Virginia Woolf and Pieces of Flair

by Maura O’Shea

At my company, they recently started running ad campaigns on social media about the employees that teach for them—“employee profiles.” These profiles are off-putting in a lot of ways, but mostly because they feel a lot like looking at Facebook page, or an OkCupid profile. They are trying to sell the teacher to various clients– I think the approach is to sell an image of “who the teacher is” to parents. It’s not super clear to me what the relationship is between a teacher’s fabulous personal life and how effective that makes them at teaching children, but there is a marketing team dedicated to answering those very questions.

The marketing team sent out the first complete teacher profile last week, and asked everyone to take a look. The company has many branches in different cities, so this profile is on a teacher I have never met before that works in a different branch. It presents a very pretty girl in her mid-twenties, “Cindy”, who looks wildly happy. Not only wildly happy, but it seems from this profile that a professional photographer has also been on hand to capture the quiet, serene, “suggesting depth” ones, too.

The first picture in this profile is Cindy with her parents. Mom’s on the left side with a large, “pretty woman”-style sun hat, and Dad’s on the right with his left hand tucked into the left pocket of his khaki pants, his nice watch still visible. They are standing on a thin, paved road, like a bike path, with green leafy trees on all sides, while their mouths are open as wide as they can go in hysterical laughter. Cindy’s looking over a shawl that covers her bare shoulders in tasteful, strapless floral-print dress. You don’t know for sure, but you get the feeling that it is absolutely the perfect temperature in the picture. Chill and breezy enough that you’re comfortable in Dad’s long slacks and full sleeves, while warm and sunny enough to never raise a goose bump in a strapless summer number.

The other pictures are varied, but work to create an overall painting of the girl. A picture from graduation day shows her in cap and gown, holding a diploma with long and perfect curls cascading out from the cap. Again, her mouth is open wide, all the way, smiling big, so you can see all her straight, white teeth, like someone must have just said something really, really funny. In other pictures, she stands with girlfriends in front of gated entrances to what look like expensive, old English residencies of some sort, or on the couch with younger family members, making funny faces at the camera. The pictures show her in myriad locations and terrains: hiking in the mountains, pulling a scarf up over her cheeks and looking up girlishly while seductively at the camera. The final photo is her sitting next to an infinity pool, which is next to a lake, in some sort of hotel or yoga retreat. The ground she sits on, as well as the columns and visible roof behind her, is made of some sort of fancy granite/dark marble. It seems the type of resort where they don’t use anything made of plastic, and there are glass decanters full of purified drinking water with cucumbers floating in them, and the infinity pool reflects the lake which reflects the mountains and the sky in the background, and so on, for eternity.

Later in the week, the director suggests that they are planning on doing more of these teacher profiles, and asks us to think of who on the team would be a good and willing candidate. My first thought is that, obviously: there’s no way, and secondly, that I don’t have any professional pictures of myself anyways.

I love the movie Office Space. Writer Mike Judge has a disarming and uncanny way of getting at the nitty gritty of work life in a way I haven’t seen done in quite the same way. I always loved Jennifer Aniston’s character in that movie, an unenthused waitress in the restaurant next to the office where the other main characters work. Her best scene is when her manager pulls her aside to berate her about her lack of “flair” (aka, buttons) on her uniform vest. He says something like, “I see you’ve chosen to wear only nineteen pieces of flair, which is the bare minimum that we require.” He points to another waiter. “Brian has chosen to wear 37 pieces of flair…” and then urges her to “express herself” more fully through her choice of flair. She tries to clarify and translate what it is her manager is trying to tell her in a coded and passive aggressive way: “So, you’re saying, more flair?”

This line seems to echo endlessly. Over the years, I’ve had some variation of this exchange, (“So, more flair?”) in practically every job I’ve ever had. You’re asked to authentically CARE, not to fake it, but to actually be super enthusiastic and stoked and pumped and believing in the mission of some company or business, whose actual mission is usually something like, “provide guests with an unforgettable dining experience”.

Cindy’s profile suggests that she is ecstatic about her life; particularly to be teaching ACT and SAT prep to eleven-year-olds every Saturday and Sunday morning. But that is the most interesting part—you’re asked not to PRETEND, but to actually LOVE it, no matter how menial the job. You’re expected to live it, and to be it, and ironically, also to project the image of wealth and prosperity, relaxation and leisure, while clearly, if you’re waking up everyday to teach pre-teens test prep, or to serve tech employees brunch, or make people triple shot frappuccinos at five a.m. every morning, its probably because you actually need the money, and don’t actually have thousands of dollars of disposable income.

I’ve just re-read, “A Room of One’s Own” as an adult. Have you read this essay as an adult? Virginia Woolf writes the following in musing about her experience of work before receiving an unexpected inheritance: “Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten… I need not, I am afraid, describe in any detail the hardness of the work, for you know perhaps women who have done it; nor the difficulty of living on the money when it was earned, for you may have tried. But what still remains with me as the worse infliction than either was the poison and bitterness which those bred in me. To begin with, always to be doing work that one did not wish to do, and to do it like a slave, flattering and fawning, not always necessarily perhaps, but it seemed necessary and the stakes were too great to run risks… all of this became like a rust eating away at the bloom of spring, destroying the tree at its heart.”

The part that rings so true, that punches the gut, is exactly what she cites: the bitterness of this dance. When I see the pictures of Cindy, I realize I don’t really know anything about this girl (other than knowing the type). What makes me bitter is the flair— the buttons. The buttons in Office Space represent a false sense that the waitress is having fun while she’s waitressing. It is important to create this mirage for the customer, so they feel good, and want to come back. Likewise, in order to try to get people to sign up for these classes, you also have to sell them the idea that their teacher is super-bubbly, and happy to be doing what they in fact do not want to do. What’s more, the employee must feign, flatter and fawn as if it were volunteer work, or some philanthropic exercise, and not actually the job they did for money to pay their rent. We must project the illusion we are from a higher social class than the one that we actually belong to, to make the clients, who belong to that class, feel good. That flair that says, “I’m just a Princeton Alum, free-living jet setter, who teaches SAT on the weekends because I love it!”, and if you don’t want to pretend, or lie, then they remind you there’s always a Brian or a Cindy who’s wearing more flair and is waiting to take your place.

I think the really troubling part has to do with the lying of it, but I haven’t quite sorted that out yet. Woolf’s answer was her inheritance—which freed her—and which I guess the rest of us can keep holding our breath for. In the meantime, whatever the antidote to this “rust that eats away at the bloom of spring,” it probably has something to do with people like her, who restore the tree at its heart.

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