My grandmother grabs my wrist and draws me closer.
Over seventy years of lived experience separate us, but when she calls me a child I know she is conjuring a memory, not a body. The child she recalls hasn’t reached puberty; this child is chatty, she doesn’t move as much as she glides. She has brown skin, black hair. It is jarring to hear the biography of a self you only belatedly recognize to be yourself. So I listen to the girlhood image my grandmother paints with my aunt chiming in.
I allow myself to be appraised. Moments earlier, when she opened the front door, she had been stunned to find a tall stranger with blond hair standing before her. Nonetheless, the tactility of my wrist comforts her as she remembers the child she has not seen in years.
“It is her,” she murmurs to my aunt and, with a slight triumph, adds: “My granddaughter is very pretty. Pale. Skinny. Just like her mother.”
In the late 1940s, in the wake of the Chinese Civil War and World War II, my grandmother fled mainland China with her two-year-old daughter and newborn infant. The journey displaced them from Shandong, a northern Chinese province, to Taiwan.
Some fled because they were landowners, some because they were political refugees.
My grandmother was running because her husband had been educated in Japan, a social marker akin to having money or acting bourgeois that would render life difficult under incoming Communist leadership. He was already in Taipei making arrangements for his family’s uncertain future, and it was time for them to join him.
I don’t know how long their crossing took. I know the stress inhibited my grandmother’s ability to produce breast milk for her baby daughter and that another mother in the party generously fed my grandmother’s baby along with her own.
I also know that the refugees understood that if a baby cried and jeopardized the party’s location, its mother would suffocate it. I know my grandmother was spared that task. Others were less fortunate.
These are sound bites of a traumatic experience I can never fully know. In my family, we have little to say about our relationship dynamics, let alone our relation to history. We share mostly silence, a glance, then turn away.
My mother narrated my grandmother’s flight just once. I was in third grade, assigned to present an oral family history. When it was clear that my presentation was longer than any of my classmates’, I felt embarrassed by the anecdotes she had implored me to include, the ugly details that induced shock but not empathy. I was ashamed of sharing a history we wouldn’t learn in social studies class, and I was ashamed of doing so for a room full of white kids.
Now I willfully place my family in history’s purview because it is impossible to extricate our experience from our complicity with histories of politics and violence. For years, we have been curators of silence, perhaps because it was easier to mythologize familial love than to acknowledge the pain we suppressed in its pursuit.
Although we no longer live in those early days of Taiwanese resettlement and assimilation, my grandmother’s consciousness never relinquished the paranoia, fear, and struggle she associates with the period. The war—the consequent exile—never ended; it simply reconfigured the borders of memory.
An invisible war, a domestic war. The family was her ideal battlefield.
In Taiwan, my grandmother eventually raised seven children, who in turn developed their own coalitions and grudges. They lay siege to the skin of trauma so the bruises were raw and splayed across the oceans and languages they traversed to maintain distance. Whether they called home occasionally or frequently, their voices embodied their absence.
They stopped talking to each other, and then they didn’t tell their children about their own family. Family reunions took place, my mother wryly remarked, either at a wedding or a funeral. In fact, the most recent reunion happened at her wedding over twenty years ago, before I was born.
This winter, I flew to Taipei to visit my grandmother.
Over the phone, my mother instructed me to spend an hour a day with her. “She lives in the past. She will want to tell you stories.” At the time, the request sounded reasonable. I was eager to listen, and maybe even to photograph her for a project on diaspora I’d long desired to pursue.
Later, I came to see my mother’s instruction as a coded warning.
My nonagenarian grandmother lives alone because she is incredibly stubborn. Even obstacles to accessibility make no difference. Seventeen steps, for instance, separate the first and second levels of her house. Undaunted, she undertakes them every day.
Because my aunt no longer lives with her, she arranges for a caretaker to assist with household tasks like cleaning, cooking, and shopping. My aunt is my grandmother’s sole child who has neither moved abroad nor left Taipei. Though she is my grandmother’s primary victim, she continues to provide for her mother’s livelihood.
One afternoon, on our way home, my aunt and I intercepted the caretaker, Mei, who was leaving with her bags. She had been fired for purchasing a second package of string beans. Mei had begun working for my grandmother just two weeks earlier, and according to my aunt she had already made the house a cleaner place where the chores were completed and the produce was fresh. As Mei related what happened, my aunt grew agitated.
“It’s an excuse,” she said. “My mother’s old. She wants a reason to fire you.” Mei was the latest of many caretakers to be fired in the past two months. One stole, another roughly handled my grandmother. The reality is, my aunt explained, she refuses to trust anyone.
At the house, my aunt confronted my grandmother, who calmly sipped her tea and introduced me to her friend. “This is my youngest granddaughter.” She beamed, reaching for my wrist. “Look how skinny and pretty she is. Pale. Just like her mother.” The friend agreed.
Meanwhile, my aunt, who wanted my grandmother to rehire Mei, was pleading to an unsympathetic jury.
Quiet, my grandmother let go of me. Then she snapped. Like a downpour, accusations fell on my aunt. My grandmother tightened as she delivered insults in a deliberate, calm voice. Her temper justified her abusive language. “If I had not left China… If I hadn’t ended up with your useless…” My aunt broke down and left the room. I immediately followed.
Even now I shudder. I don’t know how to translate this vulnerability, the devastation of a cycle that is privately witnessed and publicly withheld. What is there to say about family violence, the violence of the family, that has not already been said or retracted?
My aunt did not blame my grandmother. She insisted her behavior was the result of the things she had to do to stay alive, and couldn’t I understand.
If there is a correlation between my grandmother’s cruelty and our fragmented family, I have to wonder to what extent estrangement was the byproduct of the violence intimate among my mother, her siblings, and their mother. I wonder what the lacunae say.
In the war my grandmother has waged in her mind for all these years, what is the current damage count? Who are its foot soldiers? What is expendable?
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel delves into the archives to recuperate events that cannot be recuperated. For Bechdel, coming to terms with her lesbian identity occurs in tandem with learning about her father’s sexual history with men, a fact she learns after his death, an apparent suicide.
Due to Bechdel’s strained relationship with her father, this revelation twists her grieving process. Upon arriving home for the funeral, Bechdel greets her brothers not with the typical signifiers of mourning but with a shared grimace of pleasure. Under trauma, grief becomes a series of distorted gestures. When she returns to school, she cannot convince a classmate of her father’s passing because she bursts into uncontrollable laughter.
The more Bechdel pieces together a narrative, the less its truth can be verified. She knows this neurotic digging will not produce a satisfying answer. It cannot revive the dead.
She digs anyway.
My aunt does not grieve and advises I do the same. I wipe her tears. A devout Buddhist, my aunt has long since forgiven my grandmother for her toxicity. Individuals shouldn’t be accountable to their unconsensual history, she assures me.
In the next room, my grandmother and her friend have resumed their conversation. The confrontation has had minimal effect on either party. We all have a pleasant dinner.
For the remainder of my visit, I minimize the time I spend with my grandmother. Instead of photographing her, I take pictures of the backyard, the staircase she labors up and down, the hallway cabinet adorned in doilies.
When I do listen to her stories, an unbearable wave of nausea overcomes me, for they reveal her resentment toward the fate she was dealt, the life she has survived. The past is, as my mother had hinted, hers, but, in the present, the heaviness is mine, and I excuse myself from her company.
When I realized I was a lesbian in the summer of 2005, I seriously thought I was one of the only ones in the wide world.
I had never read a book about a lesbian. I had never seen a movie about a lesbian relationship. I had never visited a lesbian bar, or attended a lesbian concert, or gathered in a house with a group of lesbians. I did listen to the Indigo Girls, but they were famous, and the Swamp Ophelia album only reduced me to more weeping. I was twenty-eight, married to a man, and in love with my best friend. No one anywhere had ever had my experience.
The internet told me something different. On Netflix, I found movies, which were delivered to my house in their anonymous red and white sleeves: When Night is Falling (Canada, 1995); Fire (Canada/India, 1997); Aimee and Jaguar (Germany, 2000); Tipping the Velvet (UK, 2002). On Amazon, I searched for “lesbian books,” and found Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Somewhere out there, there were other women who loved women. Their stories, often anguished, but almost always fiercely passionate and true, became my community.
In November of that year, I flew to New York to stay with a college friend who lived boldly in a civil union with her partner. They took me to The Oscar Wilde Bookshop (now closed, sadly) and to Bluestockings, and I loaded my arms with more stories, as if I could, with reading, ward off my fear and loneliness. Rebecca Brown, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Joan Nestle, Lillian Faderman, Elana Dykewomon. Tell me, I pleaded with these other lesbians, who I am. Tell me what to do.
Meanwhile, I wrote mostly about parenting and adoption, about Alaska (where I lived at the time), about climbing mountains. My own story as a lesbian was fragile, in the way a tinder-dry forest is fragile. I feared that if I wrote about my love for Lia, it would flame to ash. And of course, it did, far more violently than I ever imagined. That’s the story Grief Map tells, but Grief Map also tells the story of the lesbian who emerged from that ash, the living woman, writing now about allof her experience because she had no other choice.
But after Lia died in 2011, I once again felt like I was the only one. I crouched in my grief and wondered what it meant to be a woman who loves women all alone. And again, the community spoke to me: the movies and the books reminded me that I was not the only one to have lost, that I could survive. I wrapped myself in those stories. I breathed there. I kept writing.
And yet I still felt as much awed distance from the lesbian community as I did from the Indigo Girls. I was just an isolated lesbian writer in Colorado. When my wife Meredith and I first met in 2014, I was keeping a sad blog called “The Boulder Lesbian,” as if I was the only one. It still felt that way.
I discovered the Golden Crown Literary Society by chance one early morning, when I was taking a break from a scene I was trying to construct in a short story. I wanted connection. Where were the other lesbian writers in the world? I googled “lesbian writers” and Google offered me “lesbian writers conference.” I clicked—and GCLS was the top post. I found myself on a website offering “the premiere lesbian literary event” each year, and an ongoing mission of dedication to “the promotion and recognition of lesbian literature.” I told Brain Mill Press, Grief Map’s publisher, about it, and they submitted Grief Map for a Goldie Award in the non-fiction category. But I didn’t feel part of it. It was another famous place where lesbians gathered, somewhere else.
Then I found myself at the GCLS Conference this July, listening to Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Rachel Gold and Elana Dykewomon and Dorothy Allison read from their work. I told myself, I am part of this community. And I was! For three days, I attended master classes and presentations and panels, readings and speakers in an all-lesbian space. I exchanged my card with other lesbian writers and readers. I discussed story ideas that revolve around lesbian lives. One woman told me she thinks of this annual conference as a sort of lesbian summer camp, and it did have that otherworldly shimmer. With its diversity of age and race and background and expression, the conference had the open-hearted kindness I’ve always imagined those circles of lesbians had in the 1970s communes. How wonderful, to move among these other lesbians in this lovely safe space, a literal haven from the smoke and crowds and din of Vegas.
Each morning, I walked through the Bally’s casino and breathed in relief to reach the conference rooms, where we lesbians retreated from the world awhile. Each evening, when Meredith returned to our room from her poker tournaments, I told her the stories I had heard people read during the day: a lesbian pirate, a lesbian doctor in a helicopter, a lesbian who disguised herself as a man in the 1890s, a lesbian who discovered her grandmother’s secret love had been a woman. I told her that Elana Dykewomon’s poetry made an entire room weep, and that Dorothy Allison was just as funny and wise in person as she was on the page. I told her that I had never imagined the power of an all-lesbian space, the way I literally felt all of us were embraced and held up there. Meredith smiled at me and kissed me tenderly and, because Vegas is like this, just outside our sixty-sixth floor window, the Eiffel Tower throbbed purple and blue with a party and the giant digital eyes on the Cosmopolitan reflected in the water in front of the Bellagio. We were in our own lesbian romance story.
At the GCLS Goldie awards ceremony on July seventh, I stood at the podium with Grief Map’s award for non-fiction in my hands, and I said to the gathered community of three-hundred and fifty lesbians, “Thirteen years ago, when I realized I was a lesbian, I thought I was the only one,” and a wave of loving, understanding laughter rolled toward me. I had never been alone at all. Later, when Meredith and I danced in each other’s arms on a dance floor full of only other lesbians, some in suits, some in dresses, some in wonderful ambiguous amalgamations of the two, I kissed my wife and I knew we moved, now, in the community, part of it all.
What’s next? At first, when I came home to Denver, the same slump threatened me that used to threaten me after summer camp when I was a kid, as if the world could never be as supportive and vibrant and connected as camp was. It really can’t. But the stories I tell in the next year can reach toward that energy. My new protagonist Sam can long for it. And then next summer, I can return to that all-lesbian space (in Pittsburgh in 2019) for a few days. I’m excited already.
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.
I started stealing razors from my dad in the first grade. It was easy.
I watched my mom and older sisters do the same for as long as I could remember. As soon as I began sprouting hair in areas I didn’t want covered (i.e., not the top of my head), I slicked them off quickly and painlessly without telling a soul.
Although I began signaling sexual maturation sooner than most, I was sure that my very understanding mother wouldn’t approve of depilation at age six. I was right. Dr. Miles, my pediatrician, had forewarned her that I showed signs of precocious puberty. My mom vigilantly observed for the markers that I expertly hid.
When I began menstruating at age ten — I concealed that fact for months before an untimely trip to the mall forced me to reveal it — my mom, in shock, exclaimed that it had happened before any pubic hair growth. I sassily retorted that that was only because I handled the fuzzy inconvenience before she even noticed. The glare she darted my way warned me to tread carefully in my remarks.
I was often referred to as “mujercita sin tiempo” — little woman before her time. It began when I decided to put the dolls away and play instead with my little sister. Toys held my interest for a very short period of time. That was the most prominent feature of my precociousness until I opened my mouth. That mouth got me sent to the naughty table in the first grade. It was there that I formed a lifelong friendship with Miguel, the first and only person to know that I had “woman problems” at the time. Perhaps my smart aleck-y attitude should havve alerted my mother to the situation.
Merriam-Webster simply defines precociousness as having or showing the qualities or abilities of an adult an unusually early age, exceptionally early in development or occurrence (emphasis on early). The National Library of Medicine provides a more precise demarcation for precociousness. Precocious puberty is the development of sexual maturation in boys and girls at a chronological age that is 2.5 standard deviations below the mean age of onset of puberty in the general population.
The language is ominous. Precocious puberty is 2.5 times away from average. Average is typical. Two and a half standard deviations below normal naturally seems abnormal. But is it?
For me, it was a minor change. And if you take it from the perspective of pediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan, MD, coauthor of The New Puberty, a book geared toward guiding parents through early development and sexual maturation, it’s a minor change for a growing number of girls. In a study launched in 2005 that evaluated a controlled group of girls in three cities, nearly 10 percent of the participants developed signs of puberty before eight years of age.
On a slow Saturday night, a Google search of “early puberty” returns approximately 1.3 million hits in 0.31 seconds. The right side of the search window shows a chart proclaiming precocious puberty a rare condition that is treatable by a medical professional.
Several headlines, some by prestigious news organizations, lament this ordinary change, a change that occurs in all (minus a sliver of a minority) sooner or later. Each publication parrots the others, rattling off a list of negative affects of early maturation — depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, early initiation of sexual activity, etc. — expounding the fears of clueless parents.
I was the fourth born, the third girl in a family of five siblings. My home was a stable household steeped in femininity. I watched my two older sisters grow into their womanhood, and the lessons my mother instilled in them flowed unto me in seamless transition. While I didn’t comprehend everything that was happening, I did understand that puberty was a series of events that would occur over time. My mother explained these changes as they were presented to my sisters, as I was a witness to their evolving bodies. My turn would be next. I wasn’t sure when, but I did know it was coming.
Four years ago, writer Elizabeth Weil profiled a mother and daughter experiencing the onset of precocious puberty for a piece in the New York Times Magazine. The article chronicled how Tracee Sioux, mother and now author of The Year of Yes! fought for a “solution or treatment” to the “problem condition” her nonplussed daughter, Ainsley, was traversing. Doctor after doctor had deemed Ainsley advanced but normal, but that was not the answer Tracee sought. The big, ugly world was revealing itself much too soon. Momma bear had to protect and guard against it. A puritanical concept of innocence was at stake.
The false sense of loss of innocence is the most pressing negative affect of early onset puberty. Society’s fixation on the sexualization of young girls — the famed Lolita Syndrome — should not dictate how we educate our daughters. Let’s divorce the idea of being wanted from that of being a woman and teach girls from the earliest moment possible that they are the owners of their own bodies, and that while they grow, those bodies will change. Girls need to be granted agency over their selves in order to successfully navigate the challenges that arise from childhood into adulthood. Womanhood does not begin with desirability.
In her “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” Leslie Jamison suggests that being a woman requires pain. Jamison goes as far as describing menstruation as “one kind of wound.” For such a central aspect of womanhood to be described as an affliction so casually is troubling. If everything ails, nothing will heal. Pain is not a gender.
Women need to lead the change to stop the stigmatization of our changing bodies. While it may seem preferable to be viewed as a victim rather than a whore, both perspectives are damaging. Our collective understanding of self should be the source of our bonding. The pains of our periods may indicate the possibility of fertility. There should be no shame in that potential. It’s potential: a maybe, but not a certainty. And if it does become a certainty, the reality is just another step in life.
Puberty is a beginning and not an end. It’s a minor change that leads to another that will successively lead to more. It may be scary (or not) and weird at first, but it’s just another phase, like fallen teeth and lanky limbs. Our bodies are our own, and that personal space requires respect. Teach this to our girls and our boys.
Let’s not rob our girls of the beauty of transformation. It will happen whether you want it to or not. Womanhood is process. Revel in the process. Revel in self-care. Love being a woman. It is not unclean.