On Monday I attended the memorial services that marked, in a sense, the last goodbye to my friend and colleague Randi Brandt. One conclusion is that Randi was not a nice person – and I mean that in the best way possible, for reasons I’ll explain momentarily.
By the time I began teaching teens at Choate Rosemary Hall ten years ago (at first on an interim basis) Randi was already ten years into her position as Assistant to the Director of the Arts, so she was an indelible part of the fabric there. Yesterday, though, hearing both formal and informal reflections on Randi’s life and spirit I felt like something finally clicked.
Interestingly, the light bulb went on that everyone who knew her well a) had been scolded by her more than once and b) felt more loved and nurtured as a result. My first response was “oh, I guess it wasn’t just me,” which I already knew, but still. But my second response was to reflect on how being “nice” and being caring are not only not synonymous, but sometimes actually at odds. This is not to somehow fetishize bluntness (which in Randi’s case was neither good nor bad, but simply a part of her personality) but instead I suggest we take a closer look.
To me, the term “nice” is one of the blandest ways to describe somebody. When I was a kid it was part of the cultural consciousness that when teenagers described a girl as having a good personality, it was a euphemism for unattractiveness. “Nice” is kind of like that – it means you have nothing bad to say, and nothing particularly good to say either or else you’d say “loving” or “compassionate” or “extremely kind,” all of which fit Randi. “Nice,” to me, means “not unpleasant.” Or maybe “hasn’t ever been a jerk to me.” But by itself, nice is bland. If you’re drowning, you are not likely thinking “I hope somebody nice comes along to save me . . . or at least to tweet a frowny face as they shed a tear.” No, at that moment you’re not looking for nice, you’re looking for strong, brave, spunky, principled and decisive. You’re looking for someone who’ll get in the damn water and pull you out . . . and if you get called out along the way for the idiocy of getting into that situation, you’re unlikely to begrudge that.
When I met Randi ten years ago, it took me a while to adjust, as she was indeed less “nice” than some other administrators I knew, and particularly since I spent my first year there not knowing if the gentleman for whom I was filling in would come back, I felt-particularly self-conscious about how to read the directness of her communication. Over time I found her to be a committed and skilled and smart and tuned in. As more time passed, I realized what a dynamo she was as a human being. I have seen her be willing to be “not nice” for the greater good of the many people (colleagues, students, especially her family) she cared about, and I really admire that. Never was this more evident than in her fight with the cancer that ultimately took her life. I also don’t want to fetishize the “courageous fight” against terminal illness, but my goodness was she not going to capitulate to this, not with what that would mean for others, especially her daughter.
Randi will surely not be forgotten, and I’m confident that whoever is in charge of her accommodations in the great beyond cares about “nice” as little as I do.