Sometimes I have a difficult time stepping away from things, a difficult time quitting. I take on a lot, and I follow through with what I say I will do. I’m reliable and persistent and passionate. It can be challenging to walk away — from an argument, a grumpy kid, a situation where I think I can help or I want to be heard.
In fact, though, there are lots of good reasons to quit something – a job, an activity, a book you can’t get into. I quit riding horses competitively when I was sixteen, after nine years of dedicating my life, and lots of my parents time and money to the activity. I decided I didn’t like the extreme competition of skill and wealth; I couldn’t keep up in either category, so I made a clean break. My trainer was shocked, and kept expecting me back at the barn. I have gone back to horses on and off, as a summer job, fun escape, mother-daughter bonding, but never have I gone back to the wallet-sucking, stress-filled circuit of horse showing. And I don’t regret it.
I’ve quit jobs too. The most satisfying job to quit was a waitressing job I had in college for a crappy Thai restaurant in my hometown. I loved the cooks, and learned a lot about food and strangely, fighting fish, from them, but the owner was a racist witch who constantly told her wait staff, “If you lean, you clean,” and followed us around criticizing our work and banter with the customers. It turns out the cooks were all undocumented immigrants and the owner decided to avoid paying fines or taxes by firing the cooks, deporting them back Thailand, and rehiring different illegals. She kept a steady rotation of cooks who feared her, and paid them next to nothing for their endless hours of work. It disgusted me.
I quit in a show of youthful self-righteousness, in front of the staff and customers. They applauded me. I told the owner I was going to report her to my father, who worked for the state department of labor. It was the one time in my life I ever found my father’s job to be a convenient threat. Of course my dad told me that it wasn’t his division that handled such things and that I shouldn’t have quit because I needed to pay for my text books in the fall. (But he also told me later that the restaurant went out of business a few months after I returned to college because of apparent “labor violations”!)
My father stuck with his job for nearly thirty years, despite how much he hated it. I am generally grateful he did, but also sad that he felt he had to. I’ve kind of vowed that I’d rather show my children a parent who is happy with her work, rather than one who feels chained to it. I’ve had mixed success with this, but I keep trying.
When my kids want to quit something, whether it’s field hockey or chorus or a summer art class, I try to help them evaluate the impact of their departure and their reasons for desiring to leave: Have you done it long enough to really get a feel for what it’s like? Why specifically do you want to quit? Is anyone else counting on you being there? What will you do instead? Will you lose money or credit or your reputation if you walk away? Will you miss it or the people? What will you learn or not learn? Will you be happier or healthier or less stressed if you let this go?
This last one, I have to remind myself of quite a lot. In fact, I wrote a piece about it while I was living abroad and decided to take a leave of absence from my job. While I’ve quit plenty of things, I’ve taken on many more, so my scale is tilted much further to the “Do” rather than “Don’t” side. In fact, the one thing I truly regret quitting is piano lessons, but that, perhaps, is another story.
I think the best reason for quitting something is if it doesn’t fit with your personal values. Making the decision to leave when I don’t agree with the goals or the process or I don’t feel like people involved are acting in good faith is easy for me. When your boss is an unscrupulous witch who takes advantage of vulnerable people, you leave (and then quickly find another waitressing job to fund your text books).
Earlier this month I resigned from a local steering committee that was charged with shepherding a town building project through to a public vote. I received a belated seat at the table because I chair our local school board, and the town wanted to build (another) gym on school property. I worked hard to bring public policy and finance analysis, as well as public engagement to the process (see my earlier post including a letter to our local paper), but alas, the powers-that-be wouldn’t have it. So instead of building a gym on my school’s land, the town moved on to another school that was more receptive to the less-than-well-thought-out project.
Despite the fact that they had moved on, I probably could have stayed on the committee. Although I heard rumors that they were going to vote me off the committee (my line was: “I don’t mind being voted off an island I don’t like!), they never actually did. I resigned.
I was several times yelled at by a few of the men on the committee; my requests and ideas were many times blatantly ignored; my points were often interrupted mid-sentence; my opinion was always held by a minority – but, I was not forced off the committee. I resigned. My skin did grow a fair bit thicker, which is apparently required of women in local government in Vermont, where most of our local town boards are dominated by old(er) men.
In the end though, I resigned not because of how I was treated or the fact that another school took the bait, I resigned because the project didn’t jibe with my quest for well-researched, inclusive and transparent public policy making. The project wasn’t smart, and the process was completely broken with no real will to fix it.
So, for the record, or for my record, I guess, I leave you with my resignation letter. In which I answer most of the questions I ask of my kids when they want to quit.
January 4, 2014
Dean George, Chair
Middlebury, VT 05753
I am writing to resign my seat on the Middlebury Town Office/Recreation Facility Project Steering Committee. Given that the Selectboard endorsed the recommendation of the Steering Committee to proceed with plans to build a recreation facility at a UD#3 site on Creek Road, rather than at the ID#4 Recreation Park site, my participation on the committee is no longer necessary. My efforts on the Committee have been a huge time commitment, and I need now to focus my energies on school board and professional work rather than promoting a project I oppose.
I voted against the recommendation of the Creek Road site because I feel there is insufficient information to recommend one site over another, and that more analysis is needed to determine our town’s recreational and other needs before we spend tax revenue and real estate proceeds to construct a new facility. I am disappointed that the majority of the Selectboard and Steering Committee members were unwilling to engage in the type of community engagement, needs assessment, and public policy analysis that is necessary to ensure the best outcome for a public project of this scope.
I am opposed to the proposed project not because it would sell land to the College, or build a facility on school property, or exclude our library, teens and seniors. While these facets are important, my opposition to the project stems from the fact that I have seen no analysis to suggest that building a new gymnasium or town office best serves the most pressing needs of our community, nor even that such a project would serve the alleged specific recreational and administrative needs.
In the face of dwindling resources, how can we best serve our citizens’ needs and create a community worthy of the people who live here? Neither the proposed project, nor the process undertaken to push it to a vote, provides an adequate answer to this question. And it has been disheartening that much of the time the response to the question has been that we should look at the specifications of office buildings and gymnasiums, rather than at the people and their broader hopes and dreams for Middlebury.
There is a growing number of people in our town who are struggling financially, with nearly half of the children at our elementary school qualifying for free or reduced lunches. There is a growing drug problem among many of our citizens. An affordable housing shortage. Increasing transportation and environmental challenges. And cost of living implications for everyone.
We have missed a huge opportunity to have a full-fledged community discussion on the question of how best to use our public lands or the proceeds from their possible sale. We’ve missed the opportunity to take advantage of so many engaged representatives from many of our town’s institutions at the same table – our schools, library, college, teens, seniors, designers, planners, and elected representatives.
We’ve missed the opportunity to enable the newly hired experts in our community to research and plan for the best possible future of their institutions individually and collectively. Instead, as one local leader said to me, we have been “taken hostage by an ill-conceived plan.”
Even so, I thank the Selectboard for giving me the opportunity to serve on the Steering Committee in service to the Mary Hogan School, its students, their families, and the broader Middlebury community. In all my work, comments and analysis, I have always kept what I believe are the best interests of our town at the forefront.
I have been impressed by the level of commitment shown by many other committee members, town officials, and the citizens who have come to meetings to ask questions and express their opinions. Civic engagement and public service are challenging enterprises. To engage in the work well takes time, energy and a commitment to the greater good of a community. I have seen these traits in large quantities over the past several months.
Despite being invited late to the process, I have always come to the table in good faith. I have offered my ideas and expertise, and my message has been consistent and my voice has been firm, even in the face of inappropriate behavior from a select few. I have asked that we slow down, take stock in the values, goals and priorities of our community, and most of all that we put our citizens at the center of our deliberations.
Although I oppose this project in its presently-proposed form, I wish you the best in your efforts. I would welcome the opportunity to work with you again on a project and process that could better serve the values and interests of our community. In the future, I hope to see more diverse, respectful and thoughtful voices represented in our town government, and I will work to ensure the fruition of this goal for the betterment of our community.
ID#4 School Board Chair