Monday, September 10, 2007

Behavior Modification

As a student, I exhibited the sort of behavior teachers found to be extraordinary. I was quiet, hardworking, attentive and obedient. I was never late, my desk was always orderly and tidy and I worked well with others. My mother had always stressed the importance of appearances, and so though at home, I was moody and prone to sulkiness, my room a sea of half-written short stories, artfully crumpled balls of paper and stacks of library books and I often disappeared into my closet with a boombox and a flashlight so that I could listen to jazz each Sunday, in public, I was perfect.

Beginning in 2nd grade, my teachers found my model behavior to be the sort of thing they wished to foist on others. This meant that I was seated next to children with behavioral problems ranging from minor to intense. Right before parent-teacher conference, my mother would sit down and ask me if there was anything bothering me, and I would complain about the children I was forced to sit next to. Each time, my mother would return with the same explanation; the teacher wants you to rub off on them! My mother was unfailingly impressed with this, no doubt happy that her years as a single parent had yielded a wonderful result and that she was not plagued with the same issues her friends dealt with. But for my part, I was never quite satisfied. I felt that I endured enough of Margo’s teasing, poking and prodding, enough stolen pens, pencils and carefully stowed markers, and enough times of Anna’s attempts at cheating off of my spelling. Though it never seemed apparent to me, this method of pairing worked at some level, and it continued until I finished elementary school.

Swearing that I would never again find myself forced to sit next to someone as some sort of means of behavior modification, I became choosy about who I would sit near. In junior high, high school and college, I selected seating arrangements that found me surrounded by people who were similar to me and who I could depend upon to remain silent during lecture and exchange whispered but barbed words with one another.

And now, in the corporate world, I find myself transported back to elementary school; unable to control who I am seated next to and the unwilling participant of some sort of strange experiment on corporate life. For 2 months, I shared space with just one person; a quiet man who came to work at 6:30 and left at 3:30. We shared pleasantries, but by and large, we didn’t have many conversations and just went about our day. At the end of my 2nd month, a 3rd person arrived. A mixture of Dwight/Gareth and Andy from The Office with a dash of Aaron Spelling TV drama villainess thrown in, my new spacemate had chased out my first spacemate by her 3rd week in the office. Her computer seemed to not work, her internet never functioned the way it should, the sky was grey, it was too humid, there was no Diet Coke, her dogs were ill, she had a bad date…all of these were things she felt the need to share with us on a daily basis. Loudly. Without shame. She commonly held private conversations regarding personal issues ranging from divorce to her credit scores, and when my other spacemate was not in, she would routinely unplug his Ethernet cable and use it for her own machine. One morning after he was chastised because his machine, which contained necessary components for use on his team’s project, was inaccessible, our other spacemate yelled one good time at the Hellion, requested a change and never returned. Unfazed and unapologetic, Spelling villainess focused all her attention upon me. Sometimes she needed to use my phone, other times the computer itself. Not just for 10 minutes…sometimes for close to an hour. Unable to say no in the face of someone who is clearly my superior, I would concede, over and over again.

I could feel the 8 year old version of myself seizing up inside, forming verbal tirades that would remain unsaid and harboring visions of inflicting the sort of revenge on her that would make Tim/Jim (from The Office) proud. Instead, I found solace in complaining to my co-workers and family members. By the 6th time I went to them with a story that seemed to happen daily, I could see the looks in their eyes had changed from sympathetic to “You’re an adult, do something yourself.”

And that’s the tricky thing about being where I am in adulthood. On one hand, I have all the trappings of adulthood; a job, an apartment and a matching stack of bills. But because this woman is so much older than me, so much more senior in her position with the company, I feel about 9 years old inside…hoping that if I complain enough to my mom, she’ll take my worries to someone who can do something or offer an explanation.

Until I figure out the appropriate course of action, I’ll comfort myself with YouTube clips of pranks featured on The Office.

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