We have these really great friends whose son Drake (not his real name) is roughly 168% boy. He’s a great kid with a good heart, and he’s really smart. When I picture Drake, even now, in my mind’s eye, I can only see him smiling. But because he is all boy, and because our public school system’s really set up to benefit only the children who are willing to sit, silently comatose, and have lessons taught at them as they follow a tax code’s worth of Draconian rules… Well, let’s just say he struggled when he was five.
Unable to sit still, and also unable to stop asking “Why?” every fifteen seconds or so, Drake was constantly on the dark side of his teacher’s moon. Let’s call her Mrs. Manacle (not her real name). Mrs. Manacle had a really hard time keeping Drake under control, and Drake likewise had a really hard time with a sweet, smiley young woman constantly trying to keep him under her control. But then one day Drake stumbled upon, quite by accident, a magical technique of psychological judo for which Mrs. Manacle was wholly unprepared.
When Mrs. Manacle would ask Drake to do something, some task with which he had no intention of complying, or to answer some question that might as well have involved a slide rule and quadratic equations (keep in mind that he was five), he would simply look far into the distance, forlorn, and respond, “I’m sorry. I can’t right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”
And when Drake was thinkin’ about Rufus, there was simply no reaching him. It was as though he shut down emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, fortress walls and impenetrable forcefields surrounding the very essence of his being. He was C-3P0 in The Empire Strikes Back, blown apart mid-sentence by offscreen stormtroopers. Mrs. Manacle could tell that Drake was truly, profoundly affected by thinkin’ about Rufus. Often, his eyes would well and glisten with tears that never quite pooled enough to fall. And when it was so evident that she was not going to be able to break through, Mrs. Manacle knew she had to back down.
Drake skated by for some time on the “thinkin’ about Rufus” ruse. However, as is most often the case with elaborate plans masterminded by five-year-old kindergartners, Drake had not thought through the calendar and realized that eventually, inevitably, Mrs. Manacle would have access to his parents, at which point she would no doubt ask them that most probing of inappropriate questions: “Who is Rufus?”
In fact, at the very next teacher meeting, where Drake was not present, but where both his mom and his dad sat down with Mrs. Manacle, to chart out elaborate strategies and plans and a coordinated effort to help ensure that Drake’s academic performance in kindergarten would not suffer, because as everyone knows, that phase of life is so critical for five-year-old boys to one day get themselves into the right college, which as everyone knows, is the only way one can procure sufficient employment in adulthood, the question surfaced.
His parents looked at each other, confused, as the words hung there in the air, a mist not yet fully dissipated. Drake’s mom, Andrea (not her real name), was first to break the awkward silence. “I’m sorry. What?”
Mrs. Manacle repeated herself. “Who is Rufus?”
Again the parents looked at each other, baffled. Mrs. Manacle realized she was going to have to do what she had not wanted to do: delve into this family’s personal business and press for that most difficult of resolutions. So she explained. “Well, sometimes—often, actually—when we’re doing work in class, I’ll turn to Drake and ask him to answer a question. Or I’ll ask him to complete some task—some center, some activity, some craft, whatever. And he’ll draw up, his eyes will water, and he’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, Mrs. Manacle. I just can’t talk about that right now. You see, I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.’ So of course, I feel like I have to know: Who is Rufus?”
Andrea choked. She chortled. She wheezed. She snorted.
Mrs. Manacle wriggled uncomfortably in her seat. Clearly, Rufus was a person of some importance, someone very significant in all their lives, who just as deeply was felt as a wound in Andrea’s heart as in sweet little Drake’s.
And then Andrea full-on laughed. She roared. She guffawed so hard that she gasped. Tears came. But not like Drake’s tears. Tears of exuberance. When she was able to regain her composure, she began to explain. “Rufus,” she began, “is a cat.”
“Well,” she corrected herself, “actually, Rufus was a cat. Bryan (Drake’s dad, not his real name) and I had a cat for several years named Rufus. We still had Rufus when Drake was born, but he died while Drake was just a baby. Drake didn’t actually know Rufus. Not really. I mean, I guess, sort of through pictures. But he wasn’t attached to Rufus. It seems, Drake has found a way to avoid doing his work. I’m so sorry.”
Mrs. Manacle no doubt realized she had been bested. It happens. It’s a hazard of the position, certainly. One learns, one moves on. Notes were made. Adjustments to plans and schedules and files. And the jig was up for Drake. Sadly, he would have to start “Thinkin’ about Lucy” or about “Peanut Butter” or about “Snowflake” instead. The “Rufus” work deterrent was taken from him, Benedict Arnolded by his own kin.
Now the beauty of the “Thinkin’ about Rufus” technique is that it’s available to anyone. Kendra and I use it. And I would encourage you to as well. The next time your boss wants to have one of those difficult conversations with you. The next time your spouse walks in and says, far too seriously, “We need to talk.” When a creditor or representative of the IRS is hanging on the other end of your phone to discuss “terms” or perhaps “irregularities.” You sigh deeply, inflating your chest fully with air, and find it within yourself to moisten your eyes from the inside. And you apologize with authenticity and say, “I’m sorry. I really can’t talk right now. I’m thinkin’ about Rufus.”
What works for you? How do you passively-aggressively avoid conflict (or perhaps work)? Has your child ever managed to put one over on their teacher? What did they do? Wouldn’t grown-up life be so much better if we all had a little “rest time” built into our workday?