Student: Are you married? You look like a married person. You got kids? I can see you with like two kids, and you’re the mom making the healthy snacks.
Me: That is depressing. Next thing I know you are going to tell me I look like I have a minivan.
Student: Yes! You do- you’re a soccer mom for sure!
Student: But that’s not depressing though. You know what’d be depressing is like if you go home and you got cats, and you walk in and they’re like meow meow.
Let’s just get to it: I look a certain kind of way. Although, rest assured “Soccer Mom” is not, and has never been, the intended effect, I can see how I might present that way, especially to my young, female students of color – a demographic for whom I have both an immeasurable appreciation for, and an equally substantial gratitude for having been able to work along side of in a variety of capacities for more than two decades.
Here’s the basics. I am white. I am middle-aged. I am not a flashy human (save for my shoes, which if you have been following my current life trajectory, you might realize have been reprioritized for a minute #hipreplacement). I am not and have never been particularly trendy, whatever that means. I chalk that tendency up to several things: 1) not having unlimited funding to constantly ‘keep up’ with whatever or whomever; 2) being a big, tall, strong kid through the anorexic-heroin chic-body dysmorphic late 70s, 80s, and 90s; 3) a chosen profession where if you have crazy/flashy, or even just a distinctive accessory, you become “that one teacher who always wears that…” (I have never wanted to be trapped by a passing fancy.)
But really, I am just sort of subtle in my aesthetic choices. A former colleague once told me that he saw it as an cool juxtaposition of being a strong woman who took no shit and occupied many traditionally male spaces (social studies teacher and coach) and understood that how I dressed ran counter to expectations in a way that gave both aspects of who I am more gravitas. My grandma (my grandma for chrissakes) once lamented that I was “so conservative” as I was considering buying some new item of some sort on a trip we took to Europe. One of my long-time BFFs and confidantes has described my style (and me) thusly:
Anne Taylor Hippie? Your countenance, demeanor, appearance is classy Californian casual with some sassy blonde thrown in. No one knows you’re a secret hippie Deadhead from Petaluma. It’s as if you’ve come out from your past unscathed… no one would know about your travails, your missteps over the years. You look perfectly pristine and princess-y. You are the least obvious looking Patti Smith I know. You have the intellect, knowledge, and stories of a rock star, but you are chill as fuck to the unknowing masses.
(I like that last part the best, obviously.)
An interesting (euphemism alert) consequence of the reality that we are all more than the sum of the clothes on our backs + the work that we do + the places from which we hail is that I have been categorically chastised and condescended to in professional settings based on an assumption that I am less equipped to do the work I do because of how I look on two very specific occasions. That this happened most recently on Wednesday of last week at my new job, was disappointing, but also clarifying in some important ways for me (in addition to the comments that were posted on my FB page in response to the opening anecdote of this post) that underscore the power of how we look, the words we use, and the ways we understand the interactions that arise from it all.
The first incident occurred in my first year at Berkeley High School on the occasion of me receiving what is likely to this day the worst professional evaluation I have ever received. The evaluator, a VP at the time with definite eyes on a principalship he would never get at BHS, was a sharp dressed, well-educated Latino, who felt that he was vastly more equipped to work with young people of color than anyone, and certainly more than I could ever be – a generic white woman, most recently teaching at a nearby district with a distinctively different demographic, and before that Asia… he actually would later say to me, “How could a person used to dealing with those kinds of students understand the students I was working with at BHS?” [There is SO much to unpack in that statement.]
The thing about this particular evaluation is that when I read it, it seemed completely dissociated from what had been happening in the classroom. I was not even sure how to engage in a conversation around it because I had no understanding of what was being discussed in the evaluation. The immediate result of this was that on subsequent evaluations there would be an additional person in the room. We settled on our school counselor. This would prove to be an even bigger problem because his inability to see actual areas of strength and need for improvement would be further obstructed by the presence of an additional white woman.
The second evaluation was (in my mind) an even stronger class. For whatever reason, that day, those sophomores decided to be active, interested, curious, engaged, cooperative… I mean, frankly, it was bizarre. At the conclusion of the class, the three adults in the room left seemingly on the same page. At the debrief I was shocked. I sat and listened to his assessment and literally had no words. The second set of eyes that had been in the room was also there for the debrief (we had decided via union reps that I would not meet with this VP alone after the previous experience) and where I was stunned to silence she became enraged in spite of her best efforts to remain completely calm. I ended up leaving while the two of them stayed because I had to teach, but I remember distinctly hearing her say, “I cannot believe we were in the same classroom based on what you have written here.”
Long story slightly less long, the struggle for this VP to see that I could possibly bring anything not just of value, but that would not be toxic to my students continued. He said, “You do not understand children of color. You do not connect with them, particularly the young women.” No one I worked with could understand where this was coming from, and the student population that I worked most closely with would certainly contradict this assessment. Eventually, I would end up contacting a lawyer and be assigned a different evaluator.
I never really understood what the issue had been, but it really did seem like the way I presented myself – from how I looked, to how I talked, to how I worked with students – prevented this man from seeing what I was actually doing at the school. While my pseudo-bougieness has become somewhat of a calling card (emphasis on pseudo) I assure you I am in on the joke.
So much about how we look can be deceiving… No?
Last Tuesday, several days into PD for the upcoming school year, a Black Latino teacher I am working with (who ironically also worked for the aforementioned VP at the school he would eventually move to in order to secure a principalship) had an eruption in a team planing meeting. At the time, I felt like I understood the reaction – we were all tired and working to do something collaboratively that the majority of us were unclear about in terms of structure, cadence, and objective. That evening he emailed me saying he thought we should check in the next morning before PD. I said sure, I could make that happen and arrived that morning expecting him to say something along the lines of, “Hey, sorry for the outburst, just wanted to let you know where I was coming from…”
That was not what was awaiting me.
I showed up and we sat down and there began his soliloquy.
Unlike Omarosa, I was not prepared to tape it (though I see that as a mistake now as I try to make sense of it all) and so these are just some of the highlights absent the extremely verbose and rambling context built around his ‘I statements’ (sidebar: this man had just proclaimed the day before that he prided himself on timely and blunt feedback – there was not a single element of bluntness here.) The nutshell version of him talking at me for more than 30 minutes was that he does not like how I am. He circularly addressed how who he is does not allow for people like me, from the ways I conduct myself with others, to how I utilize time, among many other things. Suffice it to say, it was not the apology I thought I would be getting.
“I am at a point in my life where I have to address the things that trigger me. You took a phone call yesterday – I mean I took a call too, but you did not step outside!” (Nor did he, btw.)
“I feel I need to explain to you…” (I did not walk out at this point, but I must be honest, I am sort of done with men explaining things to me – shout out to Solnit and my entire life experience.)
“I am here to work and I want it to be a positive experience for me…” (What in the heck does he think other people are hoping for?)
“I have not always had good experiences working with others and being acknowledged for who I am at previous schools…” (I cannot even.)
“I want to respect your experiences as an educator, but…” (I have more than three times the number of years in the classroom as this man despite his being 5 years older than me, something that had come up earlier, which I think bothers him.)
I leave this as the last one (though it certainly was not the end of his presentation) because it was what really stayed with me. The idea that somehow my experience was less than. This man does not know a thing about me – who I am, what I have done, the work I have participated in, the students I have worked with, the way my classroom operates, but he felt he could speak to all of it.
This was troubling to me as I sat there conscious of my whiteness, which by definition is a privilege, and his being a man of color – no easy task in the world these days. How could I respond without simply negating his perspective (a known consequence of white privilege) but also speak to the clearly misogynistic diatribe I felt was being put on me? I considered all the ways he seemed to be trying to mitigate his speech and thought of a dear colleague from last year who had told me he never gets mad because he cannot – because being a black man removes that option for him in white spaces. I wondered what my new colleague’s actual point was (I am afraid I never got it, in spite of my efforts to do so) before it was lost in an overabundance of explanation and qualification about how who I am is less than simply because of who I am. Would it have been easier to understand if he had just said whatever it was that he meant even if it mean his getting angry?
Ultimately, I could not figure out why he felt so entitled that he could come at me and tell me how it all was. And then it hit me: all of these assumptions he was making were coming from his perception of me, which at this point could really only be based on how I present on the outside. I was stunned. His look is so hugely intentional and cultivated, I wonder if he really thinks that his look is him, in totality. I cannot imagine that is true, or that he believes it is.
When I eventually had the chance to speak, I told him what I had heard him say, offering him a chance to clarify or correct my understanding – he did neither. I apologized for taking the phone call the previous day and said that while I would never intend to trigger him, I understood that had been the impact of my behavior. Here he began to explain how his experience led him to conclude something (I’m not sure what, I couldn’t keep up with the circles at this point) and I politely interjected and said:
I am not comfortable with your insistence on explaining things to me. I hear you say you want to respect my experience as a teacher- “but”. However, because you feel compelled to explain to me how things are it is clear the “but” is more significant than the respect. Perhaps I can share with you that men explaining things to me is one of my triggers. We are both new teachers here, ostensibly hired for a lot of the same reasons, so let’s agree that we are both bringing a lot to the table, including positive intent.
He said nothing.
I said “I hope you have a super productive and good day!” and walked away. If only walking away from preconceived notions was as easy.