That’s what they call me here in the admissions office because, due to my vast reserves of patience, I get all the asshole parents. It’s a magical ingrained ability I have, that I can say No, based on her SAT scores, your daughter is not worth the time and effort of our institution or really the country or world, bummer for you in such a delicate manner that Mom and Dad (usually Mom) leave my office or hang up the phone somehow feeling comforted, warmed. (I call this chicken-noodle-souping them.)
The parents never see what happens next, which everyone in the office thinks is hilarious: how angry I get. I shout. Dumbfucks! I scowl. Idiots! I roll my eyes. So many people in this world somehow don’t know the rules or think the rules shouldn’t apply to them. It’s maddening!
Chill thyself, Gene! shouts my boss, Rawlings.
I shout back, Stop dumping idiots on me, Rawlings!
Rawlings just laughs.
Of course, whenever I’m actually talking to the sad dumb parents, I channel all my frustrations into a singular warm and soothing tone, a tone that spreads through the phone, through the air, flooding the dolts with compassion even as I break the bad news: sorry, no college for your kid! The first such parent was Latina. Her son had some medical problem that’d kept him from finishing an entire year of high school. What could I do? I told her, medical problems, those you work out with the high school. But the high school is racist, she said. Then with the school district, I said. The school district is racist, she said. Right, I said. Then she just sat there.
My office is nice. My degrees hang on the walls. Certifications. I watch the volleyballers from my window, talking after practice. I’ve also got up pictures of me and my nephew that make it seem like I’m a dad, like I’m this sympathetic guy.
That first lady, she just kept sitting there, but some women get pissed off. They lose it. Their screams curdle the windowpanes. Hair tearing. Snot. Tears. They even stomp the floor. Supervisor! they demand. (Rawlings is no nicer.) They look for things to throw (my desk is now free of clutter). I like them, the shouters, more. They’re a challenge. I crack my mental knuckles with shouters. Really let my good feelings fly. Because compassion, to me, is more about not pitying people worse off than you.
That first lady, she had a brown leather barrette with a stick shot through it and her hair bun both. To fix everything in place. The leather was cracked – she kept turning to reach into her purse and all I saw was this barrette. That leather, all dry and cracked. Like old hands. She kept touching at it, even when she was facing me.
Señora, I said. I said, Really, I can’t help.
At one point her eyes narrowed. I thought she was readying a comeback. Like, Oh yeah, really? Are you sorry?
But she said nothing. Instead, at that moment, the barrette came loose. It fell from her hair, tumbled with her hair down toward the floor, and she flinched and looked up at me, her eyes wide and startled, like somehow I’d made it all happen.
Even though she didn’t respond, she must have heard me as she was bent over, grasping after that barrette. First and only time I apologized.
Sean Bernard is the author of the novel Studies in the Hereafterand the collection Desert sonorous, which received the 2014 Juniper Prize. You can learn more about him at his website.