October 20, 2021

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

Am I a Karen because I got a custodian fired for stealing food from my desk, and more advice from Dear Prudence.

An open drawer w/ granola bars and a hand reaching for them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by t sableaux/iStock/Getty Images Plus, ConstantinosZ/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and NOPPAKHOON2016/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Danny Lavery: Just a few days left to try to ruin Christmas—let’s make them all count.

Q. I accidentally made everyone hate me: I’m a first-year teacher at an urban Title I middle school. As is common for many teachers in my position, I’m using my personal paycheck to cover the gaps that classroom funding doesn’t. After I realized at the beginning of the year that many of my students were having trouble concentrating, I started keeping a stash of healthy snacks near my desk. The students know they can come take a snack when they need one. The costs add up quickly, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make if it helps my kids focus.

Not long after I started keeping the food in my room, I began noticing it disappearing dramatically between the time I left each afternoon and the time I clocked in the next morning. The only staff who have a key to my room are the custodians and the administrators—both of whom are fed a meal by the cafeteria if they work nights. Because I rarely stay late enough to see the night staff in person, I started leaving notes on the snacks, stating that they were for students. When that didn’t work, I eventually hid them in my desk or closet (neither of which lock). They were still being taken. I weighed my options and realized I was either going to have to stop buying food for the kids or tell someone, so I mentioned what was happening to our head of facilities. Unbeknownst to me, our head of security hid a camera in the classroom, caught the custodian who was stealing, and promptly fired him.

My students’ food is no longer disappearing, but now I have another problem: All my co-workers hate me! The administrative assistant told anyone who would listen what happened, and now everyone is angry that I caused someone to lose his job. Some of the other teachers had also grumbled in the teachers’ lounge about food going missing from their rooms, so I know I’m not the only one who was upset, but apparently I broke some unspoken rule about tolerating food theft. Was I wrong to report it? I’m seriously considering quitting because so many people are suddenly being hostile and treating me like an entitled Karen.

A: It’s safe to assume that the overnight custodial staff continued to take food from your classroom for the same reason your students do—because they or someone in their family needed it, and the single meal provided by the school was insufficient to meet their needs. People who steal food usually need food very badly, and while you’re not personally responsible for the collective social failure that’s led to so many of your students’ and colleagues’ food insecurity, I do think it’s important to “tolerate” food theft inasmuch as it seems to me an act of desperation that requires additional support, not punishment, and certainly not unemployment. Your former colleague was already struggling with hunger (or supporting a hungry relative) while working; now he’s got joblessness on top of that to contend with. You say the administration installed cameras and fired the man “unbeknownst to [you],” but you could reasonably have anticipated that reporting would lead to such a consequence, so I think it’s important to acknowledge your direct, intentional role in this man’s firing. The fact that your colleagues were also concerned about food going missing does not necessarily mean that you made the right choice. Yes, it’s frustrating and often expensive to lose food at work, but remember the circumstances—a night janitor at a school where many of the students are going hungry likely has limited options.

Let’s then consider the other options you had available to you, bearing in mind that you, your students, and all of your co-workers—faculty and staff alike—have been forced into very difficult situations: You could have taken the snacks home with you in your bag at the end of the day, which might have been inconvenient but not impossible. You could have purchased an inexpensive portable safe, or a cheap bike lock to shut your desk drawer with overnight. Alternatively, you could have banded together with your fellow teachers and set up a community “fridge” where anyone could leave food and anyone could take it as needed, or pushed the school administration to do so officially. You could have left a note for the night staff letting them know you’d set aside something in particular for them, since their regular overnight meal clearly isn’t enough. Reporting the loss of snacks was not the only choice you had, and it did result in your colleague losing his job and making his life significantly worse. Your fellow teachers’ anger is understandable, and I’d encourage you to use this discomfort to reconsider your position and look for ways to try to make amends (directly to this man if possible, and to others in need of help if not), rather than quitting in a fit of pique.

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Q. Charity fatigue: My family is big on charity. My father donated his skills to build houses, my mother does free accounting for senior citizens, and both my older sisters work in non-profits. Maybe my city is just a cesspit of humanity, but every charitable endeavor I have done this year has crashed and burned in my face. The free kid-bike charity closed because half the bikes ended up on Craigslist by the parents; I got sexually harassed by homeless men at the outreach center; I tried to do free online tutoring only to be cursed out for not “reminding” the parents about tutoring times or tests; and someone threw a rock through my car window for seemingly no reason at the outreach center.

I am burnt out and generally bitter about the state of mankind. My family is unsympathetic. My older sister lectured me about my experience being sexually harassed. The man was mentally ill, so I need to “let it go” that he openly masturbated in front of me. My parents remind me to “count my blessings,” and it just makes me feel worse.

I have started avoiding talking to them. The holidays have been putting more pressure on me—my office has an Angel Tree; my social media feed is all sob stories and begging for donations; and my family keeps asking me what I am doing to “make the world brighter.” I want to hide under the covers until spring and cuddle my dog. How do I tell people the truth and avoid the Grinch label? Or should I just lie?

A: Let’s set aside for now the question of whether working for a non-profit is in fact the best way to help humanity! You have every right to object to sexual harassment, regardless of how much the person sexually harassing you may be suffering himself, and every right to decide not to return to an outreach center that can’t guarantee your safety. Your sister’s suggestion to “let it go” is a terrible one, and I’m so sorry she said that to you. She was wrong to say it, and she owes you an apology.

One of the problems with the charity model is exactly the kind of burnout and resentment you describe—people being “helped” by someone who’s not part of their day-to-day community and who expects, implicitly or explicitly, to be repaid in gratitude. Did the parents in your city really come together and decide that their most pressing need was bikes for their kids? Or did someone else—probably with the best of intentions, but perhaps with insufficient experience—decide that for them? Are their neighborhoods safe for kids to bike in? Do their parents have time and energy to teach them how to ride bikes? Are they food- or housing-insecure, such that a bike would be more of an albatross than a gift? If you need money to pay medical bills and get groceries and keep the electricity on, and some charity gives your kid a bike, the most logical thing in the world is to sell it on Craigslist so you can get the money you actually need instead of the bike you don’t. Your family’s apparently uncritical belief that any and all “charity” work is the end-all and be-all of justice is not one you need to buy into. And responding to someone’s real frustration (especially nine months into a pandemic) with pablum like “count your blessings” and relentless reminders to “make the world brighter” is maddening! I don’t wonder that you need a break from some of it.

Give yourself permission to take a break from social media, to unfollow the worst offenders, to cuddle your dog, to actually do things you enjoy, to cultivate relationships with people who don’t view free time as a problem to be funneled into charity immediately. While I hope you can reconsider the perspectives of the people these charities are “helping” such that you can think of them as real, frustrated human beings whose basic needs aren’t being met, instead of malfunctioning gratitude machines, you also don’t need to assign yourself the job of fixing all their problems, either.

Q. How do I deal with a jealous friend? I met one of my closest friends in college, and she’s a great person, most of the time. The one thing that really bothers me is that she’s jealous of people in our field who are successful. Anytime someone we know, or a random person that has a similar age to us, is remotely successful, she gets jealous. She’ll say things like “why isn’t that me” or just “ugh” and sigh. It’s making me more and more annoyed as time goes on and I notice it more. Of course, I also worry that she will direct that at me and I don’t need that in my life. I’ve been hesitant to tell her when I get job interviews or offers because I don’t know if she’s honest in her “congratulations!” What do I do? I really don’t know how to address this, or even if it’s worth trying.

A: It may be impossible for you to address how your friend feels internally when good things happen to other people, but it’s relatively easy to say to her, “I want you to stop sighing and complaining whenever someone else has good news. It’s exhausting and rude.” (Feel free to paraphrase that scene from Father of the Bride, when Diane Keaton has to bail Steve Martin out for stealing hot dog buns, and tells him she’ll only take him home if he first promises to pull it together “and stop hyperventilating, rolling your eyes, unbuttoning your top collar button, making faces in general, telling everyone you meet how much this wedding is costing, and try to remember that with every roll of your eyes, you are taking away a piece of [your daughter]’s happiness.”) You can offer her the opportunity to have a real conversation about her fears, anxieties, or insecurities. You’re not asking her to pretend to be happy all of the time! But you can, and should, ask her to bring them up directly, instead of appending them passive-aggressively to everybody else’s good news. It’s very much worth trying, especially because if you don’t say anything now, you’re only going to resent her more and more, until you find conversation with one of your “closest friends” totally unbearable.

Q. Passing the boss’s test? My partner and I are in our early 30s and have a close relationship with her younger sister, “Diane,” who is in her mid 20s and lives in a different state. Diane called us for support after a difficult doctor’s appointment. Later on in the conversation, she casually disclosed that her boss is making her pose as him to take his recertification test in exchange for two additional (unpaid) days off work to quarantine before she goes home to be with her grandmother as she recovers from a major surgery. We were shocked and enraged that this man would put Diane in this position and shared that we felt it was abusive and wrong of him. Diane agreed that it was unfair, but claims her lawyer friend told her it was unlikely that she would get in trouble and that she fears losing her job during the pandemic. Prudie, we do not share her optimism that she is unlikely to face any legal repercussions if caught and fear that the abusive requests from her boss will not end here. What can we do to help?

A: Encourage her to get a second opinion from another lawyer; not one she’s already friends with, but someone who works in employment law and is offering her actual counsel. If she’s receptive, you can offer to help her look for a lawyer to consult, and to discuss her other options if she wants to go over his head and report what he’s asking her to do to upper management, as well as what risks she might be running if she does get caught. Maybe it is “unlikely” that she’ll get in trouble, but that’s not the same thing as “impossible.” Beyond that, you should let her make her own decision—you really don’t have another option, since you live out of state and don’t work at the same company.

Q. She won’t let me date her sister: I’m trying to date this girl but her older sister seems to get upset every time I see her. I know exactly why, as I was very close with the older sister before I met my girlfriend. To be honest, I was in love with the older sister but she was dating someone and is now married. The problem is, we also slept together a few times but agreed to stop for obvious reasons.

I’m trying to move on but I think it bothers her seeing me with someone else, especially her sister. It kills me that it hurts her. I don’t know if I should just end it and cut myself out of both of their lives, saving us all the trouble, or if I should try to make it work?

A: End it, stop seeing both sisters, and save yourselves a lot of trouble.

Q. Snoring: I snore. My previous spouse, who died, used to tell me it was comforting. But when camping with friends, there were jokes about loud snoring coming from my tent. I always thought it might be my husband. I am now in the dating world and although I’ve had sex, I haven’t spent the night with anyone because I am terrified about my snoring. I recently traveled with friends and shared a hotel room; they said the snoring was pretty quiet. But I just did one of those phone app tests and got a pretty high score with an hour of “epic” snoring. I don’t have sleep apnea but my dentist tells me I have a larger-than-usual uvula. I don’t think the snoring will go away, but I’m in my 50s and would really like to spend the night with someone someday and not be immediately shunned. How should I approach this?

A: Talk to your doctor! There are a number of possible treatments for snoring, and if you’ve already talked to your dentist about the subject, it shouldn’t be too different to raise the issue with your doctor and ask about other options. You can also give future dates a heads-up in advance so they can bring earplugs. Lots of people snore, so it’s not as if you’ll be bringing up a previously unheard-of or insurmountable challenge. You’ve got this!

Q. Re: I accidentally made everyone hate me: You acknowledge that the custodian’s food stealing represents a “collective social failure” and then proceed, in the very next breath, to excoriate a 20-something first-year teacher and blame that teacher personally for the custodian’s job loss and hunger.  This person is just out of college and isn’t responsible for feeding students, let alone staff, on what is presumably a meager first-year salary. This teacher will have to live with regrets for what happened, but the teacher certainly does not deserve to be singled out by you for opprobrium for what you admit is a societal failure.

A: I think there’s a lot of room between “you were put in an impossible situation when your students were coming to class hungry and unable to focus, and your decision to offer snacks was kindly meant” and “you had reason to expect the custodian might get fired when you alerted the administration,” and I commend the letter writer on the first and think they were wrong on the second. I think they should not have made that choice, and hope they don’t make a similar choice in the future. This is a story where someone’s desperate case has been made all the more desperate for the letter writer’s intervention, and the letter writer asked for my judgment on their case, so I feel quite comfortable singling them out for my judgment here. I think they acted wrongly, but I do not think they’re an irredeemable monster, either.

Q. Re. Charity fatigue: This may not be the answer the letter writer wants, but there are many meaningful ways to volunteer and contribute without having to interact with people or even leave your house! Many small organizations desperately need help with data entry, design, website updates, and other tasks. The need for volunteering that doesn’t make for a feel-good story or a social media post is dire, and it could be the writer just hasn’t found the right fit.

A: Right, I don’t want to make a ruling on ever “helping other people generally” again. But the sense I got from this letter was that the letter writer was looking for reassurance that it’s OK to take a few months to look after oneself in a crisis without taking on new volunteer work, and I’m more than prepared to offer such reassurance. I hope someday they’re able to find kinds of work that are genuinely meaningful and transformative, both for the letter writer and for others. But for right now, they want to hang out with their dog and hibernate a little, and that’s a lovely, necessary part of life too.

Q. Re: Charity fatigue: I have sympathy for the letter writer because I too was raised in a privileged family where the unspoken rule was basically that if you arrived home at the end of the day with enough energy left over to pursue a creative hobby you enjoyed, it must mean you weren’t volunteering enough and were a bad person. I think it’s worth reminding yourself, and possibly your family, that there are more ways to make the world brighter than to run yourself ragged volunteering. I don’t think that just giving up on humanity will make you feel better, but you absolutely deserve to find something positive to do that fulfills and sustains you as well. Art is meaningful; being a good friend to the people in your life is meaningful; civic engagement like calling your city councilperson and giving them a piece of your mind about the things you’ve witnessed while volunteering is meaningful. If volunteering isn’t making you happy, you can stop and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad or worthless person.

A: That’s a really good point, especially when you consider that the letter writer’s sister responded to a report of serious sexual harassment with “Get over it.” There seems to be a shared sense that having limits or boundaries is a privilege they’re morally required to abdicate. That’s worth pushing back against!

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Classic Prudie

Q. Grandma’s secret Christmas: I am fortunate to have a large extended family living in close proximity, including four grandparents. My mother-in-law sees my children regularly and never forgets their birthdays, which is wonderful. Traditionally, our families gather the weekend before Christmas for a gift exchange. We always have a nice time. This year I discovered, through a conversation with my niece, that Grandma travels to their home on Christmas morning to cook them a special breakfast and celebrate what my niece describes as “real Christmas when Grandma brings our big gifts.” This year, my niece explained, she expects some expensive electronics and gift cards from my MIL in addition to the gifts she’d opened that day at our gathering. My feelings were hurt, and I told my husband. He admitted that he knew about these other Christmas celebrations but sees no need to confront his mother about them because “our children don’t need those gifts.” I agree that we do not need any more gifts, but this “secret Christmas” celebration seems wrong and hurtful to me, and I worry about what might happen when my daughters are old enough to feel left out if they discover them, too. Should I confront my MIL? If not, what do I tell my children when they inevitably hear about this? Read what Prudie had to say.

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