I understand and appreciate the amount of work and love and labor you have put into raising us.
You and dad came to this country as newlywed young professionals, and together you were always fighting as a team.
You were twenty-one and scared and fought your way through the racist, sexist, classist, homophobic spaces of the west coast, carving a nurturing space for yourself and our family.
You are the lioness, protecting her cubs from each element that is threatening.
You and dad are the first to take on the offender when something fucked up happens to one of us, and I love you for that.
Your words are like tiny swords, each one cutting slightly and swiftly, but deeply.
What I would like for you to understand, though, is how deeply you wound me.
Every time I come home, you comment on my body. I have struggled with my body image issues since I was ten years old.
It doesn’t help me that you were the charismatic 100-lb, 5’4” beloved beauty queen of your community.
Or that even now, after having three grown children, and two grandchildren, you don’t look a day over thirty, thanks to daily applications of Oil of Olay and vitamin E.
But my body? My body is a road map of stretch marks, and I shrink and grow depending on stress, work load, my thyroid acting up, the time of the year.
Every time I come home, I am subjected to your close readings of my body.
Oh, beta, you would be so beautiful if only your belly were flat.
Oh, beta, don’t wear short skirts around the house. Nice girls don’t show their legs to anyone but their husbands.
Oh, beta, why are you single? All of your cousins are married. Your younger brothers are engaged. If you lost thirty pounds, you would find a nice boy.
MOM! You have no idea what my life has been like. I have internalized your words to the point where I wake up thinking about my midsection.
Your voice haunts me. I go to bed wondering when the weight training will start affecting change properly.
The last time I was in fantastic shape, I killed myself every day. I swam and played tennis and danced and ran five miles a day. I broke my body over and over.
I fucked up my back during a period of weight training. My body hasn’t been the same since.
I don’t drink soda, I don’t eat desserts, I don’t eat red meat, I don’t eat white flour, I don’t eat or drink any dairy, I don’t eat fried foods. I cook for myself every day, and I am doing what I need to do in order to survive.
You want to know what my pain is like? This bodily transformation I have undertaken has resulted in a pinched nerve, and a bulging disc, and nearly constant sciatica with shooting spirals of pain running from my lower back down my leg and ankles.
I could barely sleep, much less walk. I have done everything that you and dad said. Education above everything, no? Two BAs, two MAs. I finished a PhD.
All of this financed by myself, through grants and fellowships, based on my merits. And I am not yet thirty.
Graduate school has broken me in so many ways, and constantly being around blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slender, pale, privileged, entitled pieces of flesh does not help my body issues. You try living in X for five years, one of the ghostliest cities on earth.
You try teaching undergraduate students from the wealthiest feeder schools in X, who have never been in the presence of a woman of color who holds power over them.
These students look like Barbie and Ken. I cannot compete with them. I won’t compete with them. The worst part about your words is that you say them with genuine love and concern. You don’t have a malicious bone in your body.
You will tell me these things while we are taking a walk or while you are putting coconut oil into my hair. We can talk about everything under the sun, but when I react to your words with anger and offense, you claim to not intend to hurt me. You say that as my mother, you have every right to say the things you do.
I disagree. I call these microaggressions. Your biggest concern is for my wellbeing, but you seem to believe that I am starved for companionship.
You are haunting me. Your words echo inside my mind, constantly.
I don’t know if it is because there are three weddings happening at the moment in our enormous, multigenerational desi family.
I don’t know if it because you yourself are haunted by your mother’s words.
I’ve seen what Nani says to you. I’ve seen the pain that etches itself on your features.
I’m the oldest grandchild and the only single one, and I am a disappointment in spite of my many achievements.
I wish you wouldn’t bring this stuff up anymore. I don’t quite know how to tell you all of this and have you actually hear me. Crying doesn’t help. Threats to you that I won’t come home to visit don’t help. I’m tired of taking it and it is affecting my wellbeing. I wish you could hear what I am saying. I wish you would stop. I love you more than anything on earth and I wish you could love me the way I do you.
You Have a Body features personal essays on the the ways we reconcile our physical forms with our identities. This series explores how our bodies sometimes disagree with us, how the world sometimes disagrees with our bodies, and how we attempt to accept that dissonance.
On my bike, limbs and face open to the elements, I’m slapped by untrimmed branches, scratched by overhanging shrubs, accosted by gnats, and splashed with mud.
Most of the time, I’m grateful for the smell of pine sap and jasmine on my daily commute through the Bay Area. Yet I envy the tiny mobile house called a car, its air-proof chamber, electrical outlets, drink holders, sound system, and incumbent luxury.
I arrive at school, ruffled by a rainstorm. My student wonders why I didn’t drive. When I explain that I’ve never owned a car, they insist I buy a car. Blood rises to my face, and I sputter to respond to an eight-year-old inadvertently shaming me.
Privilege tells itself it’s normal; otherwise, drivers and passengers would be aware of traveling in a bubble of protection, both literal and metaphoric. The message from the student is that I’m lacking or flawed because I don’t use a car. But it’s okay to walk or bike or take the train to work. I resist the presumption that what’s wrong with me is that I’m not more like rich, educated, suburban families. Tempted by shame, I’m also incensed by the message that being marginalized implies something is wrong with me in the first place.
Transit workers pave and repaint a stretch of boulevard near my house, the surface smooth and unbroken by potholes. White lines separating vehicles from pedestrians glow like the moon, as do neon green bike stripes. As I ride toward the port, I’m temporarily exalted, as if nothing can hamper my progress. A pothole has to be gaping for a car to bother swerving around it, more an annoyance than a threat. On a bike, it’s another story. In the industrial sections of Oakland, between antique railroad tracks and pockmarked construction zones, I routinely pop my tire. It takes hypervigilance to slam on the brakes before a hazard.
People with privilege, like those with large tires, don’t even register threats that could take down someone with a marginalized identity. They’re doubtful that “a bump in the road” could disrupt our progress. Dismissing the reality of the obstacle is another way to dismiss the anger. But I remind myself that a bump to some is a cliff to others, disproportionately affecting those who are more vulnerable.
Rules and Regulations
In Fremont, a large suburb, it’s illegal to bike on the sidewalk. However, people honk, curse, and scream, “Get off the road!” to explicitly let me know that I shouldn’t ride in traffic. More often, they accelerate to pass me with a less-than-legal margin. I’m following the law, yet I’m harassed. I fantasize about lashing out. Since I can’t threaten them physically, I imagine spitting on their windshield to show them how it feels to be targeted for no reason. Other than revenge, I don’t know how to reject their ill-placed road rage.
Entitled drivers bully cyclists just as people with white or cis privilege express microaggressions against transgender people and people of color. Positioning themselves as the authority over rules and regulations, passive aggressive (or simply aggressive) drivers chide me for asking to be accommodated, when all I want is to belong.
At major intersections, the bike lane disappears, so I sidle up to the curb protecting pedestrians about to cross from the dedicated right-turn yield lane. A triangle, like the delta from a garbage river, reaches from the crosswalk out into the intersection. Washer, hubcap, sunglasses, battery, bungee cord, hat, palm frond, broom handle, pebbles, shattered glass, bumper, dead squirrels and possums, bolts, nails, and tools—a sample of the detritus that I encounter on the edges of the street. When items hit the central part of the road, cars throw them around until they land near the curb. Crunching through this field, I’m simultaneously frustrated that the margins are structurally worse and dwarfed by the intransigence of the problem.
The nature of designing multilane roads privileges certain regions, such as the center lane, and degrades others, such as the margins and gutters. In order to create equal access to power and mobility, I begin with acknowledging structural inequality, both in the microcosm of city roadways and in the broader context of society. I might seem powerless, but my anger fuels efforts to change the structure.
In a hurry to catch the train, I pull out my phone at a stoplight. A man crossing the sidewalk quips, “Are you texting me, girl?” I’m wearing a long skirt and blouse. I flash him a dirty look, indignant that my clothing itself indicated my availability and signaled my gender. Passing as a woman is a mixed bag. Often, drivers wave me through busy crossings. This considerate treatment comes at the cost of being cast as vulnerable and in need of help, not because I’m on a bicycle, but because I’m read as female. As a sometime femme, I’m treated differently when I’m in boy-mode. A hipster guy admired my bike through the window of his muscle car, “Nice ride, dude.” When I thanked him, he said, “Oops,” as if he’d mistaken me for a man. Overwhelmingly, I fail to pass as nonbinary.
The relationship between my choices in gender presentation and the double-edged sword of privilege have helped me navigate the politics of passing. I believe I control my gender expression. However, that choice is mostly an illusion. I continually remind myself that others will render me legible in a binary gender system, with or without my consent, and being so visible on my bicycle only makes me more aware of their machinations. In these cases, anger is an antidote to embarrassment, politeness, or guilt; a way to externalize transphobia.
Taking the Lane
Although Oakland, Berkeley, Emeryville, and Fremont have been dedicating bike lanes, erecting “Share the Road” signs, and increasing visibility with green paint, there are some sections of roads where I have no choice but to squeeze between parked cars and the right lane. If you don’t bike, you might not appreciate the surge of adrenaline from edging between a delivery truck stopped at the curb and a speeding SUV. The safest option is to “take the lane.” This means riding in the center of the rightmost lane so that cars must fully merge into the left lane in order to pass, as they would with any slow vehicle. Despite the legality of this move, aggrieved drivers accelerate and cut back into the right lane with little clearance.
My anxiety can either lead to giving up entirely on bicycling as too dangerous, or to fury. Anger wins out as I mutter curses at each car that takes advantage of its hugeness and fossil-fueled mobility to intentionally send the message that I don’t belong.
I’m grateful for the lens of bicycling as a way of examining the landscape of mobility and access. It’s sharpened focus on the connections between anger and marginalization. Biking on the literal margins has helped me let go of victim-blaming discourse that dictates I should work harder to get ahead and that anger is a useless, hysterical contaminant. An embodied anger, complete with white-knuckled handlebars, rapid breathing, swearing under my breath, and manic pedaling, has put me in touch with my own vulnerability without the weight of guilt or shame. Bicycling encouraged me to blame those who marginalize me instead of blaming anger itself. On the road, it’s immediate and apparent that I deserve to move safely through the world. I deserve to be accommodated relative to my circumstances. I deserve to take up space, even if it’s along the fringe.
I am a Black woman from a mixed-heritage background who has spent most of my life within an educational system, from nursery school to my current role as a postdoctoral researcher in the field of Respiratory Immunology.
My education and career have taken place across three countries and two continents. During this time, I have evolved into a critical thinker, independent researcher, teacher, peer mentor, and collaborator. I have had the privilege of seeing many students who were nervous first-years, when I was their laboratory demonstrator, themselves grow into independent researchers who now have postgraduate degrees. It has been a blessing to be able to present my work in conferences, peer-reviewed articles, essays, research group meetings, and informally. Over the past few months it has also been startling to discover a deep interest in remaining in academia, provided I can secure the necessary funding to carry out research that doubles up as a passion project. My years in the academy have equipped me with knowledge and skills that are transferrable in many sectors. From my perspective the future looks bright, and my dedication is paying off.
This testimony of mine is the cherry-picked truth. It is the stripped-back version of the journey that has made me the academic I am today: fully aware of my privileges, grateful for my experiences, unwilling to close my eyes to the problems within academia, and unapologetic about using routes of the least palatability to tackle these problems.
Most academics of colour I have encountered have similar stories to mine. However, depending on the generation they are part of and other factors, their outspokenness differs. Certain themes among all our experiences are overlapping and recurrent regardless of the country we currently work in, academic system, and age.
Many of us have first-hand experiences of misogynoir (racialised sexism), racism (from the subtle to the outright), tone policing, elitism, and classism—all within academia, a global body that is meant to further the development of mankind. Indeed, many of these encounters I and others have had, whether online or in person, have been with people who have also had the privilege of education and the added responsibility from exposure to know and do better. Students, researchers, and professors! The young and the old.
During my undergraduate career, trying to stay functional while suffering silently for years with debilitating anxiety meant that I was constantly shying away from any extra emotional work. Unfortunately, this also meant that issues of justice and equity were things that I did not feel bold enough to speak about all the time. Being within a system designed to make People of Colour feel like second-class citizens in itself is already hard.
It took me years of honest self-reflection to admit my own complicity, then throw off the shroud of palatability I had worn for years. I own my past mistakes and can readily admit that well-being has been a major confounding factor in my ability to challenge injustice. It is now my commitment to fully inhabit the responsibility of promoting equity within any academic system I find myself in.
However, over the years, there has also been an anger that I live with. Some of it is directed at my past self, but most of it is directed at the system that seeks to uphold injustice or at the very least wilfully ignore it.
Ijeoma Oluo recently asked a pertinent question: “What are we going to do with our rage?” I have asked myself this same question time and again over the years, with many different words, particularly: “How do I stop being afraid of my anger and harness that powerful energy and drive into something useful?” Immediately, I always remember Joyce Meyer’s advice for when your fears try to stop you from doing anything: just “Do it afraid!” There will never be a perfect time or a perfect plan or implementation strategy. So once I was able to identify what I wanted to achieve, I made an action plan that wasn’t too stringent but if done properly could hopefully have a positive impact within my academic community—particularly on Black people and People of Colour, and other women who don’t fall into these identification groups.
There are different levels in academia which I aim for.
The first is my immediate surroundings: from everyday conversations about equality, equity, diversity, and inclusion, to being open and honest about my mental illness, appropriately signposting colleagues who come to me with a range of confidential issues (and being vocal about being accessible as a point of help), planning and organising workshops that seek to explain the benefit of inclusion in academia, and being respectful and inclusive to all levels of staff I work with.
Students I work with: reminding students that as paying customers in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), they have the right to just treatment, vocalising that they deserve my respect as much as I deserve theirs, encouraging them to question the system and question me—not just take my word as the final say—telling them there is absolutely nothing wrong with being an “average” student—because society wrongfully conflates intelligence with competence—and still encouraging them to do their best and reach out for help when needed. In spaces with Black students discussing issues that affect them specifically, I am always open about my experiences and remind them they have every right to an equal say in academia.
Black colleagues: a major part of the remit of my activism in academia involves amplifying voices and standing beside those who have something to say and need encouragement. This has been a beneficial two-way street, as in the process I have found Black women academics who have supported, encouraged, and rooted for me, as well as given me career opportunities that otherwise I would not have come across on my own.
The system itself: I proactively sought out equality fora within my surroundings where I could voice concerns, challenge problems, and, arguably most important, suggest reparative action points that should hopefully contribute to top-to-bottom change. I cannot overemphasize the need for more marginalised voices and allies/accomplices to be proactively recruited onto HEI action groups. Even the most well-intentioned systems that lack equal or proportional representation will have certain issues slip through the cracks.
The anger I have still simmers under the surface, and for the time being I am content with this. As long as I have life, I will continue to use my anger as fuel to call out injustices and call on those who are perfectly positioned to dismantle these systemic inequities. Since it is my intention to remain in academia for a while, this is where I will continue my quest.
The blue light from my computer screen illuminates my face as I scroll through my friends’ Facebook posts. This friend has just traveled to Hawaii with her husband. That friend has just hand-made clothes for her children. That friend has completed a Tough Mudder with his boyfriend. I click the thumbs-up icon, or I leave little encouraging comments. An hour passes. Two.
I joined Facebook late, considering that the company began in 2004. In 2007, the summer I decided to adopt my daughter Mitike, I created an account on the blue and white website people were talking about, and shared a photo of me, my mom, and my sister Katie tubing on the Upper Iowa River in Decorah. We are all grinning in the photo. Five people liked it, then ten. People with whom I had lost touch began to request me as their friends. At the time, I lived far away from all of them — all the way in Alaska — and my new cellphone (I was late to that trend, too) allowed me only a limited number of monthly minutes. Facebook was a free way to stay in touch.
A year later, when Mitike came home from Ethiopia, Facebook was a way I could stay sane, a way I could show everyone the sweet and astonishing little person I had promised to raise. I shared videos and photographs, and more people liked them, and more people requested friendships. I connected with adoptive parents’ groups and with Ethiopian culture groups. Every day at nap time, I checked my Facebook account — and I felt a little more connected in a life that, while beautiful, contained mostly cheese sticks and raisins and discussions about poop.
In 2011, when Ali died, Facebook became a place I haunted in my grief. I studied our old posted photographs for clues, and I left cryptic messages on a Facebook page that had outlived its face. The blue website no longer connected me, but encouraged my drifting, alone. For hours, I zoomed in on photographs to examine a smile, a look in the eyes, the clues I had missed. I ignored all my friends’ happy updates, and I dwelled in the darker places.
And then, still later, there were the years — the recent ones — when Facebook functioned as a joyful declaration: I survived! I have found love again! Hey, everyone, this is Meredith! We’re married! We’re happy! I posted photos and videos, links and updates. Mostly, I checked and checked Facebook. What had people said about my photo? Had people commented on my column? Had others liked my link? Facebook was part virtual scrapbook, part live feed into my life. I engaged with friends’ posts; I found and shared exciting events; I shared pictures of the dozen pink pussy hats I had crocheted; I vented my anger about the Trump administration. Morning after morning, I clicked on the little white “f” in the blue square on my phone, and it was like walking into a crowded room — look at this photo of my quinoa plants, have you seen what Trump’s done now?, can you believe how much my daughter’s grown?, there’s a rally downtown next Saturday and I plan to go.
This past June, when my family and I traveled west to stay in a rented cabin on the Oregon coast for a week, I decided, on a whim, to take a sabbatical from all technology. For seven days, I did not access the internet in any way; I used my phone only as a camera, on airplane mode. And…I began to take photographs so I could remember the moment, not so I could share it with five hundred strangers. At night, I reflected purely on the conversations I had had with Mitike and Meredith, not on the chatter of that crowded blue room. My mind was clearer, like a desk I had sorted.
For the few months after that, I returned to posting and checking and liking, but my brief sobriety had taught me something essential: I didn’t need Facebook. It distracted me from living my real life. Then the Cambridge Analytica scandal happened, and former Facebook creators and executives began to admit that the site is deliberately designed to addict us to more clicking and to direct certain companies’ ads at us, and, like Montag (Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly apt here), I shouted, “No more!”
I deleted the app. It took seconds. I stopped logging on to Facebook every morning as I ate breakfast. I stopped visiting the page when I needed a break from my writing. I stopped scrolling through the 515 “friends”’ posts at stoplights on my way home in the afternoons. I just stopped, cold turkey.
And — I missed it not at all. For the months of September and October, as I moved through my life without Facebook, I did not once wonder what all the posters were posting, or what the likers were liking. When a November New York Review of Books article revealed some of the darker, far more serious reasons we should all free ourselves from social media like Facebook, I happily breathed my free air.
Then, in mid-November, I needed a few photos so I could craft our Christmas card. Like many people, I have not printed photos to store in shoe boxes or leather albums for years; instead, I have stored them on Facebook. Until I spend hours one day downloading all those photos (and Mitike’s baby and toddler videos) and burning the files to a CD, I cannot actually delete my Facebook account. That day, when I logged on to grab the photos I needed, the 6 messages, 68 new notifications, and 2 friend requests nearly seduced me to start scrolling.
But I held to my resolve. Facebook does not improve my life. It does not connect me more deeply to anyone. It does not inform me better than my daily reading of The Guardian and The New Yorker. It may announce events, but mostly, it pulls me away from real engagement in my community. Again, I say: no more.
I have been accused at several junctures of my life of Luddism, mostly because I resist texting everyone constantly, because I watch little TV, and because I have seriously restricted Mitike’s screen time (at age eleven, she still only gets three hours a week; we bought her a flip-phone for emergencies when she started middle school, but her iPhone is years away). Now I am deleting Facebook. However, like the original Luddites, I do not oppose the technology itself, but its threat to genuine human skill and human interaction. Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter claim to better connect us, and yet the hallways of the high school where I teach are crowded not with boisterous teenagers but with solitary figures hunched over their iPhone screens, shuffling forward as they scroll through friends’ Snapchats. When I pass these zoned-out kids, I call out “Look up!” to startle them back into their real lives.
The original Luddite movement began in Nottingham, England, in 1811, when a group of angry factory workers smashed textile machinery in protest against low wages and too little work. In the months that followed, the British government deployed soldiers; the Luddites set fire to factories and broke more machinery; the soldiers fired into mobs; people died. Mostly, the Luddites feared, in the words of the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1829, a world in which “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.”
In 1996-97, I lived in the Luddites’ Nottingham, in a second-story flat with eleven other American college students. There I knew a far better balance between my humanity and technology. Our flat possessed a single Apple computer that was good only for slow word-processing, a single land-line telephone, and a single television set. Sometimes, I took the bus early to the university so I could send electronic mail to my mom with my new Yahoo account, but that was it. My flatmates and I spent most of our time hanging out, attending plays, frequenting pubs, venturing into the green countryside. I wrote more, sketched a little, took photographs of crumbling walls and pubs on a film camera. When we couldn’t think of an answer or a definition, we engaged in fierce debate, because Google was still an idea in a Stanford dorm room. Except for the parents we called periodically, no one received daily or hourly updates about the pints we drank or the castles we visited.
And yes, I am saying that Luddite life was a better, healthier existence than this one. This fall, when my Nottingham roommate, Sarah, and I decided to move our friendship back into handwritten letters, I was astonished. Sarah and I have remained close for the entire twenty years since Nottingham, but these letters! In our rushed handwriting — while her kids slept, while Mitike did her homework, with early-morning coffee — we dove more deeply into reflections about our lives than we have in years on email and on Facebook. Paper and pen, actual envelope, the imprint of one page’s writing on the next: I read and re-read her letters like I have never done with her digital communication. True, I caught myself wondering why she hadn’t responded yet just an hour after I tucked my letter to her into the mailbox, but these habits are difficult to smash immediately. True, I considered posting a photo of my steaming cup of coffee next to Sarah’s letter with a caption like “Old friends, and a return to real communication,” but I resisted.
Oh, Facebook. I will not grow mechanical in head and in heart. I will not “take things at second or third hand.” I will see this world with my own eyes, experience it as it is, read more actual books of paper, connect with real friends face-to-face. I will look up.
When I was my students’ age — seventeen, eighteen — I didn’t know what a strike was.
I had never witnessed one. In U.S. History, a teacher must have mentioned one of the famous ones — the labor strikes of the 1800s, maybe, or the post-WWII auto strikes. But to me at seventeen, a strike sounded simple: the workers refused to work, the owners tried to hold out, the workers kept refusing to work, the owners tried extreme measures (police, water, threats, firings, replacements), and usually, the workers won. The end. I was a farmer’s daughter when I learned about strikes for the first time, the daughter of a man who daily labored for himself and for his land, and who could not refuse to work a single day, because the hogs would suffer, the corn plants would wither. It seemed a kind of privilege to refuse to work.
On the Friday before the Denver teachers finally went on strike on February 11, I stood before a class of high school seniors and tried to explain to them why I would not be standing there on Monday if the district could not reach an agreement with the union. The students listened quietly, a little warily. The Denver Public School PR machine was regularly cranking out emails to the community insisting the teachers were refusing “millions” on the table and demanding more. The real story — that Denver teachers wanted a traditional salary schedule with dependable annual base pay, limited incentives, and respect for what we already do as professionals — was a more nuanced and thus more-difficult-to-craft soundbite.
I told the students I wanted them to apply to the events of the strike all the college-level research skills we’ve been learning: stay curious, formulate your own deep questions, evaluate each source for credibility and originality, question everything again, compare what you’re finding so you can discern the truth. Still, they watched me from the corners of their eyes.
“You’ll remember this,” I said finally, “far more than you’ll remember any college research skill I could teach you.” This made them laugh, and the room relaxed. Because of course they would. All their teachers were marching out of the building and refusing pay, starting Monday. They’d be in these classrooms with district-paid substitutes, staring out the tall historic windows at us on the picket line. I told them I’d wave, which made them laugh again.
It is a privilege to refuse to work. My family had enough in savings that I could afford the pay cut for a few days, but what I meant was more profound: I work as part of a collective group. I am no single farmer cultivating fields alone. I show up every day to teach in a classroom that is next door to ninety other classrooms, and our school is united with 161 other schools in the district. I’m not alone. When working conditions are unacceptable, it’s our great right to link arms together and demand more. Alone, it would be impossible. That’s what I didn’t understand at seventeen — what my students, each engaged in his/her individual battle for college and future, do not understand.
It’s what the Denver Public School District did not seem to understand, either. It’s what any group of powerful bosses does not understand. They tell us what to do, what to accept, what to swallow, until one day, we rise up as a group and shout “No!” and the bosses realize they never actually had power, that their power all along was dependent on our acquiescence.
On the Tuesday of the strike — day two — hundreds of teachers dressed in red marched down Denver’s Colfax Avenue to Civic Center Park, where we gathered with more hundreds, our signs aloft. The signs said it all. “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.” “I choose to change the things I can no longer accept.” “More education, less administration.” “Pay us a living wage.” The one I carried asked, “What is the value of your child’s education?” On the other side, I alluded to the 1912 Massachusetts textile workers’ strike: “Teachers deserve both bread and roses.”
On all sides of us, members of other unions marched, too: firefighters, steelworkers, truck drivers, plumbers. My colleague Nick, from Michigan, often insists that ours is a blue-collar job, which seems strange, since we all have college degrees and many of us have master’s degrees and PhDs, but in these days of marching miles and miles through the city, chanting for fair pay and respectful working conditions, I understood how right he is. The teachers who marched on either side of me just wanted the chance to buy a house in this city; they wanted to have some money to save for their children’s college educations; they wanted to emerge from three decades of teaching other people’s children and find some kind of rest. They are also the most hard-working people I know. They are people who stay late to tutor students, who step out into the hallway to comfort students, who wake early to give students meaningful feedback on papers, who spend all weekend planning lessons that will light learning in students’ minds.
Without teachers in the schools in Denver, the city was eerily silent. True, the schools are open, but most students stayed home, waiting for us to return. Some marched with us. One student’s sign read: “I march because our teachers love us.”
I didn’t know how difficult it would be to strike. It was far harder than teaching all day. Every day, I woke early and put on my long underwear and then my jeans and my three sweatshirts, stocking cap, two pairs of gloves. On the picket lines each day in the cold, we walked nine, ten miles. My hips and lower back ached. And yet: every day it became clearer that if we did not strike, the bosses would continue to do as they please. This was our reminder of who was in power.
In the end, the Denver strike was the shortest in the city’s history: only three days. The district awarded us the salary schedule, and raised everyone’s salaries to meet surrounding school districts’ levels. By Thursday, we stood in our classrooms again, exhausted and exhilarated. By the middle of Thursday, it seemed we had never left; we were badgering students about turning in assignments on time; we were trying to motivate a whole class to care about our content areas; we were again fighting the relatively smaller battles between teachers and administrators. But there was this difference: starting in August, the pay we receive for this hard work will actually allow us to put down payments on houses in Denver, save for our kids’ college years, and maybe travel a little. In Denver, teachers will have enough to buy both bread and roses.
A few naysayers visited us on the picket line. One man squealed the brakes on his shiny silver BMW and jumped out, shaking a fist and shouting, “Get back to work! Get back to work!” I’m sure he believed his tax dollars fund our salaries and that we shouldn’t complain. I’m also sure that, if he had chosen to make a living as a teacher, he would have likely been out there marching with us, too.
The Friday before the strike, a student in one of my colleague’s classes rolled his eyes at her and said, “I don’t know why you’re so upset about the pay. You chose this job.”
True. And most of us teachers, at some point, frustrated by student apathy or by parents’ vitriol or by administrators’ hoops or by the long hours of grading papers and planning lessons, have said we wish we could quit. It’s a small salve sometimes in this hard job we chose. But it’s also true that most of us don’t quit. Most of us keep slogging on, because of the shining moments when a student gets it, and cares, because it is actually wonderful to plan educational experiences for teenagers each day — far better than working in an office would be.
Now, in Denver — and in Los Angeles, and in West Virginia, and hopefully soon in Oakland — we’re paid fairly for that work, too, because we chose to walk the picket lines for a few days. It’s connected us. When the bell rings to start each class, we wave at each other down the long high school hallways, and then step into our classrooms, to begin.
The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.
Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.
In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.
In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.
In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.
Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.
I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.
I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.
My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”
It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.
In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.
When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.
At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.
In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?
As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.