Late to the party.

I missed last Thursday’s Blog Against Sexism by, uh, a week now. But I was intrigued by the entries on petitpoussin’s link round-up, especially the ones like this on the cleverly titled (and clever!) Persephone’s Box. Sage organizes her entry by means of a feminism Q&A with questions like “Why do all feminists disagree?” and “Why do so many feminists hate men?” Petitpoussin uses the same strategy in her “everything you wanted to know about . . . ” page (except she has a snappy one-size-fits-all answer to the questions she poses).

Are these really questions people are asking you? Now I realize that not everyone is having the same conversations I’m having (many of you don’t spend most of your day talking to 14 year olds, for example) but I’ve found remarkably few people who don’t already identify with feminism interested in talking about it. In my experience, and much to my frustration, most people are either already engaged with feminist issues, or they don’t think feminism is relevant. They’re either talking and thinking about it already, or they don’t think about it at all.

I hope that I’m wrong and there are people out there asking sincere questions and finding feminists willing to spend time talking to them. But it often sounds like, even in the vast blogosphere, we’re just preaching to the choir.

The figure of the man-hating feminist, as raised by both H. and Sage, is one we have yet to shake and perhaps we never will. But I think the spectre of the woman-hating feminist is worth raising as well.

To that end, I introduce you to my grandmother.

My grandmother is a tiny but formidable woman, the kind of old-school lady who never wore pants until she was forced to during rehab from knee surgery in her 80s. She still gets her hair done at the salon twice a week and she wouldn’t think of going anywhere without fixing her lipstick. I’m sure she’s never missed a mass in her life.

But for all her traditional manners and mores, my grandmother is (and she’d be horrified if she heard me say it, so let’s whisper) a feminist.

She went to college (in the 1940s, mind you) and majored in economics because she wanted to become president of the bank her father owned. After graduating she became a bit more realistic and decided the best she could do, being a woman, was to become an executive secretary. And so she went, college diploma in hand, to Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York. Something happened, and she wouldn’t elaborate, so I don’t know if it was just a change of mind or perhaps something juicier, and she decided that route wasn’t for her, so she went home and got married.

By the time she was my age, she’d already given birth to two babies, one who lived only a few days, and one who became my eldest aunt. She had two more babies, a lawyer husband, a country club membership. But her father always told her she was wasting her life, all her intelligence, and when he died something shifted in her again and she went to work. She started as a junior assistant case worker at a social welfare agency in the rural county in Pennsylvania and by the time she retired she was director of that agency.

She told me this story only recently and in an offhand kind of way, as if it wasn’t at once both remarkable and emblematic of so many women’s struggles in her and my lifetime. Which is fine. Not many women, especially my relatively unassuming grandmother, are willing to see their own lives as symbols of anything. I like this story for all the contradictory twists and turns, not least the unexpectedness of it, coming from a woman I’ve known my whole life but know fairly little about.

But this is the same woman who, when finding out that my cousin and her husband had lived together before marriage, remarked, at that same cousin’s wedding, “Looks like the bloom is off the rose.”

This is the same woman whose unflagging manners failed her for more than a moment when introduced to the female minister who was to marry my cousin. My aunt had to introduce the offending minister twice before my grandmother could recoil her claws enough to shake hands.

And so on.

Haven’t we all known – and likely occasionally have been – the much-discussed “token woman”? I feel like one of the most dangerous tendencies in well-meaning feminism is the inability to reconcile being just as intellectual/savvy/tough/fill in your own adjectives as any man with not wanting to also believe that you’re more _________ (fill in your own adjective) than any other woman. So many of us think really critically about our own choices, from education to relationships to dress, and we carry that critical stance into our dealings with other women.

I think there’s a real tendency for women – especially, perhaps, for feminists, who are aware of the multiplied obstacles still facing women – to believe that their accomplishments are the result of being specially able, specially hardworking, etc – and to then want to criticize/demonize/look down on the women around them. I can’t tell you how often I hear my female students say things in the vein of, “I hate girls – they’re so catty/mean/gossippy.” Hell, I know adult women who will proudly declare that they don’t have friends who are women, for the same reasons. And I’ve heard myself say or think some pretty awful things about other women and have been much appalled when I’ve rethought the impetus of that criticism. I think there’s still a strong sense that there’s only room for a very few women to be special and successful – and many of us have a pretty vicious tendency to want to push other women out of the competition.


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Since you didn’t ask . . .

Yesterday at Cary Tennis, whom I usually love dearly, weighed in on a reader’s question about what to do with a pregnancy she wants – just not right now. Basically, she took Plan B but found herself in the 10% or so for whom it’s not effective. She’s happily married and wants to have kids, but yet.

Normally I’m inclined to think, whether it’s fair or not, that men don’t have much of a right to weigh in on abortion, unless to say that what a woman wants to do with her own body is her own business – but the reader did ask for his advice. After suggesting that she have the baby, he goes on to ask about the appropriateness of abortion to this situation:

Let us ask why this option of abortion even exists. Does it exist mainly for the purpose you are considering — to time the pregnancy? And if that were its main purpose, would it even be legal? Is it not legal because it provides much more fundamental freedoms?

To be fair, he then tempers these comments by saying, “That is not to say that it would not be philosophically correct that it be legal under any circumstances — as has been argued, a woman ought to control her own body.” But still. The damage is done, the issue of “abortion of convenience” has been raised – and that’s a variety of guilt that I imagine Tennis, being a man, doesn’t feel in the same visceral way a woman might. I hesitate to speculate about the feelings of the woman who wrote to Tennis, but it seems unfair that in asking for advice about the choice to undergo a safe and legal medical procedure, she’s instead subjected to moralizing advice about the proper use of this procedure. Moreover, he stops just short of suggesting that she is in fact betraying all those who work to make and keep abortion legal by considering its use in this “off-label” way – “So as you weigh these things, you may come to feel that the most appropriate use of abortion is the one whose gravity and urgency match the conditions under which the right is seen as most just.” Or you might decide to kill your baby because you’d rather fritter away a few more years before becoming a mother. You know, whatever.

Am I being unfair? My sense is that Tennis does his reader a grave disservice by responding to a question of his own asking – if abortion is equally legal in a certain set of situations, is it also equally morally acceptable? – rather than responding to her question. His question is an interesting one in another context, but not this one. Given the charged nature of the abortion debate and the guilt that women are so often made to feel, the implicit response – abortion is the selfish choice, not always, but here, for you in particular – seems damaging and cruel. And a large part of me still thinks that until someone can grow that man a womb, he needs to shut his mouth.


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Brush with fame.

I got back from the week of tour bus-ing on Friday and spent most of the morning catching up on all the internet-reading I usually do when I’m supposed to be writing lesson plans and whatnot. When I got to to check Ask Prudence (whose advice, if you ask me, is often a bit more mean-spirited than I’m comfortable with), lo and behold, what did I see but this article, written by a man a former roommate of mine used to date (to put it delicately, as I’m sure she would). Now, I only met the man himself once, but I still felt a bit more thrilled by this almost brush with almost fame than is perhaps reasonable (although the phrase “going native” in the subtitle makes me a bit queasy).

I was also reminded that Rolf Potts once told my friend R., in a moment in which she was all panic and oh-god-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life, that he hadn’t even gotten his passport until he was something like 27 so she still had plenty of time to figure it out. None of which does much, actually, to assuage my current fears that I’m somehow squandering my youth (facing down 25, egads! which is practically 30! which is practically dead! and doing it all in Texas!) but at least it can serve as a reminder in my more rational moments.

And honestly, nothing can make you feel older or more uncool than being the khaki pant-clad teacher shepherding 14 year olds around a college campus. The undergrads look on in horror.

Two favorite moments from the trip:

We split up when we got to the Galleria in Dallas for one of our evening activities (which I came to think of as running the puppies so they would fall asleep early enough) and each chaperone ended up with 12 or so kids. I got all the card-playing, anime-reading kids I love so very much. The group was deliberating about what to do with our hour and a half or so: “First, let’s go to Starbucks, then we’ll go to the Gap, then we’ll go to a bookstore.” Swoon.

On the walking tour of UT (for which we had one tour guide, one!, for 85 students, the aptly-named Princess) we came to the main mall of campus, from which you can see the state capitol. S., a student whose little chipmunk face always puts me in mind of Alvin, Simon, and Theodore yelled out triumphantly, “Look, it’s the White House!”

* * * *

In other news, I also got caught up on this week’s Lost yesterday and oh thank heavens am I glad something is finally happening on that show again. I’m a little sick of Kate’s wounded-puppy face (this is the girl who tucked her stepfather into bed, then set the house on fire, right?) but at least it wasn’t another episode of Charlie and Hurley’s happy times riding around in the VW van. One of the reasons why I loved the first season oh so very much was that every episode seemed like a crucial link. Every episode revealed some new wierdness (polar bear! killer black cloud! French torture lady!) or established a connection between characters. This season’s begun to feel like so much fluff.

And really, Locke? Computer chess is the best thing you can find to do with yourself when Sayid’s just been shot? Oh, I’m sorry, I was too busy catching typhoid in Oregon Trail and didn’t notice John Wilkes Booth slipping in the side door.

Also, has anyone else been loving 30 Rock as much as I have? That show makes me laugh harder than just about anything else I can remember being on television. And after spending a whole week together on the tour bus I was sick enough of just about everyone on this past week’s trip that I was ready, Liz Lemon-style to fire them all. Hilarious.

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Live every week like it’s Shark Week.

Or so a wise man once said.

And that’s just what I’ve been doing since 5.30 Monday morning when I loaded up two charter buses with 85 sweaty 14 and 15 year olds and set off for a week of traveling and college tours around Texas and oh dear Lord am I about to lose it. It’s a fact I learned very shortly after I started teaching, but it’s never more salient than on spring trip week – as the chaperones get more tired, the kids get more exponentially more irritating.

Actually, the kids are quite good. They’ve been attentive during college information sessions, they’ve held doors for each other on campuses, they’ve even gone to bed and stayed there at reasonable times. Thank heavens they’re all much better kids than I was at their age. Not a one of them sneaked liquor on the bus in a Pepsi bottle, nor have any of them jumped out a window to go make out with some wierd guy they just met. Both of those are highlights from a youth group weekend retreat, by the way.

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Little-known facts.

Did you know that in Texas if someone has broken into your house and is fleeing, you can still shoot them as long as some part of their body is on your property? So even if a thief hasn’t made off with anything, you can still grab him by the arm, pull him back into your lawn and shoot him.

That fact was confirmed by our geography teacher, who also told me that Texas has more miles of paved roads than Russia.

Also, in Texas, you can get what’s known as a “hardship license” that allows you to drive at the age of 15.

Also a mosquito that I swear could eat a cat just flew into my classroom.

Cause that’s how we rock it in the Lone Star State.

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What work is.

At the end of my certification course in Louisiana each member of the certification cohort was assigned a project addressing our view of the relationship between teaching and learning. Three women in my group (two of whom were cheerleading sponsors at their high school) did an interpretive dance. One very strange man who had a fictional wife who turned out to be a fictional boyfriend who turned out to just be fictional baked a cake. My project involved a vase, Christmas lights, and slips of paper with text on them.

The final project was a paper written by a man who had been a religious studies and philosophy major in college. He turned out to be a bit of an ass – he was of the pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps school of thought and figured that since he, a white, lower-middle class farmboy from Indiana, had gotten himself to college, his students should do the same – but damn did he write a mean paper. It was a veritable philosophical treatise on the nature of the teacher-student relationship. He read the paper to us the evening of our last seminar as we sat around the coffeetable of our mentor teacher’s house, wine glasses cozied in our palms.

And when he was done we all just sat and stared at each other.

Finally, someone said, “I feel like teaching has made me dumber.”

Of course teaching had made none of us dumber. We all had learned a countless number of things that year, from how to write project directions so our students could understand and follow them to how to break up a fight (or when not to – hint: when it involves girls) to how to get kids to sit down and stop talking.

But that one year – just one year away from university and a certain kind of discourse – had changed the kind of language that was available to us. I learned what “chirren,” and “hot fries” were and I learned new meanings for “messy” and “disgusting,” and my use of language, my way of using language as a means of observing and interacting with the world changed. I was aware of this change as a kind of flattening in my head. Some of it was exhaustion, some of it was the emotional strain of being a complete failure in an arena in which I had expected immediate success, and a great deal of it was the simple fact that the language in my daily life had changed.

That first year in New Orleans I was too exhausted and too horrified most of the time to write in the way I had in college. All I could think to do most days was record the place and time I was sitting and then write whatever story my students had told me that day. My notebook from that year is full of entries like, “Starbucks on St. Charles and Washington. Exhausted. Today N. told me she was stabbed in her knee and that’s why she couldn’t participate in the geography review” and “CC’s on Maple. B. is pregnant, four months.” The world flattened out and I wrote what I could write and it became extremely difficult to look and read and listen in a way that allowed me to write more.

Two years later I read more and I write more. I have the energy and, to some extent, the time, to think about language in a way that I sorely missed my first two years of teaching. But I do still struggle with the question of how to make writing sustainable when I’m not in a field that directly supports it. It seems to be a question of both time – the only time I write is before 6AM, when I get ready to go to work, or times like now, when my students are taking standardized testing and I’m engaged in minimal supervision – and of language and of community. It’s harder to write and to feel compelled two write when no else in your daily life is talking about writing.

If you’re a writer who isn’t in grad school or working at a university, how do you make your writing sustainable? How do find the time to write and how do you stay connected to a community that values writing? Has the language that’s part of your daily life (and your workplace, if your job and workload is anything like mine) changed your way of observing and writing? How do you, to borrow a phrase from my favorite bookstore in New Orleans, fight the stupids?

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Filed under From the seamy underbelly of rm 33, The written word.

Get up and go to work.

E., a favorite student of mine, is heartbreakingly intelligent and perceptive, actually one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. I gave a pre-AP field test a few weeks ago and E. scored higher, by a large margin, than any other 9th grader in our district. He has fascinating thoughts about the role of fate in everything from Oedipus Rex to his own life. He reads his sister’s college textbooks and likes to discuss Freakonomics and independent film.

And yet he has a lower GPA than almost any other student in the ninth grade. He failed 7th grade because he couldn’t be bothered to do work he wasn’t interested in. He failed health because he thought the fake baby made out of a flour bag simulation was beneath him and refused to do it. He’s earned more detentions than any student save one in the whole high school.

I like E. so much personally and have such sympathy for his frustration with the busy work and daily grind of high school. My most prominent memories of high school, at least the actual school part, are of a grinding boredom, of shuffling from one classroom to another and being profoundly uninterested in a lot of what was happening in class. I realize that for E., reading his geography textbook and answering the chapter assessment questions (a lame but potentially useful activity for some of his peers) is mind-numbingly boring for a kid who spends his free time doing independent research on a variety of topics. So he doesn’t do it. Making vocabulary flashcards and writing vocabulary sentences every week for my class is a useless activity for a kid who already has a larger working vocabulary than most college students. So he doesn’t do it.

E. and I made a deal earlier in the year that he isn’t required to do most homework assignments in my class because he doesn’t need the additional practice most of the time and he’s doing so much serious reading on his own. He has a variation on this deal with most of his teachers (including the health teacher, who told his mother during a parent-teacher conference that most of the homework she assigns is just “busy work, since we have to turn in grades” – but that’s a whole other issue).

And he’s still failing several classes.

I also teach E.’s cousin, C. C. is also very bright, though not in quite the same off-the-charts innate intelligence way. But she’s the classic kind of “teacher-pleaser” gifted student. She’s smart, she’s hardworking, she’s pleasant. She raises her hand and has the right answer. She gets along well with her classmates. Even if she thinks an assignment is silly, she does it. Even if she thinks a rule is arbitrary, she follows it. I doubt she’s ever gotten less than an A in her life. She reminds me quite a bit of myself at that age (although I was far more self-conscious and uncomfortable with my nerdiness than she is).

Sometimes I wish she’d take a cue from her cousin.

I admire E.’s independent mind, his determination to do only what he thinks is worthwhile. I respect his love of learning for the sake of learning and the breadth and depth of subjects he’s interested in. I want to tell C. that getting the A doesn’t actually mean you’ve learned anything.

But lately, I’ve been thinking that I’ve really been shortchanging E. by having such respect for his lackadaisical work ethic and failure to comply with the bell schedule, uniform, and homework policies.

So much of life – and this was a very difficult realization after I graduated from college, and one I still struggle with sometimes – is just getting up and going to work. You get up and go to work because that’s what people do. You organize papers in file folders and sharpen pencils because the papers have to go somewhere and the pencils won’t sharpen themselves. Your boss asks you to fill out paperwork that you think is silly and you do it because that’s your job. And you do it on time, because that’s your job, too.

All those As I earned in college, my scores on the SAT and the GRE, all the things I cherished (and still do, to be entirely honest) as proof of what a smartypants I was – they have very little to do with success outside of school. But the other lessons of school – coming to class on time, turning in work, raising your hand when you have something to say – have everything to do with success outside of school.

As bright as E. is, I worry that as an adult he’ll continue to struggle with getting himself to work on time and completing a project once he’s started it. I worry that he won’t get into the kind of college his brilliance merits. I worry he’ll lose the opportunity to study with the kind of intensity I know he craves.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that between now and 2010 he learns a lot more about all the things that interest him – and a little more about just getting the work done.

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