Women’s History Month is an important time set aside for us all to consider the many voices that have paved the way to our present state of social progress. It is also a time to honor current voices that help us look at our collective past and anticipate a brighter future.
ACRL WGSS marks Women’s History Month 2014 with guest articles from different areas and perspectives. Our second article comes from Angi Caster, an instructor of English and writing from Highline Community College in Des Moines, Washington, near the city of Seattle. She is currently writing a book called No More Secrets, No More Lies: Community College Teaching in the 21st Century (publication date still to be determined). The following are excerpts from the book’s fifth chapter.
My students include single moms who prostitute at night to earn money for college, Somali women whose labia have been cut away in “female circumcision,” full-burqa-ed women whose identities become only their clothing, white Christian missionaries with no idea where Somalia is, and sickle-cell anemia sufferers wanting to achieve before they leave an orphaned daughter. Every time you write, you put a self on paper–or nothing.
Ms. Mullet, she of the minuscule, unreadable ½” printed essay, read my story of abuse, looked at me directly, blinked, burst into tears and blurted out the long-term molestation by her uncle and abandonment by her biological parents. We talked about how much that sucks and how (and when) to truth-tell and what happens to your soul and self if you don’t. I did not even mention the problems with size and style in the paper–just asked for another draft. Like most of my students, there was nothing whatever the matter with Ms. Mullet’s brain or her rationale: She knew she would fail because she’d have to ignore her real life and lie to present the required evidence, especially if other students would read her work. Peer-review is important since there is only one of me and 90 of them, and they are producing 7,000 to 15,000 words in each quarter. But, to be honest, in her case, it meant shame. So I suggested only I, the teacher, would be her reader. She said that was ok, and I got a passing draft the very next day from Ms. Mullet in script 3 times as big as the first draft, with edited grammar, undistracted by lies and invested enough in the content that she actually rewrote it to make herself clearer. She did not have to hide in front of me and the secret was out despite promises to the uncle. After reading published writers’ commentary about abuse, Ms. Mullet even shared her writing with the whole class. Some cried and now she trusted peer reviewers to help.
Muslim Somali student Aria’s full-black burqa-covered body sat silently at the extreme edge in the back of the class. Since learning is a dialogue, not a lecture, I speak honestly to the students about how much I depend on their body language to cue my own responses. In her nun-like, loose fitting dark robe and full face coverage, only her eyes are available for me to read.
So I walk around among the desks, closer to her there, alone in the back of the room, naming and explaining this phenomenon of visibility as a teaching moment. I know from experience that the other 30 students are aghast, will not meet my gaze and certainly not Aria’s–they never look directly at students in full burqa. That would be “rude.” Preferring to focus blindly on the lecturer, the class is totally silent and uncomfortable at my naming what is real, visible…but, Aria knows she has on the full black burqa! I say so and see laughter in Aria’s eyes–and relief.
Two hours later, Aria shows up for the first time for my office hours. As she sits down in my tiny, messy office, her eyes dance and she says conspiratorially, “Wanna see my face?” Drowning in angst, the old white woman Angi asks shyly, “Is that ok?” Aria laughs and laughs and removes the veil, chattering away about how much she is enjoying the class and my authenticity because in my class she is not invisible. Now we are a couple of gossipy high schoolers (despite the chasm of a 40-year age difference), comparing her cool, sassy sparkly heels under the austere, black robe, how relieved she feels not to have men looking at her body, but wishing she could speak with more people as she is speaking with me. The next day, she sits in the front row where she remains for the rest of the quarter, speaks up, and, not surprisingly, so do the rest of the students! Now, they are peers and learning, no longer lost or invisible.
Another Somali-American student, Dionna, wears trendy jeans, has blond-streaked hair and wrote about her mother, burqa-clad and obediently producing one child a year (she was on her twelfth). Dionna wrestled with outrage over her mother’s subservience, burdens, and dependent situation, even as she loved and worried about this overworked woman–her heroine and role model. Dionna vowed to have no children whatsoever. Her family, then of course, thought her morally corrupt. Later, in the next writing class, she wrote a fabulous research paper on khai, a psychoactive traditional herb smoked by Somali men and deemed an illegal Class I narcotic in the U.S. Complete with academic evidence, multiple citations, fabulous photographs, and personal interviews, the paper condemned the use of khai on several levels, but the dominant one was its tranquilizing properties, the ability to keep an entire population of men mellow instead of resistant. About a week later, the news broke about a U.S. khai ring crackdown. Poor Dionna called me in a panic: Had I published it yet? She was terrified for not only her family’s immigration status, but for criminal repercussions. Fortunately, we hadn’t, so the essay could vanish, extant only as an A in my grade book. To be bicultural can be hazardous not only to your psyche but to your freedom–from deportation and/or jail.
Thu, a slim, beautifully made-up and manicured 4.0 A+ student, the American-born daughter of Vietnamese refugees, was a pre-Nursing student in our cell biology and writing class. All her work was simply perfect–as she knew it had to be to get into any of the very competitive nursing programs, including ours (where the instructors boast that they have to have a trashcan outside the door of practicum exams because students routinely vomit from stress, yet another reality of 21st century college life). She inexplicably vanished during the 6th week of class. I tried emailing her, but got no response. Then I phoned, but received only a heated but unintelligible rant from non-English speakers. She deserved an incomplete but we were unable to track her down, so a 0.0 was posted to her transcript. Only the following quarter did we learn from another student what had really happened: Thu’s parents thought she was sneaking out to date (when she was actually meeting with study groups as required by our course), and so they took away her cell phone, then her car, and finally kicked her out of the house. No one has heard anything about her since, and it breaks my heart.
This is why I “get it,” why I will spend the rest of my life passionately mentoring students, facilitating their stories, wheedling them to turn stuff in, listening to their obscene and raucous music and to their tears in my office, even playing their violent video games while daily challenging them to get angry enough to stamp their feet and say NO! to The Man—or to The Family–or to The Media–or to The Culture that manipulates them to internalize failure, abuse, sexism, racism or any other negative self-image. Because nobody ever did it for me.
Dolce & Gabbana. Advertisement. 2006
Woman in burqa. Photograph. Sipa Press/Rex Features. “Passnotes 2952.” The Guardian. 3 Apr 2011.