i go out walking late at night. Twice within two weeks I crossed paths with a woman who was a student in a couple of classes I taught recently. The first time, we were near my house, she was walking toward me, and I thought I recognized her walk. I ticked through the cerebral rolodex (I know no one uses those anymore…never mind), came up with her name–reminded by the way she walks, striding, really, forceful steps, leads with her chin. I prepared to meet her eye, nod, smile, say hello–she didn’t even glance my way, looked right past me, and a little bit to my left. I know she recognized me. My hair is longer, we were not at school, so out of context, but I sensed, (more than saw) her see me, then decide to snub me. She was very cold. The next week, same thing, completely different neighbourhood. I recognized her from further away this time. and again, as she passed me, I could almost feel a cold breeze. I’m not important enough in her life for her to hate me, but I think she does anyway.
The first class that she was in was the first semester of her teacher training year. Everyone new to each other, for the most part. It was a tough class–apparently I can be a polarizing kind of teacher.
Now, i’m nowhere NEAR as radical as I think I should be. Not as a teacher, certainly, nor as a writer or academic — and i haven’t been an active activist now for a long time. But I was far too radical for some of my students in that class. When we talked about sexism, sexual harassment, male violence against women — well. there was some consternation. And some of the people in the class were energized and excited and troubled and sparked up. Others were troubled and defensive and anxious and angry. Some were just plain pissed off. it was a hard semester for all of us. Some of the students (all men, turns out), complained about me to the head of the department. There was a meeting, I was invited to tell my side of the story, the faculty members with whom I met were kind, and suggested that, while probably there were some things I could do differently, to stir up such feeling is not necessarily a bad thing, either. In the end, I think it turned out alright. I definately could have approached the topic differently — carved out more space for women to sort things out with each other, and for the men to help each other with their defenses and other feelings — I forget sometimes that my students are not necessarily allies, even potentially. My faculty mentor helped me address some of the tensions remaining, and we did what we could to mend the fissures.
But there remained intense feelings. Some of the students in that class were loyal and friendly since — others did not speak to me again, avoided eye contact if we by chance met.
This one, the one who leads with her chin, she’s one who stayed angry, looks like. When she was in the class for which I was a teaching assistant, the following summer, I’m pretty sure she did not speak to me directly at any time. It was a big class, so I didn’t notice at first, wasn’t even sure by the end of the class. I’m sure now. But I can’t really figure out why. Guess I hit a nerve.
Another night, another walk, i come upon a shopping-cart shrine. Kind of like a sand mandala, in a way. Someone parked a shopping cart full of stuff in the middle of a sidewalk. Scattered (or placed?) things around it like traffic pylons. A shoe, a bunch of plastic flowers, a crumpled white blouse. in the cart, shopping bags with clothes, chocolate bar wrappers, paper plates, a jacket, a wooden picture frame. a ratty Teddy bear, one eye glaring. Along the fence that runs the north side of the sidewalk, a stooped slender figure shifted along, peering through the chain link every few metres. I wanted to cross the road before we met.
In a couple of weeks, i’m going to teach a short course on “sociology of marginalized youth” at a small suburban college that specializes in training “small p professionals” — mental health workers, care aides, group home workers– And there she was, right there below the hill where I live. A bona fide marginalized youth. i walked past her, she shuffled along the fence, glanced at me–caught my eye. dammit. I said, “do you want some chicken?”
“sure” she said, “okay”. she was tiny. long black hair–a young Native woman.
“you sleeping out?” I asked, immediately wishing i’d shut up. OF COURSE she was sleeping out. What was I proposing? would I take her home with me? I didn’t want to. Oh dear god.
“what?” she asked, and I didn’t answer. I handed her the chicken I’d just got from the Asian supermarket downtown, smoked chicken– and an apple. “You don’t smoke cigarettes, do you?”
“No, sorry, I don’t” I said, and thought for a minute, if I did I would give her the pack, but that’s poison, and it’s deliberate murder, the tobacco companies they target young, impoverished, disengaged Aboriginal people-and i’d feel all temporarily pleased with myself if i gave her smokes, ’cause she would be WAY happier with a smoke than with some weird-smelling chicken (it did kinda smell weird. well, it was smoked after all–smelled like ashes. tasted good, but you had to get past that smell, first).
“That’s okay” she said, “thanks”.
“you’re welcome”, I said, “good night, dear”. She was already back to scouting the fence.
And I walked the rest of the way home.