Fri 17 Sep 2010
there are only six of us in the class, four new Ph.D students and two M.Ed students finishing up their final course requirements. we are there to study quantitative research methods. the words are unfamiliar, dust in my mouth.
i am early, all nerves and butterflies and shiny eagerness, momentarily eight instead of thirty-eight. i laugh at my fool self.
i have worked on this campus on and off for five years, in this building for most of that time. it should all be familiar. but normally i stride in all gussied up, in heels and grown-up clothes, a professional with the class list clutched in one paw and a coffee in the other, the next hour or two mostly choreographed in my head.
this time, i have marked the shift as best i can…on my body. i know nothing of the dance to come the next three hours except the barest structure: syllabus, introductions, vague visions of formulas. i am afraid of formulas. and so, stripped of my status as the knower, the director of the dance, i have girded my loins in comfort food’s apparel equivalent: a faded denim shirt. with tights. and new boots, flat and comfy. big socks. identity as performance; my philosophy made flesh. or at least cloth and leather.
thank you, o fickly revolving vagaries of fashion, for bringing me straight on back to my undergrad days. yes, the army boots have been exchanged for Blundstones, because if one is going to spend hundreds of dollars on a single book written in bizarre statistical formulas, one might as well splurge on boots, too. ahem. but i know myself in these clothes. this is my student uniform.
and yet, i am lying to myself. i cannot go back to that old skin.
it’s not that i was all passive and receptive, the mythic blank slate waiting for wisdom.
sure, i played that part sometimes, even to myself. i was a good student in the early days, a little shit through most of junior high, then a high-achieving if somewhat poorly-attending high school and undergraduate student.
but the passivity was conditional; the only mark by which i knew how to signal my acceptance and acquiescence to the system that ordered my days and my existence. School was deeply and profoundly a player in how i valued and understood myself, all through my formative years.
When i was a kid, i watched closely in classes, reading both the textbooks and the relationships unfolding in front of me. i was curious and eager to belong, and tried desperately to think of interesting things to say in class. but if ever the classroom or program circumstances in which i found myself smelled like power and structure for their own sakes, my sense of well-being and belonging would shrivel and i’d recoil as if a door had closed. no place for me here, i would whisper, and my middle-finger would rise, of its own ornery accord. i’d be outed.
oppositional. saucy. not working to her full potential.
those report cards were stark contrasts to my Lisa Simpson status quo. i realize now they should have read, “This student is challenging my power position in the classroom. This is uncomfortable for us both.”
ask my middle school math teacher. ask my classmates the year i stayed on in my little college town for a one year post-B.A. Bachelor of Education program.
one of them confessed to me that spring, just before graduation, that they called me The Bad Ass of the Class. i think i grinned, all bravado. but it was the loneliest year of my life, those bewildering days when i discovered i did love teaching, but might hate teachers. or at least Teachers’ College, with its smug and cheery conviviality, its simplifying presentation of a world i was sure was complicated. we never once talked about power.
i did not know how to name the absence. i just knew i had never before so singularly failed to fit in. and somewhere early on i had understood that on a gut level, and closed myself off, unreachable. i was protecting myself from the person that system existed to create; from becoming a teacher on terms that alienated and troubled me, that left out all that i thought was important.
but i did not know how to say any of that. and so i went through the motions at the back of the class, appeared passive and contemptuous, a rebel without a cause.
i thought i was there to belong. i thought the problem was me.
the incredible thing about going back to school when you are
107 older than twenty-two is that you simultaneously morph into two people at once. the opinionated adult with a confident voice, who understands that belonging is a far broader thing than any one classroom experience could possibly shape, and the younger version of yourself, miraculously resurrected the moment you fold yourself into a desk and open a binder.
you can see it, actually, your entire hard-won sense of self and authority wilts like a pansy and slithers down your leg. it pools wetly on the floor. you wonder if others can see it. you wonder if they will judge you. you wonder if you will look stupid. you wonder if you will belong.
you wonder why the professor is staring at you and then you realize she has asked your name.
you go to use the voice that you were so sure would carry you proudly through insightful explorations of meaning, and you discover that you sound like Minnie Mouse. you feel painfully exposed. you also feel stupid for feeling painfully exposed. you are an adult, dammit. ouch.
the quantitative professor then asks about your background with statistics.
you consider simply diving into the pool of your own ego on the floor and hoping to drown, then and there.
you try humour, instead. i can’t count, you quip. you notice the professor looks unsurprised but vaguely depressed by your confession. you find this strangely heartening. perhaps there will be others like you.
you give your head a shake. you swallow, straighten your shoulders. you will not play the simple role of insider OR outsider, not this time around.
it’s true that you can’t go back to the old skin of your once-upon-a-student self, the one who gave over most of her power to the teacher and then sulked at the back of the class if it was misused. but not because that skin EVER goes away. it will be there until you are, literally, 107, always a tidy fit, ever making you look and feel smaller and almost-comfortably invisible and pleasing.
you can’t go back because it doesn’t feel good enough anymore, just to feel safe. to belong.
you chose to be here, this time round. you want something, for yourself, beyond whatever the person at the front of the class may want. you are an adult. even if you sound like Minnie Mouse and you can’t count and you’re dressed like an aging undergraduate.
the difference is everything.