It’s a simple formula—I lose my temper and disappointment floods in behind it. For a few moments I can believe my indignation is righteous, deserved, justified, healthy. The object of my anger had it coming and, in fact, needed it.
Besides, shouldn’t I be allowed to lose it every once in a while? Am I not only human?
That feeling never lasts. Next comes, “What the hell is wrong with me?”
Occasionally, I find myself standing face to face with a student, listening as I berate him or her for misbehavior. I’m always the same. I posit some possible consequence of the student’s action—someone will be hurt, others will see this action as a model when it is far from it, some disrespect will be inferred and ruin an otherwise warm / fruitful / good relationship. Seriously serious things will seriously happen. I mean it this time.
Sometimes, I’m the person harmed by this misbehavior, but usually not. It is a cause I’m fighting for. I’m acting on behalf of important principles like “You are not here now to do what you are doing (dummy)” or “You shouldn’t throw shit.”
During this principled outrage, my words barely sound real to me. And later they sound worse, worthy of the mordant humor my victim probably soon directs at the ridiculously pompous fool who corrected him or her. Meanwhile, as the student is desperately laughing me off, I’m busy with self-loathing.
I’ve heard people describe anger as a normal, if not healthy, emotion. They say repressing anger is sure to upset your mental balance. A person who can’t accommodate the powerful emotions associated with frustration has little hope in our deeply annoying world. And in the realm of knowing thyself, accepting your emotional being is critical. You have to practice communicating anger (without aggression) or redirecting it (without victimizing someone else).
No one knows emotion needs expressing or sublimating better than I do. Eventually, all emotion will out. Still, my practice of properly directed but not aggressive anger never feels right—before, during or, especially, after. Though some part wants to stick to my guns, though part of me wants to quote Emerson in “Self-Reliance” and say, “My kindness must have some edge to it, else it is none,” I’ve never been comfortable with my angry side.
When I was a child my family called me “the angry bee” because when I became enraged, I lost the power of speech and milled around like a bumper car, buzzing. I can see how an eight-year old hot head could be pretty hilarious—now, they’d probably put my tantrums on YouTube—but nothing made me more angry than being called “the angry bee.”
So, all my life, I’ve been determined to live down that label. My students ask occasionally, “Do you even have a temper?” I tell them they don’t want to see it. I tell them to picture The Hulk. When I’m mad, I’m mad in both senses of the word. But that furious me isn’t The Hulk. He’s me, just a me I run from, a me I desperately want to deny. I hate losing control.
Psychologists will tell you anger may actually arise from a desire for control. You want every moment to be what you want it to be, and when it isn’t, you either swallow the frustration—saving the fury for another time—or—if it is that time—freak out.
It’s shocking to experience the timing or intensity of my rage. Afterward, Tybalt is dead, and I am fortune’s fool. I wake to myself again as if I’ve had a seizure or been momentarily possessed.
Some of my colleagues find freaking out cathartic. A teacher I once worked with talked about “jacking students up” as if it were an academic blood sport. Me, I sometimes apologize later to students I dress down. Not about the cause of my anger—because, well, you really shouldn’t throw shit—but because it isn’t appropriate for me to yell. I’m supposed to model adult behavior and should be able to express my displeasure firmly but dispassionately… even if, inside, I’m secretly going postal.
I tell myself that some other cause contributed to my rage—I was hungry or tired or upset about something else or out of kilter with the universe. I tell myself this slip and my subsequent regret will do my students good because I want them to believe adults take responsibility even for unflattering actions. I tell myself that, though that angry person is me, he isn’t my best me and that facing him every once in a while will restore my equanimity. I tell myself that, though I get angry, I am not an angry person.
Yet I somehow leave these episodes with the same thought—I’m only temporarily angry at them. It turns out I’m more angry at me.