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All right: this is what it’s like to do work that has historically been done by people of privilege (teach college) instead of by women (teaching people younger than 18).
Will #metoo ever get to teachers?
In two of the schools where I taught high school, I was sexually harassed by students.
At the other, I taught older students, and administrators were willing to stand up for me when students were disrespectful. They were not willing to do this for all of the teachers.
The solution to this was that I have talks with the student and the counselor, talks that neither the counselor (who was great) nor I had time to attend.
The counselor also refused to hold repeated meetings to discuss why a student was harassing or threatening me if the student would refused to participate, or did not follow through with anything from a first meeting.
Thus, students who talked about my body, asked about my sex life, or physically threatened me, were my problem.
I was not reaching out to them to build relationships.
The bigger problem was that those students, mostly male, were taught a lesson about sexual harassment.
Teacher friends of mine have their asses grabbed, have students yell at them, “She’s a cunt!” Have students talk about their bodies. Especially difficult when your job is to stand in front of people. Every day. All day long.
Many of those people are no longer teachers, though I considered them to be talented and thoughtful and much-needed.
A decade ago, I showed up in a public high school classroom. I had spent two years studying education. I was expected to screw it up.
It was repeatedly demanded of me that I prove what I was doing. Why aren’t your objectives on the board? Where are your lesson plans? Why are you doing that? Why aren’t the students doing this, or that, or that?
A great deal of my job, a large percentage of my mind and my time, was spent on trying to defend what I was doing, rather than actually doing it.
I was also expected to be kind and friendly and sweet to all your students, even when their behavior was abusive. If you show them you care about them, they will work for you. Sometimes that’s true.
As a teaching assistant at a university, with no teaching background necessary, it is expected that I will do well, do my best, and make my work environment comfortable and healthy for me. Don’t accept late work. It’ll just drive you crazy.
Teaching at a university has been a job for educated men.
After I am done teaching my college students, I have TWO DAYS to think about how it went, and what to do next time. I get to spend some of that time reading theory and stories about what might be helpful for my students.
If my college students express emotional distress, I am to refer them to mental health professionals. I am not trained for that.
If most pre-12th teachers were to refer a kid to a mental health professional, it would take between days and never.
Days for a kid are years.
I have 36 papers to grade, instead of 80. It is awkward for me to talk about grading multiple drafts of a paper. A university colleague says, “How do you have time for that? That’s so generous of you?” How did I have time to grade 80 papers? I didn’t. I read fast.
No one throws things in my classroom. And no one shows up to attack me because I can’t figure out who is throwing things, and why, or how to stop them.
At my most dysfunctional school, the principal moved me from freshmen to seniors. They hired a man for the freshman spot. He quit. They hired another man. He quit, too. Those kids had five teachers in one year. None of the three women quit. (One moved, one was fired, and I stayed.)
Teaching college, no one talks over me. I get to say what I want to say, what I’ve learned I want to say over many years of studying literature, writing, and life. What does it do to your view of what you deserve when no one will listen to you, year after year? And when you are told that is your fault. You’re not engaging the students.
No one has told me I don’t care about my students. In fact, they have told me, don’t do too much. You have to keep your sanity.
My college students, all freshmen, wrote literacy narratives, and many of them wrote about influential teachers. I read several essays about wonderful, inspirational teachers. And several that suggested none of their teachers cared except this one.
How was your teacher treated? By administrators, by students? We know that she (before middle school, almost definitely a she) may suffer significant financial stress from low pay, lack of cost-of-living raises, and spending money on basic supplies to do her job.
I am encouraged and heartened by teachers’ unions growing power, and the possibly the pendulum may swing to give teachers more security and respect. It is not nearly, nearly enough.
Students are not employees. They are learning and growing, and making mistakes, of course.
But without a strong system for handling teacher abuse and harassment, one that both protects teachers and educates students, our schools perpetuate cycles of misogyny and abuse.
Important, though aside, asides:
Probably a woman? About 70% of the time, but higher in preschool (90%), which is also, I hate to tell you, school.
Teaching assistants are on a nine-month contract, so they can work at another job during the summer, and they receive tuition for their courses. Also, though this is another post, at my school, the GTAs are unionized (which is very unusual) and they have gotten me/us a raise, thank you, union!
How much teaching is done by teaching assistants? About 40%.
Teaching assistants are not adjuncts. I haven’t been an adjunct, but I believe they are treated as if they all have husbands who make a lot of money, and their job is a charming hobby, like Japanese flower arranging, although they may actually be people who need to buy groceries and go to the doctor and want to know if they will have a job next month.
Image: detail of “Classroom in the Emerson School for Girls,” Southworth and Hawes, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The climb to the top, where the university sits purposefully poetic, is three short blocks at a steep angle, on concrete, and then brick, sidewalk.
It rains and rains, so that as I descend today, in the short steps of a mountain goat, a sheet of water runs down 11th Street, a centimeter deep but the whole street wide. The former rain waterfalls into the gutters, which are barely keeping up.
I slept twelve hours, from ten to ten, and woke up still feeling tired. Maybe this was illness, my teacher has just been ill. Or maybe it is just exhaustion. My last boss once said, “Everyone has different levels of energy,” which I took to mean that he didn’t think I was a bad person because he had gone to Harvard and worked 21 hours a day, while I spent Sundays sometimes doing little more than eating and lying around.
I sat on the couch to decide if I was going to class or not. (Student class, of course teacher class would have been different.)
I climbed the hill, and the obtuse theories of my teacher became compelling and complex as she explained them.
The ways I feel fish out of water in academia: I think scholarly writing and research are often boring as well as useless; perhaps it is elitist; people using words that are fancier just to sound fancy almost enrages me; when I am in a lovely, clean classroom with quiet, polite people, I remember how poorly I was treated when I was “only” a high school teacher; too may white people; and: for every theory there is an opposite and equal intellectual masturbation, which is what I am probably thinking about as you explain anything to me.
But also I love books, study, and learning. After my compelling and complex class, I ducked into the library. The outside of it is a gothic imposition, demanding to be noted as an homage paid to scholarship. The inside is flat blue carpet and desks, and then, if you go through the right doors, the five stories and half-stories, straight out of “Being John Malkovich,” where I led my high school students to see how many books a university has, and prayed we would not encounter anyone fucking in the stacks.
I did not encounter anyone but people innocently sitting at desks. The first floor of the stacks has nice new desks with outlets and windows, on that back edge of all the metal shelves with all the books, almost worth nothing, almost outmoded, but not quite, still content to sit there and wait for someone to have an interest in what’s inside them. I opened one wide, dusty volume that had a bookplate: “Gift of the Author.” I opened someone’s published thesis on Melville.
The ceilings must be no more than seven feet, in the corridor between sections of stacks, they must be a little over six feet. I could easily touch the ceiling with my hand. It’s for rabbits. For smaller people. For emaciated ghosts. There is no trace of the idea of pointed arches, grey stone, the suggestion that there might be stained glass or statues.
I walked back down the hill, home.
I have this magnificent mantlepiece in my apartment. In front of where a fire once was, in front of what is now sand and corn cobs and some newspaper that crumbles immediately, is a cast iron grate. It is broken into two pieces. You can easily set the top piece on the bottom one, though, balance it, so that the design shows and there is no alarm at it being broken.
It is so beautiful, I struggled (wrong word) with how to get the eye to hit it right away. I watched decorating show after decorating show (see, not struggling) to figure it out. I have deep aesthetic opinions, but they are only accessible after seeing the idea.
I hung a big dark grey drape on the chimney’s body, above. And I bought some fake candles which came with (wait for it) a remote control. So I can aim it at my “fire,” and the “fire” goes on.
Now you see it. And outside it rains.
Note: Watson Library has a charming and funny history, being a disaster since its birth. The university has continuously failed to have a nice and appropriate library. And it was named after a woman, a librarian. More here.
Image: Rain ensemble, Bonnie Cashin, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I moved into one-fourth of an 1880 house, giving me my own leaded glass window, a glamorous fireplace, and so much space I feel like a refugee family should move in with me immediately.
Many family and friends came to help me move, and brought food, and we ate pizza and I forced them to drink beer though it was only 11:30 AM, and we listened to side B of “The Sound of Music” on the record player I stole from the high school where I used to teach.
I now live four blocks from one of my favorite coffeehouses and bars in the universe, a block and a half from a place where I can get eggs and toast and coffee and the local history museum and city hall.
Also my anxiety zoomed up, as any reasonable person would expect, but I am not necessarily reasonable.
I am aesthetically obsessed with my new place, perhaps more than usual since I haven’t lived with my own stuff for five years. It’s been in boxes and basements.
A good deal of the time after I moved in was me wandering the apartment, putting up pictures, taking them down, putting up drapes, taking them down, moving furniture slightly, changing the spot for the vase from this spot to that.
And then trying to work, both at my graduate school prep, and my freelance work.
I made the realization, at about eleven last night, that the wall above the mantle must be dark gray. I can’t paint without permission, so I hung a big dark gray drape up there, at twelve feet. I bet it’s quite exciting I bet to see me climb a ladder, or a chair and then a piece of furniture I assume is sturdy enough to support me, to hang things near the 12-foot ceilings in this place.
However, the cat does not care. She’s having a bit of trouble smelling, because she is allergic to dust in her old age. And who knows if she can see?
The fireplace looks amazing with the dark gray up there, though. Suddenly you can see it, it’s black inlaid with something, and an intricate iron grate in front. The grate is broken in half, but you balance it right, and no one can tell.
“Do you want me to glue that for you?” my dad said.
“You have glue that glues iron?”
“I think so,” he said.
“No, you don’t. It’s called fire,” I said.
When I walk to coffee (which I actually have to do, as I no longer own a coffeemaker, silverware, a toaster, dish towels, or a colander), I walk down a street of Victorian and their staider, older homes, all of which I love the pants off of.
One is lavender and looks like a cat lady threw up all over it in a very neat way, another looks straight out of New Orleans, the trim, the squareness, the stateliness, and there is a historic plaque house which has a door with a doorknob at a level for British people or elves, and those square windows that go around windows that make me hot.
My great-grandparents had only one architecturally nice thing in their crackerbox house, a door with square stained-glass panels.
Seriously, I think the house was made from a box of crackers. A cardboard box. Not a tin.
The story was that someone pulled the house up out of a creek with a team of horses.
My apartment is also “flooded with light,” as they say, but seriously, it is. I am swimming in light. And not direct light, but eastern soft light and northern light and a touch of southern, really incredible light. At night, I can watch a stoplight change (I like the red, as well as the don’t walk), and the name of the street on green (Tennessee, which is a great word), and at some angles, just trees, as if I am way out in the country.
It’s basically the complete opposite of a New York City apartment.
I cross the street when cars aren’t coming, while everyone else in this college town stands on the sidewalk patiently like God is watching.
Also I walk too fast here, I can really look like an asshole, but then, I walked too fast in Manhattan, which is one of the saddest realizations I ever came to, that even in Manhattan, one could be walking too fast.
I show less interest in wearing any shoes but flip-flops, and I think my bruised-from-moving and spider-veined legs are sexy, here. Not because I’m young, because I’m recalling that men who like me usually like women like me.
And this is a hippie town. I’m like, why am I even combing my hair?
It took me eight hours to get my internet installed, between the guy being late, and then having a dickens of a time drilling a hole in my wall, climbing out my window onto the roof. He was very tall, speaking of tall people, and also polite and sweet, and thus I did not go in and scream at him, “What the fuck is taking so long?” although at the end I was thinking that. “I would just like to be able to answer a question like, what time does Target close? Or, how can you help your congested cat? without worrying I’ll get another text from Verizon about my data, and I’d like to work and make some fucking money since I am spending money like a bleeding-out patient in an operating theater.
At like 7 pm he finally had the stuff installed, and I ordered food delivered to me like money was no object, and put myself to bed.
I listened to Dax Shepard interviewing Vincent D’Onofrio this morning. Vincent D’Onofrio is not only incredibly sexy, he is also pretty insane. (Probably these things are related, sure.) The guys were talking about having mental health issues, addiction for Shepard and whatever D’Onofrio’s problem is, and about how when you are rich, famous, in love, doing what you love, you can identify your issues because IT’S NONE OF THOSE THINGS.
This caused me, in the shower, to recall that I had every reason to expect my move would cause me to need daily anti-anxiety meds on top of my normal meds, because THIS HAPPENS EVERY TIME I DO SOMETHING REALLY STRESSFUL.
On my way to coffee this morning, I walked straight into a gaggle of police officers. They were all standing on the corner in front of the t-shirt place chatting.
Ten or twenty people had on these t-shirts that said something about art. There was an argument out here about a piece of art that was a flag, and there was some threat that the people mad about the art were going to show up and cause a ruckus, or else a bunch of pro-gun white supremacists were going to show up, particularly on this, the anniversary of that shocking and disgusting display in Charlottesville. Apparently this did happen here about a year ago, people showed up with guns.
I learned this chatting with a woman at coffee.
“I’m sorry, I’ve only lived here for a few days,” I told her. “Maybe next time I can hang out with you guys.”
Image: Design for a Fireplace, Anonymous, British, 19th Century, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with DT being in town. One great benefit of being in Kansas City is that one never has to see “Trump” on anything, except that one chiropractor on 93rd Street, which I am sure is no affiliation. The provinces, as I think of out here, in the provinces we are a little protected.
But then I turned on the TV for background noise (this is one way I seduce myself into working from home), and “The Price Is Right” was on, which was perfect background noise.
The local news interrupted the showcase showdown. This is the airport! He is here.
My body filled with adrenaline, feet to crown of head, I got up, threw on clothes, deodorant, sneakers, texted my friend who was already at the protest.
I made myself drink a glass of water. I stopped and bought three mylar balloons because I wanted to write three things on them. Then I drove downtown.
My friend had suggested parking far from the action, and I did park far off, and started walking. The sign I took is a little ambiguous, well, it shouldn’t be, but is: Celebrate Immigration, Cherish Journalism, Love Truth. In our current situation, all even the last proposition is controversial.
So as I walked, and walked past some old ladies with badges who looked like they might be part of the event, and a table of Trump t-shirts and buttons, and a table of Fuck Trump t-shirts and badges. A guy yelled after me, “We love immigrants, too!” which from his tone I could tell we had different ideas of what “love” meant.
And I’ve always been instructed, as a protestor, not to respond to hecklers, to respond to any feedback with a thumbs up, a smile, a wave. If they’re for you, this looks kind, and if they’re against you, it makes them look like assholes. (Thank you to Julie O’Conner and the animal rights kids who mentored me through my first protests.)
My balloons were bouncing along behind me. One said, FREE PRESS, one said LOVE IMMIGRANTS, and one said TRUTH. The helium seemed to have little effect, compared to the wind. I felt like I had brought three inflatable puppies.
I passed a few other folks who looked at my sign and tried to decipher it. And a few who gave me a thumbs up. And two who gave me a high five, also. And a lot of people squatting and smoking outside their office buildings, on break. Wearing uniforms. And people wearing their work badges, walking in twos to get lunch, or to get some air that was actually relatively fresh that day. In the shade, it was comfortable.
I turned right and furiously climbed the hill across downtown. I was a little sweaty and my calves strained a little. It was a lot of Kansas City walking, not a lot of New York walking. Seventeenth to 10th, and Baltimore to Broadway. I got to Grand before I realized that I was going the wrong way.
A man came out of the building where I was standing in the shade realizing I had gone the wrong way in my own city, well, the city I’ve lived in the longest, by far. “My friend is at 10th and Broadway,” I told this office guy.
“Yeah, that’s down there,” he said, as if I were straight off the turnip truck.
“Oh, yeah,” I said. You see, I really do have no sense of direction.
I went back down the hill. I might have realized my mistake because my church is on Broadway, but no. I made it to Broadway and my fellow protestors. Four corners of 10th and Broadway had people with their signs. The kids with bullhorns, and hippie lady with facial hair, the older veterans, quiet with flags, the gay dudes, one of whom held an American flag upside down. The people who just stood, they didn’t have a sign. Some familiar faces, now that I have been to a few protests here. The Poor People’s Campaign people. The Black Lives Matter. The moms against guns. The immigration people. We get together now.
And we chanted, as we do. I learned some new ones. We struggled over: “The people/united/shall never be….” Some thought defeated, some thought divided. Rhyme is so important in English. I can’t emphasize that enough.
My balloons were in the way, refusing to float up over our heads, ready to bop someone in the face. So I turned and tied their ribbon strings to the street barricade behind us. And next time I looked back, Truth, Immigrants, and the Free Press had disappeared.
When the presidential motorcade zoomed around the corner, a couple of blocks behind us, people started shouting, “Fuck Trump! Fuck you!” Which I did not enjoy. I mean, when I listen to NPR in my car, which is too often, I frequently say, “Or, you could go fuck yourself,” but that is me alone expressing myself. I don’t want rage in public. In public I want to get together, and be brokenhearted, and be angry, but not raging. Rage burns down everything.
I hope someone found the balloons. I hope they didn’t choke birds, or whatever other bad things loose balloons do. “Hey, truth! Here it is!” someone said.
- Four little pigs went out on Halloween. Their mother did not know how to count. Every time, she was with the: one, two… wait…. And the four children waited because what else could they do?
She pushed them in a stroller-for-four, up and down the apartment hall, and each neighbor was curious. One, two, three, four?
“They’re not kosher,” one neighbor whispered.
“And who is the big bad wolf?”
“And why aren’t they blind?”
“And where is the grandma?” other neighbors said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” the mom said.
Mom had three more children and she dressed them as the Beatles minus John.
2. The owner of the building didn’t even know what he owned. He was on life support at Mary and Associates General. A machine breathed for him, like Frankenstein, he breathed, but without Frankenstein’s innovative thrill at being able to breathe. The owner of the building and the body was not working
His wife came to visit twice a week, and his son once a month, and his daughter every other week, and his lawyer, once a week. He owned 40 buildings in the area, and it was going to be a bitch-mess untangling of assets when he died. He resisted will-making because he didn’t like death.
A man named Harum trimmed his fingernails, and toenails. A woman named Isolde bathed him, as much as he could be bathed. The dirty water never looked very dirty.
He lived a long time.
3. The plantains were not bananas, she realized as she unpacked the toys for her new day care. It was in the first floor of the building. It was called “Little Angels,” and like all places with “angels” in the name, it was to be terrible.
When inspected, dead bandaids would be found stuck to the floor and the toys, and a piece of broken glass would be found amongst the Duplos. And the soap dispenser was empty. This owner, though, was Excited to Serve the Community By Making Money. She had just been diagnosed with MS, and needed a desk job, like applying for grants for day cares.
“Are we supposed to have weird food? Should I get the plastic sushi?” she said to no one, as she hobbled over to the trash with the play food plastic shell packaging. She was hobbling from stubbing her toe earlier, the MS had not caught her that tightly yet. “I don’t know,” she said to herself.
I went to a reunion of the school where I used to teach. I hugged people, and then we asked how we were. I asked what they were up to, and I worried that unless the answer was, “I have conquered the world with my college degree!” or had a baby to show me, they would say, “Not much.”
We pushed college so hard.
One of my kids (who isn’t exactly a kid anymore) said, “I’m driving a school bus.”
“That’s an important job!” I said. “I’ve been subbing and I’ve seen how important those bus drivers are, making sure the kids get on the right bus and behave and are safe.”
“It’s not what I thought I would do.” And looked wistful.
“Most of my life has not been what I thought I would do,” I said.
So, Dear Former Students,
Life is much harder than we told you. We told you GO TO COLLEGE, and if you went, that didn’t solve everything, did it?
It was hard to stay in, once you were in, wasn’t it? It was for me, too.
I know it didn’t solve this violent city, or whatever family shit you have, everyone has some, and some people have a lot.
It didn’t make you taller, or make you feel like you could handle things.
(And I know, I’m 30 grand in debt. I hope you kept all your scholarships.)
I went to my ten-year reunion because I was going back to school to be a teacher, and this was a good story to tell people. When you go to parties, you always have to have a story of what’s going on with you, and it’s best if it’s not, “I don’t have a fucking clue,” at least not until after midnight and several drinks.
One time at a party, a guy told me he had been molested by a priest.
Another time, someone told me he was on a payment plan for his incredibly huge credit card debt.
But these were anomalies.
My twenty-year I did not go to because I was in New York, which was something, but I was also broke as hell, and I didn’t particularly want to discuss that with any of my former classmates from one of the fanciest public schools on earth.
Yesterday I dropped by a thrift store my stepmom had recommended. Found a pair of pants and a skirt that fit me, and a dress, too, what a deal!
The guy who runs the place is Australian, or speaks with an incredible fake Australian accent, one of those two things. A lady who was a nun, in habit, was in line when I walked in. Most of the rest of the shoppers were speaking Spanish. I was out in Johnson County, which for my east coast friends, is like Westchester. Or it used to be. Perhaps parts of it are now Yonkers. (I am housesitting in the Park Slope of Kansas City, pretty swank, without the famous people.)
I lined up to pay, and a couple next to me had a shopping cart full of shoes and clothes. The man was looking at a list and reading things off, as if they had made a list for a whole lot of people.
“I’ll get you first,” the cashier said. I paid for my pants, skirt, dress, and the Nancy Cunard bangle I had found, last minute (50 cents). “You helped three people eat today!” she proclaimed.
That was nice. They feed people for $3. Apparently.
It was nicer to be among recent immigrants so close to the 4th. And see a few of ’em cleaning up at the thrift store. They had a lot of good shit there. And help the Australian guy hold the door open for another dude who was buying a table.
Driving a bus is important. You’re being a good citizen. That’s all we wanted from you. That’s all we want for you. We’re proud of you.
I went to see the Mr. Rogers documentary last night, and that is one of the things I have taken from him: how powerful it is to tell someone you are proud of them. That’s one of the things I miss doing, as a teacher. People can hardly handle hearing that. It blows their damn minds.
I’m proud of you, women arrested for protesting immigration insanity. I’m proud of you, union fighters who try to get us treated fairly, even though, lately, over and over again, you are shut down and turned back. I’m proud of myself for writing to my congresspeoples even though sometimes I feel like I don’t care anymore and it doesn’t matter. I’m proud of everyone who came to the March for Our Lives.
I’m proud of the times I asked questions instead of snapping. I’m proud of asking for help. I’m proud of you for reading something someone else wrote. You can bet I look at the page views occasionally, and when there’s some numbers there, it feels good.
I’m proud of the community our former students have, how they still take care of each other and show up for each other and care about things bigger than money or power, because that was the main thing we were really trying to model.