You Be You – Part II
It was like stepping outdoors in a heavy haze or coming up from the depths of a dream.
Except I hadn’t been daydreaming.
In fact, I’d been doing everything possible to pay close attention, even though I’d only been able to carve out a couple of hours of sleep the night before.
Every head in the class was turned my way, and the English instructor was glaring at me.
The yawn was still hanging in the air. Had I done that out loud? Must’ve, I realized. The lecturer started in, nearly shouting.
“How DARE you!”
As hazy as I was at that moment, I remember it clearly now, 34 years after the fact.
Outside the west-facing windows of Sudro Hall the sun shone brightly on Walster and the other buildings on the other side of Albrecht Boulevard at North Dakota State University in Fargo, N.D. It was February, and the reflected sunlight made the room relatively bright for a Fargo, N.D., mid-winter morning. Not that soft, yellow light that we would have had on the south or east sides of the building, but still better than the hard, greyish tint of the usually cloudy winter days.
Sudro was the headquarters of the College of Pharmacy, then; the name changed a few years back to College of Health Professions to more accurately reflect all of its offerings and majors, like nursing and public health.
It was English 102, with about 15-18 people in the class, all freshmen like me.
I’m guessing there are still a few freshman English classes there every semester; they’re required courses, and like many liberal arts offerings they take whatever spaces they can get on STEM- and professional-laborforce-focused campuses.
I was seated near the back at one of the many tables with three chairs behind each, set up in neat rows down the long, narrow room.
The lecturer was 23, maybe 25… I don’t know. All I know is she didn’t appear to be much older than us, her students. Later I’d learn she was a PhD candidate, but what I knew right then was that she was of smallish height, had dark hair and a large mole near her left temple.
Smallish, but undeniably ferocious.
And she was speaking AT me in what could have been a piercing voice, if not for her unusually deep timbre. Nearly yelling, in fact. I don’t remember the exact words beyond the first few, but it went something like this:
“How DARE you!…”
Vacant, and what must have appeared hazy, look from me.
“There is no way you are going to come into MY class and do that….”
Dawning realization that I’d yawned out loud. Probably quite loudly.
“…incredibly disrespectful, not just to me but to your fellow students, who all prepared to have a discussion…”
Everyone else staring at me. Except one girl, who was looking at the lecturer, mouth slightly open as she took in the diatribe.
Me, leaning back away from the onslaught, holding my hands forward, palms out in a defensive position.
“Yeah, yes, I get it…” I mumbled, hoping to get her somehow, any way, to stop.
She went on a bit longer.
I don’t remember the rest, but finally she left off and got back to whatever we were supposed to be discussing as a class. When it at last ended I shuffled through the door, head down in the midst of my retreating classmates. I could feel their eyes on me, hear them murmuring.
I got out of the building as quickly as possible, that “DARE!” still ringing in my ears.
A freshman in college is simply a high schooler trying to learn how to get by. By that point, well into my second quarter, I thought I’d learned pretty well.
Sitting there, waiting for English to start, I even patted myself on the back. I’d just finished a biology exam for which I’d spent all but a couple of hours of the night before studying. I was so happy to be there, in Sudro hall, that exam behind me. All night I’d repeated the college students’ mantra: “You’ll be in English before you know it. This’ll all be over.”
I’d made it. I thought I’d done pretty well on the exam, too, but whether I had or not didn’t really matter to my exhausted, stressed-out, 18-year-old self. The exam was behind me; there was nothing more I could do about it.
I let myself relax.
God, I thought, I am soooo tired.
Skulking out of class about 50 minutes later, I didn’t feel tired anymore.
Shocked? Yes. Ashamed? That too. And – me being me – pissed off.
How dare I? How dare she?
But then I started thinking like a high schooler again. An empty fright rose up from my gut. What if what had just happened affected my grade? What if she held it against me the rest of the quarter and scored everything poorly because of it?
But that feeling in my gut was telling me something else, too. I’d been misused.
That night I called home.
“Make an appointment with her,” my mother said. “You need to apologize.”
Mom was adamant. Do it, she said, or what you’re worried about could actually happen, she said. And as soon as possible, too. Make sure to tell her it will never, ever happen again. It’ll make you feel better.
She was thinking like I was still a high schooler, too.
The lecturer sat in the office she shared with another PhD hopeful, combative, arms folded across her chest, distain painted across her face. She didn’t ask me to take a seat in the chair next to her desk. Just stared at me. Waited.
I apologized. I explained I had been really tired from studying most of the night before, but that I understood that was no excuse. It would never happen again, I said.
It tasted like dirt that had dried after someone took a piss on it.
But it was done.
I walked out.
I’ve thought about that episode from time to time, but not so much as the years passed. Then, a few weeks ago, my 19-year-old freshman daughter told me one of her professors had publicly shamed her, in front of her classmates, for her tattoos.
Bam! I was back in Sudro Hall 34 years ago, leaning back slightly, hands forward, palms out.
Me being me, I was pissed off. Again.
The situation was different, granted, but it was the same, too.
What’s my daughter supposed to do, go apologize to the professor for being who she is? Promise to wear long sleeves the rest of the semester?
When I walked out of that lecturer’s office, February 1987, the choking, pissy-dirt taste fresh in my mouth, I did not feel better. I felt worse. And I knew right then, as sure as I’d ever known anything up to that point in my short life, that apologizing was the wrong way to go. Walking down the hallway of Menard Hall, where the English offices were located, I still saw the lecturer’s post-apology, sanctimonious face, all pleased with herself.
I’d reinforced what she’d done to me, and what she’d done to me wasn’t right. Not even a little.
Was the yawn disrespectful?
It happens, often involuntarily. I hadn’t done it on purpose, and I certainly wasn’t meaning to show disrespect. I was just really, really tired, and the yawn came out. There was no call for calling me out in front of the entire class.
I knew something else, too, walking out of that office.
Rather than going to her to apologize, I should have told her she’d been out of line. Maybe I should have gone to the head of the English department to register a formal complaint and demand an apology from her, instead. If nothing else I should have done nothing, just let it slide.
And as time passed, I came to one more realization – my tuition helped pay her salary; I was her goddamn customer.
What my mother advised got me through and beyond the moment 34 years ago, but if I had it all to do over again the shaming would have gone the other way. At the least I would have made my case.
I learned two things about me being me that day. First, when I’m not in the position of power, that doesn’t mean I allow someone who is to walk all over me. Second, trust my gut.
For that I have that out-of-line lecturer to thank.
When I first posted the tattoo-related public shaming piece about my daughter’s professor a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who happens to be a retired college professor commented:
“Whatever he or she thinks, no teacher has any business publicly shaming a student for his or her appearance.”
Another friend, who is currently a college professor, wrote:
“In no way EVER is anyone’s body part of my purview of opinion or discussion within a classroom. E-V-E-R.”
I didn’t advise my daughter to apologize. I told her that, if anything, the professor should be apologizing to her, publicly, in front of her whole class. I told her one option was to just let it slide. Move on, let it go. But then I also told her that, if I were in her shoes, I might go to the head of the department and demand an apology.
But I also told her that’s me being me.
She needs to be her.
She’ll have to figure it out for herself, and I’m confident she will. Whatever she does, I hope she’s able to keep her self-esteem intact and not have any regrets 34 years down the road.
And whatever she decides, I’ll have her back.