It was a sunny afternoon in late April. I was out walking with one of the men I work with. Near the treatment centre, near the hospital. As we passed the pharmacy, I saw a young woman sitting beneath a tree. She looked at me and recognition came across her face, and she gave me a big open grin. She looked familiar and I smiled back and nodded. Then she got up and followed.
She said, “I think you taught a class I was in”. Then I recognized her. She was in a class I taught during my last semester with the teacher education program in UBC. The semester that was especially busy, and especially difficult. We exchanged names, she said she had run into a rough patch and was going to finish her course work this summer, but she was teaching. She wasn’t happy, she said, and she didn’t like the education system. I empathised — “that’s for sure. I’m glad you’re teaching, though” — She shrugged as we went our separate ways, raised a fist half-heartedly and said she would sooner be taking the system down.
I know some of her story. She’s very smart, and has had a number of challenges — because she was a smart girl, and she was, it seemed, alone for a lot of her life. She faced significant losses without enough loving around her. She had some, though — a woman who befriended her and saw her potential. And a teacher who encouraged her. She looked like she remembered me as a support, an ally. She didn’t immediately remember that she had supported other students’ complaints against me, (probably lodged one herself, I don’t know). Maybe she remembers now; but when we met, she registered me as a friend. That’s good. I am.
On Friday night, we went to see Because We Are Girls, a feature documentary of the Vancouver DOXA festival. It was SO GOOD. It’s about three sisters from a South Asian family in a small resource-based town in BC. All of them were sexually abused by an older family member. They didn’t tell until they were young adults. Their parents didn’t know what to do, and because they were girls, the parents warned them to stay away from their abuser — they didn’t sanction him. But they love their girls, and they raised them to be powerful, even though… Now these powerful women are together and loving and angry and wounded and fighting back. Together. The sisters, their parents, and a good deal of their family were in the audience. The sisters and the director had a discussion on the stage after the movie. They were every bit as strong, smart and lovely in real life as they were in the documentary. I was hopeful as we left to go home. Inspired.
As we walked through downtown, we saw a woman in her 30s crossing the street. She had short sticky-uppy hair and a thousand-mile stare. With an iron grip, she held a liquor bottle with a couple of shots sloshing about inside. We turned to watch her walk down the street — both weaving and tense at the same time. As we turned to watch her, we saw another friend of ours coming from the movie. We walked together to her bus. We talked about the movie again and the challenges women face. We all know, first-hand from our experiences as women, and as women working within “institutions of power” that women’s lives and stories are rarely attended to, or taken seriously.
Our friend is a lawyer, my partner is a nurse, I was a professor. Law, Medicine, Education. All of them designed to protect the interests of the powerful and reproduce inequality. But at the same time, all of them can be utilized (in some ways) by and for the subordinated classes to gain power and freedom. That’s great and that’s part of the trouble. Our lawyer friend pointed out that students these days are encouraged to do what they are told is “speaking truth to power” — but it isn’t. They are set up to undermine teachers, parents, other students, in the name of “inclusivity and diversity”. And that kind of manipulation sets them against their natural allies — isolates them. Renders them harmless to the REALLY powerful. Like my former student — she’s not doing well, and she was set up for failure by my supervisors. We were not allowed to figure out how to understand each other. We were both forced into our respective corners. Natural allies separated from each other.
When we parted, my girlfriend and I walked along Granville Street on our way home. It’s been a LONG time since I walked along Granville Street on a weekend night. It was PACKED. we passed a disheveled young woman screaming at no one and everyone, whirling about waving her arms in the air. A man lurched into an intersection against the light and got as far as the centre line. He stopped, teetering on his feet and a very expensive car roared in front of him, horn blaring. He kept his head down, stuck his arm up and turned almost graceful to give the speeding car the finger. Young people in fancy stupid shoes and shiny suits tight dresses perfect hair thronged around nightclub entrances. One of the entrances featured the picture of a handsome South Asian man — He’d been killed in a fight in front of that club last year. He tried to break it up. Now there’s a picture “In Memoriam” and that’s it that’s all. At a corner in all this mayhem stood a young Black woman with a microphone and an amp. She sang a song of hope and redemption — something about light. Her soaring contralto cut through the screaming the roaring the hubbub and dirt. The dark night sky was lit by her voice.
We walked home over the bridge. We passed more young women in low cut dresses and high high shoes; young men with gleaming hair and designer biceps; clumps of grubby kids clustered together feigning bravado; shiny fast 2-million-dollar cars slicing through the teeming streets; the very rich and the very poor living in alternate universes right next to each other.
it was late when we got home, but we had a cup of tea anyway.