Sunday Reflections: The Day I Did Everything Wrong
Setting the Scene:
It was a T-shirt Monday. This meant that we would be spending the next six hours in the Teen MakerSpace making t-shirts with any teen who walked into the space, working straight through the traditional dinner hour. It had become our custom on these nights that someone would take our order and run out and buy us food, if we didn’t just order pizza. Mondays are glorious days of chaos and teens and being so busy you hardly have time to eat. Food would soon become our nemesis.
The Precipitating Event:
One of the teens in the space, a super regular that we had closer ties with, overheard us taking orders to go to Wendy’s. They asked if they gave us $5.00 could we bring them back some baconator fries from Wendy’s. I hesitated oh so briefly – this was new territory and I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about it – and then I said sure. I didn’t listen to my gut and that will bite you in the bum every time.
The Drop Off:
So our person went and picked up food on their way to an offsite meeting. They texted from the parking lot that they were there and another person was sent outside quickly for the hand off. Food was eaten. T-shirts were made.
What Happened Next:
There are several teens in the room, though not the teen with the baconator fries. The fries have been eaten, the t-shirt made, and in the chaos that teen has now left the building. Suddenly another teen, we’ll call this teen Y, says to me, in an angry voice, “You know, baconator fries only cost $2.00 and X gave you a $5.00 and you owe X $3.00 in change.” To which I reply, “Okay, we’ll make sure that is taken care of.” And I keep helping someone make a shirt. But Y is angry, wants to confront me about the $3.00, so I finally look at Y and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable talking to you about this. It’s not a situation you are involved in. X and I will work it out.”
X comes back into the space. I ask X to come speak with me in private and explain the drop off to them and tell X that I will get change asap. Here it is revealed that X asked other teen to ask me about the change, so I try to gently tell X that in the future please come directly to me, I am happy to work things out with them, I didn’t know how much the fries cost or that they were even owed change. It had all just happened so quickly and we were all so busy.
We step back into the space and Y starts yelling at me – in front of everyone – because Y apparently volunteered to help X because we were trying to steal X’s money. Y is inserting himself, again, into a situation that he shouldn’t be involved in, and he is doing so very publicly. It’s an uncomfortable situation all around. I admit it, my feelings were hurt. We have spent days upon days upon days with these teens. They know us. We know them. They share their triumph and struggles. We listen with intent and care about them. And here they were publicly accusing us of harm over a misunderstanding about change in the middle of a chaotic day.
So I stop and say, in the middle of a crowded room full of busy teens, we will no longer be talking about this publicly, it is not okay that this is happening right now. And then I say, “In the future, we will not do things like this for you. No library staff will be allowed to take any money from you or get you any food, so do not ask.”
And Then the Knife Goes In:
So then Y says, “That’s okay, we don’t trust you anymore anyway.”
I’m not going to lie. That. Hurt. A lot.
X then flees the room.
I eventually find X sitting outside with Y. I ask Y to please let me speak privately with X. At first Y refuses to leave, claims he is protecting X. But X keeps asking Y to leave and eventually he does.
The first thing I say to X is, “We were fine before this and we’re going to be fine after this. But let’s talk about what is happening.”
X says they can’t talk about it because they have anxiety and are prone to panic attacks. So I share that I also have anxiety and sometimes have panic attacks. X starts crying. We sit in silence for a while. Then we talk. We talk about what exactly happened, how I didn’t know how much the fries were and that there should have been change, about the quick drop off in the parking lot, and about how all of this could have been avoided with a bit better communication. We talked about how to handle conflict. I admitted that the lack of trust hurt my feelings, as did the fact that X didn’t come right to me to ask about the change. And about how the situation was made so much worse by who X had chosen as an emissary and they way that everyone had treated everyone and in such public spaces.
I talked to Y about how he had talked to the staff and how it wasn’t fair to anyone involved for him to insert himself into a discussion that he really shouldn’t have been a part of.
X came in the following day and everything was fine between us all.
It took Y several more days before he came back, but he did come back.
I sent a recap of the event to my staff with a reminder of what our library policies were regarding the events that had happened with an apology for the day. After discussion with my assistant director, we re-affirmed with the staff that they should not take any money from the teens or give them food outside of a library sponsored event that served food. We talked about appropriate boundaries, professionalism, and reminded staff that they represent the library at all times. It was a reminder that the library had rules regarding situations exactly like this and that we had gotten too casual with our teens and lax in enforcing them. So we went back to following the rules to protect everyone involved, including the library itself.
This was a hard day for me. It was emotionally exhausting, gut wrenching, and soul crushing. I had been moved by compassion because I know that most of my teens come to the library and stay for hours – often 6 or more – with no food because they don’t have money or transportation. My heart was in the right place, but the event did not play out in ways that I expected. I am not going to lie, I was stunned by the lack of trust expressed.
At one point, one of the teens in the space remarked, “What’s the big deal? It’s only $3.00.” This is when I explained privilege to this teen and explained that for many people, $3.00 was in fact life or death. It could be a meal. Or enough gas to get to work. But that it was very much a big deal and even if it wasn’t, it was still their money and they had a right to ask about it.
It wasn’t the asking about the change that was an issue, it was the how of it. And the who of it. And the when of it. It was just the perfect firestorm of events that combusted at the exact wrong time in the exact wrong ways.
And I know the title of this post says that I did everything wrong, but I didn’t. I worked hard to resolve this issue with all parties involved. I felt good about how I approached X and said, “We were fine before this and we’re going to be fine after this,” trying to re-assure this teen that I wasn’t angry and they weren’t in trouble and I was sorry and we were going to be okay, they were going to be okay. And in the end, everything was okay. Getting there was just hard.
The truth is, as a manager, I would have been upset if my staff had done this. It breaks the barriers put in place by our institution and I am a big fan of those barriers which protect patrons, staff and the library itself. But I broke those barriers and learned some valuable lessons. I just learned them the hard way.
That was the day I did everything wrong but in the end, we worked it out. And that’s important to0. Mistakes can be fixed, relationships can be mended, wrongs can be righted, and a bad day can turn around.
Also, baconator fries only cost $2.00. Knowing that ahead of time would have saved me a lot of troubles. So now you know.
Filed under: Sunday Reflections
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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