I’m sure I’m not the first person writing to tell you that HB2 is a steaming pile of a horrible idea.
There are so many reasons why this bill steams with horribleness. There’s the fact that you’ve just removed local jurisdiction rights, or the fact that people in North Carolina can now easily be discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender. Really, there’s no shortage of things to complain about here. So let’s concentrate on one specific aspect of this bill which many of us suspect will be the most dangerous: your requirement that people use public bathrooms based on their biological sex.
Let’s start with why such a law cannot ever be truly enacted—from a biological standpoint.
I get that you want the world to be black and white. You want everyone born with a penis to be declared a boy and everyone born with a vagina to be declared a girl. The world is so much simpler in binaries, isn’t it? Cleaner. Easier to manage. If everyone uses bathrooms based on those norms, the world looks a whole lot more back and white, and people who love binaries get to sleep much more soundly at night.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a binary world. Just ask athletes like female sprinter Dutee Chand, who was barred from competition when officials declared that her body produces levels of testosterone too high for a female. Or you could ask any of these ten intersex athletes who have had to deal with various levels of public scrutiny and dishonor as the world tried to determine exactly which biological box to push them into. And by the way, how will people born intersex fit into your bathroom laws? Will we soon see some arrested for using improper bathrooms when they don’t fall perfectly into the letter of this law, similar to how high jumper Heinrich Ratjen was arrested in Germany in 1936 when someone cried gender fraud?
Not only is our biology not as black and white as we’d like to think, our gender identity is even less simplistic. As this PBS report reminds us, gender identity isn’t something that fits nicely into binary boxes any more easily as human biology does. And by trying to squeeze gender identity into neat boxes, you are effectively telling the American public that you know who they are better than they do.
It’s precisely this human obsession with binaries that has created the serious danger to the trans community which this law will only perpetuate. I get it—you think you’re protecting Americans with this law. And in a world where biology was always simple and gender identity fit neatly into boxes alongside biology, perhaps you would be. But that isn’t the world we live in. In actuality? You’re putting a population that is already in grave danger in much, much deeper danger. As the PBS report mentioned above reminds us, “41 percent of transgender adults attempt suicide.” Just to make sure we’re clear on the math, that’s nearly half the population. In this country, the average life expectancy for a trans woman of color is 35 years. 35 YEARS. In other words: you have a better chance of surviving longer in some third world countries than you will as a trans woman of color in the United States.
Looking at these statistics makes it easy to see how the stigmatization of the trans community in America is making it impossible for many trans people to live happy and successful lives in this country. Laws such as this one only perpetuate stigmas and increase the vulnerability of an already vulnerable population. Whether or not you ever intend to actually enforce this law (and I have questions as to how you would, but I’ll leave those for others), the mere fact that this law is now on the books has sent a brutally important and disturbing message to the trans community: You do not fit into our binary boxes, so you are other. You are not normal. You will not be treated like everyone else and you will not be allowed to use the bathroom where you most feel comfortable.
As an educator, I can assure you that many of the people who will suffer most greatly at the hands of this law are the young people in this country. Imagine being a twelve-year-old transgender girl and suddenly being forced to change in a locker room full of boys. Imagine what that scenario would have done to your psyche at such an age.
I sincerely hope that by the time this letter sees the light of day, no one in North Carolina will need to read it. Perhaps by then you will have been so flooded with other letters, tweets, boycotts and messages that you will have begun to realize the utter absurdity and danger of this law. Perhaps you will have begun to understand that this world is not, and never will be, a black-and-white place. We all live between shades of gray--even you. Telling others what to call their shades of gray and how to live within them is the epitome of everything that is not American.
Me and Everyone Else Who Thinks This Law is a Steaming Pile of Horribleness
David Bowie died, and I’ve already found a way to make it all about me.
This will surprise no one who has ever met me. Or any other human, probably. We’re inherently good at taking things that are not about us and making them all about us. I consistently manage to bring this skill to new levels.
Anyway, David Bowie died, and I was immediately all I will never change anything or affect anyone the way that man has. And truthfully, I probably never will. The amount of creative work he produced in his life lifetime is astronomical. I watch way too much TV to even come close to accomplishing what he did. (And no way am I about to give up Top Chef, dudes.)
Today was also the day that the American Library Association announced a host of book awards, and all kinds of authors that I tremendously respect and am inspired by were on the list, and I haven't even written much to speak of recently (well, there was that one grocery list), and then I was all everyone is doing all these great things and David Bowie did ALL the amazing things and I am not accomplishing anything because I try to do too much and THAT IS BAD.
This is a serious concern I’ve recently developed: that I am involved in too many things instead of focusing on one pursuit, and therefore I will never achieve as much as I could if I just did the same thing all day long.
I’ve also recently discovered that I am probably what Elizabeth Gilbert would call a hummingbird. Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love (which I’ve never read, but I hear good things), and Big Magic (which I’m kind of obsessed with right now and reading super slowly so I can savor every word). Gilbert argues there are two kinds of people in the world: jackhammers, who are obsessive in their passionate quest of one pursuit, and hummingbirds, who flit from pursuit to pursuit based on curiosity and interest.
I’m a flitter. There was a time when I might not have been able to recognize that in myself, because once I flit to something I tend to jackhammer it right into the ground. But I like a lot of things, and I want to try a lot of things, and I tend to move back and forth between them all. I have multiple careers because I can’t seem to give up either teaching or writing, and I also like to write curriculum so I’m always trying to do that on the side, and I like skiing but I’m not about to give up running except when I decide to do yoga for a few weeks in a row. I even do this flitting thing within my writing. I move back and forth between manuscripts and projects, jackhammering at them periodically and then moving on to something else. I meet deadlines because I know do know how to jackhammer things when I have to. But I’ve never been good at picking one direct pursuit and just hammering at that for years on end.
So this morning I was thinking about how David Bowie must have been a jackhammer who just made things happen and worked and worked and worked at music, and I was bemoaning that I will probably never be like that…only then I remembered more about Bowie. He was a lot of things. He was a movie star and a cultural icon and within his music he played with genres and moved around in his various pursuits of artistry. Maybe David Bowie was a hummingbird after all. Gilbert argues that the power of the hummingbird is in our ability to weave ideas in and out of different fields and different passions—spread the pollen, you know? If anyone knew how to spread ideas between sects of humanity and different creative endeavors, it was David Bowie.
I don’t need to be the next David Bowie, but I do need to remember that there is value in my hummingbird instincts. Sure, I might never accomplish as much as some of the jackhammers of the world, but I genuinely love all the different ways I spend my days, and I love that all the ideas and passions I have travel with me wherever I go.
RIP, David Bowie. Thanks for all the marks you left across this world.
Well, it finally happened: more mass shootings occurred in this country, and for the first time, I wasn’t sad.
No. I was pissed.
Pissed because two of the shootings in recent months have happened in a community I used to live in and care deeply about. Pissed because there have been 355 mass shootings in the past year. Pissed because more Americans have died because of guns since 1968 than in all American wars combined.
I'm over this. I’m over wondering if any of the students in my school who are struggling with depression have access to guns and whether someone might decide to bring one to class next week. I’ve over panicking every time I hear the words “COMMUNITY COLLEGE SHOOTING” on the news because my husband teaches at a community college. I’m over worrying that my nephews and godchildren and all the other beautiful, innocent children in my life will witness and be scarred by the trauma of gun violence.
Look, I’ve never been about giving up freedom for security. I’ve always been that person who argued against things like the Patriot Act, because honestly? If you need to spy on me to keep me safe, I’d rather take the risk. But the gun issue isn’t about giving up freedom for security. We’re operating under this bizarre illusion that security from gun violence means we have to chuck the second amendment out the window, and it just isn’t true. I don’t believe it. I don’t buy that argument.
Cars weren’t around in the 1700s, so there’s no amendment in the Constitution about one’s freedom to drive. And when cars became a Thing People Used, we immediately regulated them—and rightly so. Because they are dangerous, dangerous pieces of machinery. We carefully monitor who has cars and make laws about when people are allowed to drive them. I had to sit through no fewer than six disgusting Driver’s Ed videos showing me all the ways I could get killed in a car accident before anyone gave me a driver's license. Not to mention the hours of practice my poor parents had to put in with me. (Sorry, Mom.)
Where’s the equal regulation for gun ownership or use? Where are the consistently mandated safety courses? Where are the required hours of proof that you a) know how to hold that thing b) know how to lock it up c) are probably not going to use it for horrible purposes? Look, I grew up in northern Vermont. The Vermont I grew up in had one of the highest rates of gun ownership and lowest rates of gun-related deaths in the country. And it turns out that, as of July, this statistic is still true.
You know what I remember about my childhood? I remember how seriously people took gun ownership. I remember gun safety courses being offered every year at my school. I remember it being a very, very big deal when one of my friends went hunting for the first time. I remember that when a gun-related accident or shooting happened, people talked about it, dissected it, looked for ways to share messaging in the community to make sure it didn’t happen again. I’m sure our gun culture wasn’t perfect or nearly as idyllic as I remember it (nothing ever is), but I am sure of this: guns were considered serious things. Because they are.
My idyllic Vermont had laws and culture that made gun ownership possible with very little gun violence. Our country as a whole right now? We don’t have that culture. We’re not taking guns seriously.
Regulating guns, making them less accessible or illegal where necessary, being far, far more careful about how they are distributed—none of these things are an indication that we are giving up freedom to the government. I didn’t feel held hostage by my government when I took Driver’s Ed. I felt like I was learning a skill so that I could take on a very important responsibility. I don’t feel held hostage by the government when I renew my license and prove I can still see before I get behind the wheel again. You know who I do feel held hostage by these days? The NRA. Because they somehow manage to do things like get laws passed that say the government can’t fund any research that might lead to further gun control. How is that even a thing? We can never learn and grow and develop gun laws that are safe and sane and logical? How does anyone not felt held hostage by a body so powerful and intrusive that they can get that kind of legislation passed? It literally nauseates me. (And no, I didn’t just misuse the term literally. I am actually nauseated right now. It’s very uncomfortable, frankly.)
I’m angry today. I’m not scared, and I’m not sad. I should be, but I’m not. I’m angry. We need laws and culture around guns in America to change, or nothing else is going to change. And maybe that means addressing the issue differently in different cities and towns and states, and I’m okay with that. Vermont and Chicago are not the same place, and their communities may require different legal and cultural shifts. That’s okay. Speed limits are different on different roads.
But something needs to happen—and fast. I can no longer be held hostage by the NRA. I can no longer worry every day that my students will experience gun violence either in their homes or inside the walls of my school.
Because those are both places where every child has the right to feel safe.
Recently I was asked to appear on a local cable show to discuss my books. I’m always thrilled to talk to one of the five people who’ve read my work (hi Mom!), so I gave myself a quick self-five in celebration and said yes.
Normally I’d spend at least five days working myself into an appropriate panic about a public appearance like this, but life has been busy for the last few weeks (writing deadlines, trying to eat all the cheese in Italy), and I wasn’t able to give this TV appearance too much thought until the morning of filming. So this past Friday morning I found myself with a mere seven hours to work up an appropriate panic attack.
I started with the old stand-by, worrying frantically that I wouldn’t know what to say or that I’d say something stupid. This fear didn’t hold as much water as it has in the past. Of course I’d say something stupid; I’m human. But I’ve improved my stupid-to-nonstupid ratio drastically over the past few public appearances I’ve made, so all signs suggested I’d at least be able to nod and say “yes” at the correct times.
I quickly moved on to being worried about what to wear. And this, naturally, led straight to the question that’s been panic-inducing for me since high school: do I look fat in this?
Like most American women born after the popularization of Vitoria’s Secret, I am constantly confused regarding how I am supposed to feel about my body. As near as I can tell, I have three options:
1. Get incredibly thin and then everyone will love me and think I’m pretty.
Yes, this idea has occurred to me before. Frankly, though, my body type doesn’t go for this option this as easily as some others. Also: cookies.
2. Be proud of my body the way it is, eat what I want, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.
I want to go for this one. It seems like the healthiest option from a self-confidence perspective. But I’m not sure that eating everything I want to eat is actually going to allow me to live past the end of The Simpsons. And when Amy Schumer tried this, Hollywood basically took away her lunch. (Luckily she’s Amy Schumer. Lunch won.)
3. Worry about getting strong and toned, not thin.
I recognize that this is probably the optimal choice for a variety of reasons. But it also requires me going to the gym every time I say I’m going to, which is hard when you already have two jobs and a cat and a husband and other things. And then there’s the cookie problem. And hubs just perfected his homemade pasta recipe, sooo…yeah.
By the time I’d run through all three options, all while standing in front of the bathroom mirror and examining my thighs to determine if they looked any more cottage-cheesy than the last time I looked, I’d certainly worked up five days’ worth of panic. I couldn’t go film. I couldn’t be on TV, not even local access. People would see that I look like I eat lunch! People would realize I don’t always go to the gym when I’m supposed to! People would realize I don’t actually love my body just the way it is!
After quickly hyperventilating, I spent a quick shower contemplating an article I recently read where “real women” posed like the swimsuit models from the Victoria’s Secret catalog. Like any glutton for internet punishment, I’d foolishly read the comments on the article. Some of them were ecstatic, lauding all the women featured and calling them beautiful. Some were angry, calling out other commenters on basically encouraging obesity and, therefore, unhealthy lifestyles. And from what I could tell (although I did stop reading due to nausea, so who knows), not one commenter mentioned that the original models weren’t exactly the picture of health themselves.
In a world where there’s so much noise about body image, it’s no wonder I struggle with how I’m supposed to look and how I’m supposed to feel about my body. It’s no wonder so many woman—and men—struggle with eating disorders, weight issues, and food issues. It’s no wonder commenters on the internet are at war over this topic. It’s no wonder the media saturates us with images and words purporting competing ideas on what the ideal body is.
Did I come to some kind of epiphany that day about body image that carried me through the television shoot? No. I did the TV spot, had fun, and I only worried about how I looked once every seven minutes or so. I’ll call that a win. But this morning, as I putting on my own bathing suit to go for a swim at the rec center, I thought about the models who pose for Victoria’s Secret. And the women who posed for that accompanying article. And I wondered if the answer to being happy with my body and my life is a balance of equal parts gym time, cookies, and not worrying what anyone else thinks.
But that’s a balance that’s often easier to imagine than to strike.
I haven’t been on the internet much lately, because I’ve been writing lots and lots of words. Shiny things like the internet distract me, so I tend to avoid them when I’m writing lots and lots of words.
Then I popped back onto Twitter a few days ago, and realized the young adult reader/writer part of the internet had exploded while I was gone. Seems it all started when Andrew Smith did this interview, in which he said this:
“I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she's 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I'm trying to be better though.”
I wasn’t around for the direct fallout of this interview, but it seems to have gone something like this:
1. Lots of angry responses from people who felt Smith’s comments were anti-feminist and destructive to women
2. Lots of angry responses to those responses from people who like Andrew Smith and/or his writing and/or didn’t find his comments anti-feminist
3. At some point in the debacle, Andrew Smith removed himself from social media entirely
I thought long and hard about whether or not I should blog my own thoughts about this controversy—largely because I hate conflict, and being associated with conflict in any way makes me pace my living room heavily. But in the end I decided I should I weigh in. I needed to. I’m a woman, so issues of feminism matter to me. I’m a writer, so issues of language matter to me. And I’m a human being, so the feelings of other human beings matter to me.
So for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts. And they are hinge on two words: “oops” and “ouch.”
About four years ago, I was involved in founding an English class for 8th graders that focused heavily on ethnic and gender studies. Early in the founding of the class, another teacher gave me a trick for facilitating heavy discussions about complex issues: set a norm for using the words “oops” and “ouch.”
Here’s the idea. When Person A says something in a conversation that hurts Person B, Person B says “ouch.” This is the cue for Person A to realize that they just said something hurtful. Maybe Person A realized they said something potentially hurtful; maybe they didn’t. But either way, it’s now out in the open that they did, and it’s up to them to learn more from Person B why their comment was hurtful.
“Oops” is essentially the flip side of the scenario. When someone says something that they’ve just learned is hurtful, or that they worry may be hurtful, they cue the group in by saying “this is an oops” (or whatever works…it can be a weird word to fit into conversation at times). It’s a way of offering reparation or asking for support with better understanding others’ feelings.
Basically, the point of the exercise is to separate intent from impact. My 8th graders never really got into the whole “oops” and “ouch” thing (they still don’t appreciate The Sandlot either…kids these days), but the concept is definitely something that’s stuck with me over the years. As I’ve started to use social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr more, I’ve often wished there was such a thing as an “oops” and “ouch” hashtag specifically for conversations like these. Let’s face it: the internet is filled with people who say hurtful things without meaning to. It’s also filled with people who are hurt by those comments and either don’t express their hurt or express it with such vitriol that they end up saying very hurtful things. I’ve been on basically all ends of this spectrum at some point, so I speak from some experience here.
Here’s the thing about Smith’s comments in this interview: what’s spurring the hurt feelings is language. As author Maggie Stiefvater brilliantly tweeted not long ago:
"I'm not sure why people act as if HE is on trial rather than our culture's language."
This is a LANGUAGE issue, people. Our culture uses language all the time to insinuate that women and men are inherently different and therefore can never be understood by one another. There was a bestselling book called Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, remember? This isn’t a new ideology in American culture.
So it’s worth noting if you’re one of the women in the world who finds this language and ideology hurtful. It’s definitely worth nothing, because you are a human being and your feelings matter, and this ideology will not stop being a part of American culture unless people speak up and say that this type of language bothers them. So “ouch” that moment for sure, and let the world know.
But this is also a moment where Andrew Smith and the rest of us need to be able to ask questions. We need to learn more about why you’re upset and hurt. We need to be able to apologize that you’ve been hurt and ask to know more about your feelings—otherwise nobody learns. I say “we” here because—quite honestly—I don’t fully understand all the painful reactions to the ideology behind Smith’s comments. And I’ve got two X chromosomes. So clearly I can stand to learn something here as well.
Basically, I’m “oopsing” for everyone out there who also is confused by this dialogue. I’m asking to learn.
Why is it important that we have norms around these types of discussions? Because otherwise, these conversations can breed a lot of anger and a lot of hurt. I’ve seen some tweets out there indicating that some people think it’s “not the responsibility” of a person who’s been hurt by someone else’s comments to educate those doing the hurting—especially not politely. Another YA author had this reaction to Smith’s words:
“I’m not asking for boycotts or apologies, I’m asking that we keep talking about this, keep pointing it out, keep making it shameful and at least annoying to say things like this.”
If that’s the world we’re turning into—a world where people deserve constant shame for their actions and words—I’m truly screwed. Because there are a lot of ideas and people and feelings in the world I don’t know or haven’t come in contact with yet. As such, I’m bound to say something hurtful to another person at multiple points in my life. And if that person doesn’t tell me when I’ve done that, I might do it again. And while you certainly don’t have to educate me politely…well, it would be nice if you didn’t berate me, either. I am a human being, just like you are. And I want to learn from you. I will always understand if you’re angry at me for something hurtful I said; you have every right to your feelings. But no matter how hurt you are, please don’t make my learning come at the expense of my dignity and self-worth.
Let’s take the shame out of these conversations and have some conversations about what’s really at stake here. Like the way we, as humans, use our language to write and speak about each other. Or the way we, as humans, treat each other. Or the way we, as a race of more than two genders, all talk about issues of gender. Let’s be as honest as Andrew Smith was in that interview, and lets stop being shameful when other people say honest things that hurt us. We’ll all have some “ouch” moments, and some “oops” moments, and hopefully that will be okay.
And then let’s all get together and watch The Sandlot. Because my 8th graders just don’t know what they’re missing.
If you've worked in or around the field of education anytime in the last decade, odds are you've seen or heard this mantra somewhere:
Originally born out of the high-achieving charter school movement, this mantra has quickly spread throughout the education world into traditional public schools and even private schools. On its face, it seems like a wonderful mantra for educators to follow. After all, every child should have a chance to live a successful life. We should message to students that they can overcome any obstacle if they work hard enough, and we as educators should work to overcome every obstacle in our students’ way.
The problem with the NO EXCUSES philosophy of education, however, is the same problem that has plagued the No Child Left Behind law, which recently celebrated its tenth birthday: sometimes "excuses" are actually the reasons students aren’t succeeding...and ignoring those reasons gets us nowhere.
For those of you who’ve already forgotten about NCLB, it included the following goals: all children would be proficient in reading and writing and graduate from high school by the 2013-2014 school year. Spoiler alert! That school year is long done and closed, and we weren’t even close.
So why weren’t we close to meeting the lofty goals of NCLB? Did we make too many excuses for ourselves and our students? Or is it just that there are many solid reasons for why 100% of students are not proficient on state standardized tests and graduating high school?
Here are a few possible reasons worth mentioning.
-The 30 million word gap. This is, essentially, the research study suggesting that children born into low-income households have heard 30 million fewer words than children born into middle and upper-class homes…by the age of 3. As you can likely imagine, this gap has a long-term impact on all aspects of a student’s literacy instruction.
-The so-called “third-grade slump.” This is the research that suggests a student who is not reading on grade level by third grade is unlikely to ever read with full proficiency.
-English Language Learners whose schools lack the programming needed for them to successfully receive instruction
-Students with learning disabilities which prevent them from meeting full proficiency on standardized state tests
This is where the NO EXCUSES policy in education gets dangerous. Like NCLB, it names a goal of surpassing obstacles rather than seeking out the reason those obstacles are being created—and fixing them. NCLB set out insurmountable and pragmatically impossible goals for elementary, middle, and high schools, but it never tackled some of the biggest root causes of the obstacles those schools are up against. What if the more of the time and energy that went into chastising schools under NCLB had gone into making early childhood education programs accessible to all children in this country? What kind of educational landscape would we now, ten years later, be looking at? Would the 30 million word gap no longer exist?
I’m not advocating that we rid schools of the “No Excuses” concept entirely. The fact is that millions of students who sit in front of us need a high-quality education now, regardless of anything else. What I am advocating for is something more akin to what my co-worker sometimes calls the “Some Excuses” policy. I myself like to call it “No Excuses. Just Some Reasons.”
Under this new policy, schools in America would be held to high expectations for student success--and at the same time we could finally have a dialogue about what creates those obstacles. Rather than being told that discussing these obstacles is making excuses for our students, we could find logical and meaningful ways to eradicate these obstacles wherever and whenever possible.
At the end of the day, telling our students we don’t care about the reasons they are failing is a misguided approach to education. Those reasons do matter, and we’ll only continue to do a disservice to students in the American education system if we don’t work to acknowledge them.
No excuses. Just some reasons.
Let’s clear up one thing first: I am the ultimate law-abider. You know, the kid who never used the markers if the teacher said not to even though her seatmate totally did use the markers and get away with it. The teenager who never smoked or shoplifted. I am a rule-follower. Mostly because I believe in rules that are logical and clearly there for the protection of society…and partly because it seems to be in my nature, which contains a heavy dose of Fear of Confrontation.
But every now and then, even I, the ultimately compliant citizen, will bend the rules just slightly. In the past this has generally meant drinking when I wasn’t quite 21 yet (hey, I grew up on the Canadian border, where 18 worked just fine, thank you), and the occasional speeding ticket. But lately I’ve taken to a new method of civil disobedience.
I’ve been riding on the Light Rail at the discount fare. Yeah. For real.
The Light Rail is the commuter train in the Denver area. I don’t live in Denver, and I try to take the Light Rail into the city whenever I can. You know—save the environment. Not to mention the avoidance of parking fees and difficulties. But here’s the thing about the Light Rail. It’s four dollars a ride. ONE WAY. As in almost twice the price of the subway in New York City.
Listen, I’m not made of money here. And I really do try to support public transportation whenever possible, but FOUR DOLLARS A RIDE? It’s highway robbery.
Plus, I still have my student ID from grad school, which I’ll occasionally use to grab cheaper movie tickets or clothing discounts. So, I figured, why not do the same with the Light Rail?
Since it opened almost a year ago, I’ve been unapologetically buying the discount ticket to ride the Light Rail. And until Friday, the dudes who check the tickets really didn’t seem to care. One guy, ONCE, mentioned that I should start buying the full-fare ticket, because my age actually made me inelilibigle for the discount. Other than that? No one cared. I had a ticket, I wasn’t freeloading, and I’m quiet on a train. Everyone’s happy, you know?
So. There I am, listening to Pandora, minding my business on the way to a Very Important Meeting of some kind. Fare Checking Dude stops by, and I’m all yup, got my ticket right here, guy.
Only he gives me the stink eye and asks me for my discount ID.
Which is so no big deal, because I carry my exhausted (and expired) grad school ID with me at all times. So I flash that at him.
And he starts lecturing me.
I figure he’ll check the ID, confirm that I am the person on the grad school ID, ask me to get off the train at the next stop and buy the correct fare, and then go about his business. Only NO. He takes my poor ID away and moves down the crowded train car.
At which point I start to realize I am actually in Some Kind of Trouble here.
“Um,” I call out, “I have the extra two bucks. Sorry I bought the wrong ticket. I can just, you know, give you the two bucks.”
The train stops, people get off, and he comes back over. “Don’t do this again, ma’am. Next time it will be a fine of $106.” And then he holds up the little electronic thing he carries around and it FLASHES A SMALL LIGHT IN MY FACE.
“Um, excuse me. Did you just take my picture? Did you just take my picture?” Never mind that I’m having a pretty solid hair day, here—when did this become legal? When did it become legal—never mind polite—to give the mainly-law-abiding citizen no notice whatsoever before you basically subject her to a mugshot?
“I did. Here’s you’re warning. Remember to buy the correct fare from now on.” He hands me a ticket and hops off the train. Probably avoiding the scene that I was definitely about to start, if I could manage to quiet my Inner Person Who Hates Confrontation long enough to do so.
And there I was: me and my headphones, along with a ticket that said NO PROOF OF FARE.
Okay, so several things are bothering me about this encounter. One, the general lack of compassion and fairness of this guy. He could have let me hop off the train and buy a new ticket. He could have warned me that he was about to take my photo and explained why. (Which I still do not know, by the way.) Instead, he was a general a-hole about the whole thing. And I get that Light Rail Cop is probably not the most enjoyable job on planet Earth. But really? Is this how we’re encouraging people in Denver to use public transit these days? Please excuse me while I buy another vehicle.
Then there’s the fact that my ticket says NO PROOF OF FARE. For some bizarre reason, this is greatly bothering the Law Abider within me. Dude, I totally had a fare. It was the wrong fare—but it was a fare.
But what is possibly bothering me most of all is that I seriously don’t know that I can continue to ride the Light Rail after this encounter. Not just because this officer was a total dick, but also because $8 a ride is a lot. And CO isn’t great on public transit, so financially I have to support ownership of a car every month. I believe the world and our environment need more public transit, and I want to use public transit whenever it’s truly viable for me to do so—but $8 a ride on top of covering my car repairs and insurance ain’t all that viable. I mean, parking in Denver is less than $8 a day.
The lesson here, kids, is simple: if you’re going to buy the discount fare when you ride the Denver Light Rail, be prepared to possibly have your picture taken with neither your permission nor a smiling face. And if you’d rather not be subjected to a surprise mug shot, plan to spend $8 to go a grand total of nine miles.
Denver, your reputation for being environmentally-friendly? Way to stick a giant hole it in.
Imagine a company where every employee who works part time is also paid half the amount per hour that the full-time employees are paid. (I.e. if the full-time employees make $12 an hour, the part-time employees make $6 an hour.)
Imagine that in this company, up to 70% of the workers are part-time and only 30% are full-time.
Imagine that these part-time workers have no benefits and no guarantee of continued employment.
Imagine that the part-time workers are docked pay if they are ill or need to miss a day. The full-time workers are not.
Imagine that the majority of the part-time workers have to maintain multiple other jobs just in order to earn a living wage, because what they do earn is so low. Many require government assistance just to survive.
What would you expect the quality of these part-time workers to be, on a scale of 1-10? (10 being high, 0 being low.) And therefore, what would you expect the quality of the company’s product to be?
I would have gone with 3. How about you?
Now, here’s the scary part: the employment situation I just described isn’t happening at a large corporation like Wal-Mart or Target. And it isn’t happening in a second or third-world country where employee rights are limited. This situation is happening right here in America.
And it’s happening in almost every college in this country—including, most likely, the college you attended. These employees? They’re called Adjunct Professors.
I spent years blissfully unaware that this kind of exploitation was occurring anywhere--least of all in the many universities and colleges I have spent time in and around. It wasn’t until my husband took a position teaching in a community college three years ago that I realized what employment really looks like for the many adjunct professors in most colleges and universities.
Basically, it looks like this: every semester, you get assigned some classes. If you’re lucky, you get a full course load. You’re paid by the course. So someone given a course load of 4 classes might only be making $8,000 for the whole semester. Meanwhile, a so-called “full-time” professor is making a full salary for their teaching load—which means they’re likely making at least $22,000 for that same semester. You don’t get benefits, which is tough, because if you’re carrying a full course load, any other jobs you’re going to have are probably also going to be part-time—which means you probably don’t have benefits at all. And let’s be honest: despite the fact that you’re called a “part-time” instructor, you’re still carrying a full course load. So if you’re teaching those courses with any kind of integrity, you shouldn’t have much time to devote to other part-time jobs. Except you have to find or make the time, because not one can live on $8,000 dollars a semester. Which means that you’re probably either living hand-to-mouth or not devoting enough time to your students.
As an educator myself, I’m disgusted by this system. It’s completely de-valuing to educators and, in my opinion, can only encourage sub-par teaching. It’s such a blatant way to save money at the expense of providing a high-quality education that I feel compelled to speak out about how much it disgusts me.
The worst part? Adjuncts in America’s college systems aren’t exactly encouraged to speak out about this situation. Especially not when they need to stay in strong favor with their supervisors, who are generally their only path toward escaping the exploitation of an adjunct role and earning a coveted spot as a “full-time” instructor. Especially not when full-time faculty members are writing editorials like this one calling adjuncts "whiners" if they DO say something. And while it is true that "full-time" faculty members have some additional responsibilities in their workload that adjuncts do do not have, we're not talking about enough responsibilities to justify this level of inequality. I also think the adjuncts would happily take on some extra hours attending meetings in exchange for making a living wage.
The exploitation I'm describing here is chronicled quite nicely in this Huffinton Post article. If this kind of exploitation were happening in Wal-Mart, or in another country, I know plenty of people would be up in arms about the situation. As they should be.
So today I’m standing up, arms at the ready, to do some shouting about the exploitation of adjunct professors in America. I hope others out there will do some shouting with me.
Okay, so I just read an article. And because this is me, I feel like responding in something longer than a 140 character tweet.
So: article. This dude from Princeton protests the term privilege, saying he won’t apologize for his white privilege. He makes one good case: that when people assume they know everything about him based on his skin color, they’re stereotyping.
Yeah, he’s totally right there. Single stories are bad. I’ll say it over and over again. People are individuals, and they should be treated as such.
Okay, great. But then I started to get itchy…because the author goes on to talk about how this country gives everyone the same chance to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make themselves successful. He actually makes the direct argument that his ancestors came to a country that affords everyone equality. I got itchier.
I paused and reminded myself that I have understood what it’s like to have someone telling you you’re privileged when you feel anything but privileged. I get that. I grew up in a family that sure as heck didn’t have a whole lot of moola, and it probably wasn’t until during or after college that I realized the word “privilege” means a lot more than how much money is in your bank account. I get a little of what’s going on in this author’s head. I told myself that he just needs to grow up; see a little more of the world. He’ll probably better understand the complex meaning of the word “privilege” eventually.
Except here’s what I worry about: what if he doesn’t?
When I posted this to my Facebook timeline, I made a joke about him talking to me when he’s seen some things outside his bubble. I seriously hope he does. But then I thought about how I ended up getting outside of my bubble: I moved around the country a lot. I’ve worked in a lot of different schools with a lot of different populations of people. I’ve learned to listen a lot. I’ve learned to ask questions. That’s how I figured out that “privilege” is a really, really complex word, and it’s not something to throw around or rant against lightly.
I like to think that the author of this piece—Tal Fortgang—will be as lucky as I’ve been, and he’ll get the opportunity to talk and listen and learn with a lot of different people in a lot of different places. But my own experiences have also taught me that many people don’t get as lucky as I have. They stay in their bubbles for a really long time, not exploring the meaning of this word or the background behind it, setting public policy based on their bubbles, defending laws based on their bubbles, influencing public opinion in Time articles based on their bubbles…all without realizing how very not simple the term “privilege” really is.
Tal, I do sincerely hope you pop your bubble and see what I’m talking about someday. In the meantime, here’s a story for you. I’ll try to keep it short. Yesterday, I went to the Colorado National History Day competition with a bunch of my students. It was amazing. A stellar experience that every kid should have the opportunity to participate in. It was an opportunity that was, in many ways, brought to our school because someone in Colorado noticed that, like 95% of the kids who participate in this competition are white…and since 95% of Colorado’s population is not white, they thought maybe they should try to fix that ratio. And they started with our school, since 95% of our population is non-white. And, on a somewhat related note, non-rich. But I don’t want to start single-storying and assume the wealth of the people at that competition yesterday.
Our kids did a great job. They’d worked their butts off, and it showed. One of them placed third in the state, and we’re crazy proud. After the competition was over, two of them were sitting around with us, talking about what they thought of the competition.
“Most of the kids were white,” one of them said. “And there weren’t many projects on Chicano history. I think we had the only one.”
“Yeah,” another said. “And how were we supposed to win the exhibit category, anyway? A bunch of them had, like, Ipads in their exhibits.”
My fellow teachers and I reminded them that technically you don’t get any more points for including an Ipad in an exhibit. We restated how proud they should be, and that they had done exceptionally well in the competition by any measure.
Then one of our students talked about how she might do her project next year on Corky Gonzalez, a leader in the Chicano community in Denver. And you know why I was most proud of them? Because that conversation hopefully means that more people from more places will see her project next year and end up—at least in one small way—looking outside their bubble.
And maybe even popping it.
So, let’s talk about something no one else on the internet is talking about: bullying.
Psych. I am actually internet-savvy enough to realize what a hot topic of conversation of bullying has become in internet-land. Makes me really happy, actually. This was a subject that was not discussed often when I was in growing up, and one of the best parts of the social media explosion over the last twenty years is the awareness people have this issue. Now we have viral videos by people like Wil Wheaton on the topic (BTW, he said all that in Denver…all the best stuff happens in Colorado, you know), and the It Gets Better project, and blogs from authors like Cody Kennedy and his young reader, Timmy, on the subject. Cheers to talking about things rather than slipping them under the rug.
In fact, this subject is so much a part of internet-land these days that I wasn’t that surprised when The Onion got in on the act recently and published “Parents Surprised Cruel Daughter Hasn’t Pushed Classmate to Breaking Point Yet.”
Okay—I’m sure at least half a million people were disgusted by this article. I could practically hear the haughty response coming through my computer monitor as I read. How dare they satirize something as serious as bullying? I usually like The Onion, but they went waaay too far here. Wait, are they saying that parents aren’t responsible for their kids’ behavior? What are these writers trying to imply?
For me, though, the article highlighted something that’s become a concern for me lately: that with all this important discussion and awareness of bullying, our society is turning bullying into a single story. Or actually, a few single stories. The concept of the single story was first introduced by Chimamanda Adichie, who talks about it in a Ted Talk you can see here. Basically, the concept of the single story is this: when you assign only one vision to what something or someone can be, you simplify it or them down to parts that are so basic that you miss the important and nuanced pieces of it/them. Essentially, it’s stereotyping at its most dangerous.
The students I teach live in a version of the world where there is conversation around, strict rules against, and great thinking around the subject of bullying. And just to be clear, this is a VERY GOOD THING. But all this talk has, I think, left the public with a few dangerous “single stories” about what bullying is—single stories that I think The Onion was right and very forward-thinking to highlight.
SINGLE STORY #1: PARENTS AND TEACHERS NEED TO TAKE MORE RESPONSIBILITY AND HAVE BETTER AWARENESS. IF THEY DID, ALL BULLYING PROBLEMS WOULD DISAPPEAR.
Um. Said NO TEACHER OR PARENT EVER.
Which is, of course, what The Onion was trying to get at in this article. I have never met a parent who woke up in the morning and said, “Wow. I really hope my son goes out and intimidates people into liking him and calls people names when they don’t like him that much.” But I sure have met plenty of parents who want their kids to be self-confident, able to stand up for themselves, expressive, and true to themselves. Sometimes the line there can get a little gray. Relationships looks different in different places. The person I call a bully might be someone you consider to have inspiring self-confidence and leadership skills. Things are just not that simple, folks.
The problem is, I think, that lots of people still seem to be operating under another single story about bullying: that it’s simple to identify and therefore simple to stop. Since Mean Girls appeared on the scene years ago, kids and adults today seem much more aware of the many different versions of bullying that take place--the gossip, “power-rumoring” (as I like to call it), and verbal abuse that can all constitute acts of bullying. Social media itself has opened up a whole new conversation about what it means to bully on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Gchat, and we as a society have conversations about it regularly.
But I still read SO MANY books where acts of bullying are portrayed very simplistically: the big kid beats up the smaller kid, or the pretty girl tells the ugly girl she’s disgusting and will never get a prom date, or one person says nasty things about another on Facebook, etc. Obviously these acts do happen, and should be written about and filmed and talked about. But I’d really like to see more discussion about the other types of bullying we see in schools and communities, because those are often the hardest to define.
You ever try telling a parent that their kid is a bully because they won’t be friends with someone they don’t like? Yeah, good luck with that. But that’s actually a huge part of what is sometimes referred to as “mean girl” bullying: that power grid that locks into place when a bunch of teenagers ostracize another, leaving that person as an outcast. It might look and sound like bullying, but it’s not so easy to explain to parents. I mean, if you had a teacher telling you, “Look, Laurie’s refusing to hang out with Julia, and so her friends aren’t hanging out with Julia either,” is your first reaction going to be “OMG, my daughter is a bully?” Or would it be, “Huh. Maybe my daughter doesn’t like Julia.”
And while we’re on the subject of single stories? We should stop calling that “mean girl” bullying. Guys do it too, you know.
Obviously, the conversation is a lot bigger than which girls like/hate each other and why, but the single story problem remains the same: as long as people largely see bullying as something easy to define and identify, it gets harder and harder to have conversations about all the different nuanced ways bullies can behave.
Case in point. I consider myself to have been bullied in junior high. I was one of those naïve, nice, nerdy (the N trifecta) kids who got teased a LOT by the popular crowd—particularly by a group of boys who thought it was hilarious that I have hair on my arms—and I had a best friend who liked to show off how much more popular and important she was than me. Every now and then she’d stop speaking to me for a day or two, and she and all our other friends would hang out together without me, laughing and taking and generally ignoring me and whispering things while they looked in my direction. One day (and I remember this vividly) after this exact scene had played out for a 30 minute bus ride, she walked by me and said, “Have a nice ride today, Johanna?” The next day she was my best friend again, just as if the whole thing had never happened.
Sure, I realize now that this was a form of bullying. But I didn’t then. It just felt like my best friend was mad at me. And even if I had realized this exchange was all about power, what was I supposed to do? Go up to my teacher and tell them that Lisa should get in trouble because she didn’t want to be friends with me anymore? And as a teacher now, who does deal with nuanced situations of bullying like this, I can tell you that having power and control over someone does not necessarily constitute being outwardly cruel to that person. This makes proving bullying behavior, and explaining it to parents, incredibly difficult. If not impossible.
So let’s stop simplifying this problem down to “parents and teachers need to be more aware.” Well, yes, we do need to be more aware. But we need to be more aware of what constitutes bullying, how to talk about it, and how to really stop it. Because honesty? Some teacher suspending Lisa for not being my friend wasn’t going to do anything in that situation. That moment of bullying was so much more complicated than a simple response like that.
SINGLE STORY #2: ALL ACTS OF CRUELTY AND MEANNESS CONSTITUTE BULLYING
I’d really just like to put this single story to bed. Now, if possible. Lately EVERYTHING seems to constitute bullying in someone’s eyes. Authors who get bad reviews on Goodreads are bullied. (Wrote another blog about that topic recently, if you want to read it here.) If a student doesn’t get into a certain club or sport, he or she is probably being bullied by someone. I’ve had teachers tell me they thought there were being bullied by some of their students, and vice versa.
Look, in some of these cases, bullying might actually be happening—sometimes. But by attaching the title of bullying to ever single hurtful, painful, or confrontational act that ever takes place in our lives, we dilute what that word really means. According to my pal Merriam-Webster, bullying is defined as “to treat abusively” or “to affect by means of force or coercion.” Bullying is SERIOUS. Abuse is SERIOUS. Coercion is SERIOUS. These days, these acts come with serious consequences—as they should. We need to use these words carefully, and only attach them to actual situations of abuse, force, and coercion. I’m sorry, but that person who doesn’t like your book and says so respectfully and with their reasons why is not bullying you. That team captain who cut you because your serve isn’t that good is just being honest.
Let’s use this word carefully and keep the meaning behind it important. Otherwise it risks become a term that means nothing to any of us.
SINGLE STORY #3: ALL KIDS WHO IDENTIFY AS LGBTQ ARE BULLIED
A few years ago, when I first stated bringing more and more LGBTQ literature in my classroom and curriculum, a principal I was working with made the following plea to me: “Please don’t just bring in stories where the gay kids get beat up and bullied and commit suicide all the time. I feel like that’s all kids see these days. I want them to know that not everyone’s story is like that.”
I started to think about it, and I started to track the stories I was bringing into my classroom. I realized she was right. So much of the literature out there focused on how incredibly negative and violent schools and communities become when a teenager “comes out.”
I’m not saying these stories SHOULDN’T be there, and neither was my principal. These stories are vitally important to those students who need to see the worst possible consequence of this type of behavior. They are vitally important to those teenagers who have had such an experience and need to know they are not alone.
But they are not the only story. There are also plenty of teenagers out there who live every version of on the spectrum of coming out stories—from full acceptance and support of an entire school and community, to no acceptance and horrific violence and bullying as a result, to everything in between.
When I was writing Every Inferno (not that many days until it comes out! Wahoo!), I made a very conscious effort to create a high school that leans more towards the end of the spectrum of acceptance and inclusion. One of my main characters, McKinley, is a gay 16-year-old who enjoys huge popularity and would certainly never call himself a victim of bullying. I’ve worried at times that people will tell me that the school I created in Every Inferno is unrealistic. But you know what? It’s my prerogative, as an author, to write my own ideal vision for our world. And I know that McKinley’s school is not far from reality—plenty of teenagers live the story McKinley lives in that book. And their stories matter just as much as anybody else’s.
SINGLE STORY #4: IT GETS BETTER
Actually, this is an important single story. For most of us of who have experienced bullying of some kind (any kind), it has gotten better. But that part of this single story that seems to get left out a lot is that we had to make it better.
I am still a naïve, nice, and often nerdy person. No apologies. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to navigate the world so that my personality traits work for me rather than against me. I’ve learned how to identify those people who will appreciate me for who I am, and how to avoid people who won’t. I’ve learned how to be confrontational when it’s necessary.
It did get better for me, and some of that was situational. When I left my junior high of 40 8th graders (we have some really small towns in Vermont) and went to a high school with a freshman class of 200+ students, life opened up more opportunities for me to avoid the negativity that had surrounded me in earlier years. But I still had to learn how to navigate this new life and world. Freshman year was still a very lonely time for me, as I discovered how to seek out like-minded people and avoid those who wanted to have power over me. Things did get better. A lot better. But it wasn’t just something that happened to me—it was something I had to actively take part in.
Okay, a bazillion words later, it’s probably time to wrap this up. Final thoughts? Let’s keep talking about the subject of bullying. But let’s stop simplifying it into formulas and basic variables and definitions. Let’s have nuanced, deep, meaningful conversations about it. Let’s raise real awareness, not just feel-good talk. And mostly? Let’s all listen to each other a little more and a little better. I think most of the world’s problems, and especially the problem of bullying, could be solved if we just did that.