Let’s hope she takes to heart that you’re just being supportive.


Dear Prudence,
Last year, my husband’s company went out of business. After 10 months of unemployment, he finally has a new job, and it’s everything we hoped for, with one exception: The hours are so long that my husband can’t see our 16-month-old son. It’s a “techie” company where the employees roll into the office around 10 a.m. and leave around 8 p.m. My husband sometimes has to work until 10 p.m. or later. He has tried getting into work at 8 a.m. and leaving at 6 p.m. But when he arrives, all the lights are off, and when he leaves, his co-workers hassle him about taking off early. After having Daddy around all day for the past 10 months, his sudden absence is really hard on our son, who’s been mostly hysterical since my husband took this job. I want my husband to work more regular hours, so he can at least see our son every day—I just can’t keep him up after 8 p.m. However, my husband doesn’t want to make waves at this new job. How do we solve this?

—Daddy’s Gone

Dear Gone,
Sure, it was fun for your son to have Mommy and Daddy to himself for almost a year, but all of you have to accept that there are adjustments to be made now that Daddy has something called a job. And not only is it a job; it’s a great job. So please stop undermining your husband’s—your whole family’s—good fortune by insisting he work hours that will put him at odds with the company’s culture. Maybe after your husband has proved his worth, he can tweak his work schedule, but now is not that time. The obvious, happy solution here is that if your husband is rolling into the office at 10 a.m., that should give him a nice block of time in the morning to spend with your son. They surely could have almost an hour together, and the advantage of this is that your son will be fresh and alert, not whiny and ready for bed. Your son misses his father, but perhaps part of his hysteria comes from picking up on your distress at having dinner alone every night. Maybe you should get together with friends with young children one or two nights a week for a communal dinner. Or you can swap baby-sitting with a friend so you can take a needed break and go to a movie or the gym. When you feel yourself resenting your husband’s hours, look around at all the desperate out-of-work people and be glad your 10-month idyll has come to an end.


Dear Prudence:
My daughter often likes to have her friend sleep over at our house. Although we have no trouble with our three kids eating the meals we serve, my daughter’s friend often will not eat our food, complaining, “I hate hash browns. I hate grilled cheese sandwiches, etc.” My wife offered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to my daughter’s friend, only to be told that she did not want jelly on the sandwich, nor did she want it on the whole-grain bread that we use. Since we are not running a restaurant in our home and my daughter’s friend is otherwise welcome, we need some advice about how to handle someone else’s child’s eating habits and preferences when she is visiting our home.

—This Ain’t Burger King

Dear Burger,
Less important than what you serve your daughter’s friend is imparting some lessons on being a host and a guest to all the kids. You want your children to understand that when entertaining, hosts try to indulge a guest’s reasonable preferences. You also want to strongly convey the message that when they’re guests, they are not to be obnoxious, demanding pains. So at the table, you should feel free to say, “Caroline, we are very glad you are staying with us. In our house, we encourage everyone to take a portion of what’s being served and try it. If you don’t care to do that, you can just say, ‘No, thank you.’ ” Yes, you wouldn’t say this to an adult guest, but Caroline sounds like she needs an adult to teach her some basic manners. Since she is a frequent presence, feel free to ask her what she will eat, or contact her parents to discuss her food limitations. Then you can accommodate her with items that take you a few minutes to prepare. That is, she can have pasta with butter or a stack of Saltines, if need be. Just let your children know that’s not what they’re having for dinner, nor is it what they should ask for at someone else’s house.


More Dear Prudence Columns

  • Abuser Seeks a Way Out: I’m an emotional bully to all my girlfriends. How can I change?” Posted Jan. 28, 2010.
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  • Dirty Pretty Things: My girlfriend has worn the same undergarment for weeks. Isn’t that disgusting?” Posted Aug. 27, 2009.
  • Lunchroom Bandit: My co-worker is stealing everyone’s food” Posted Dec. 3, 2009.

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