I quit my job yesterday.
When I pressed send on the email, I shed my identity. I shed the woman I thought I was. I shed the mask that was so worn in it almost felt like my own skin.
I felt like I was going to throw up. And then I cried. And as the tears streamed down my face, I thought about all the other people I could have been.
This one, this professor one, is one person I could have been. One person I was. And I am not her. Not today.
I could have been a zoo veterinarian- a modern day version of Jane Goodall. For years I imagined writing that story. But there it is, a chapter unwritten, a path not taken, one I did not live because my heart got all tangled up with people and communities. And also sometimes, I think I got scared by a sixth grade teacher, who told me I should be in the “average” math class the first day he met. Before he saw me do any math at all. In retrospect, a very clear moment of tracking a bright girl out of STEM.
Then there was the me I swore I’d be to my high school econ teacher- living in the Brazilian jungle in a hut, collaborating with local people and eschewing capitalism. Her story began in part to get out of a budgeting assignment (and bless his heart, this teacher played along). But a little piece of my heart was there too, desiring something outside of the very normal budget that assumed a very normal job and a very normal life that seemed very, very boring to me. And by normal, I mean big house, big job, lots of cars, vacations, and Whole Foods.
There was me, the filmmaker. She dabbled with youth and loved being behind the camera. She didn’t really think she was good enough, though, and so she poured herself into theory even though she loved being behind the camera and in the editing suite so.
There was me, the solo traveling woman- the bronzed one (OK, we all know redheads don’t tan, but whatever) who spends hours on the beach and makes beaded leather and knows all the ways to get around travel zones easily. I could have been her, except I’m pale and freckly and I have a husband and three babies.
There was me, the artist. I still flirt with her.
There was me, the play director. I got my start early, directing the other children around in my productions. Unfortunately we live in a patriarchy and I got labeled bossy because I was a girl with an opinion, and I left my playwright and directing career in the treehouses of my childhood.
There was me, the social worker and me, the immigration attorney. There was me, the MBA and me, the classical oboist, and me the jazz oboist defying all expectations about how oboes are for classical music, while wearing a sequined dress. Me, at the helm of a cat rescue organization and me, the President. Me, the marine biologist counting fish in the sea and saving dolphins and understand marine life. There was me, the trophy wife who shopped all day (perhaps most accurately expressed as me, the cheerleader which lasted only a couple weeks) and me, the inspiring, world-saving, life-shaking activist. Me, the Doctors Without Borders pediatrictian. Me, the NICU nurse. Me, the airplane pilot. Me, the foster mom. Me, the smart technologist and me, the person who discovered something great. Me, the business owner. Me, the school principal. And so many other mes-
Ah, so many mes.
So many chapters I only titled.
So many branches that never blossomed, because I ran wildly in the other direction.
I love this life I do have, this chapter I am writing- the one with the twin girls and the brilliant miracle baby, and the musical husband and the crazy dog and the wild uncertainty.
But the uncertainty is scary too. Things are uncertain, because I don’t know what tomorrow will look like. I can look back in time, and see all the chapters unwritten, all the paths not taken- but I cannot look forward.
I can see I am at a fork in the road, I can tell the professor me is in the rearview mirror, but I don’t know what she looks like next.
I do know I love my three girls. I am excited for possibilities. I am hopeful.
But I am almost as uncertain as when I wasn’t sure if I’d survive five years, or even three, and it’s scary. To be clear, I'm not afraid of dying soon anymore, so it's a bit of stretch to say I'm almost as uncertain as then, but it does feel like these are familiar threads- familiar not-knowings, familiar impossibility, familiar wobble, familiar fear.
When I had cancer, the future became a foreign language I wasn't allowed to speak. For months and years afterwards, I would only speak of the future with my cancer friends, and tentatively at that. They were the only people to whom I would make future promises, and the only people with whom I'd share future dreams- only they could understand a statement about the future tinged with "unless I die," and actually understand I really meant, "unless I die" as a discrete possibility.
And here I sit, six months from five years since diagnosis. A milestone (even though I can hear the oncologists reminding me my risk of cancer killing me won't go down until ten years and even then, only a bit). I have learned to speak the language of the future again. But it's no longer my native language. They took it out of me, that native language, and when I tried to learn it again my cancer-accent was thick. I cannot un-know cancer. I know what it feels like to know I might die. I know what it feels like to watch my cancer-friends die- it feels unbelievably unfair. I know what it feels like to lose the promising, shiny career ascension because you're puking your guts out and watching your hair swirl down the bathtub drain.
But... I can't get the other lives back, the ones I would have written if cancer hadn't intervened- the ones I was writing when I found the lump, when I got the biopsy results, when I started the treatment that saved me but made me feel like I was dying in order to keep me alive.
There is only forward. After cancer. I hate that. But it's true.
I don’t yet know who will be written next, or even the title of the next chapter.
And so I sit here, in this leather rocking chair I picked out for the twins nursery before they were born, only to later favor the hand-me-down, mismatched glider that is much less sexy. I sit here, and I wonder at all the mes that exist inside of me, or outside of me, or in some other version of me, and I wonder who I will become.
We've long known worried that students are slouching and straining under the weight of their backpacks. Perhaps, though, we overlooked their hearts- the truth is that they are not thriving, and they are barely surviving the stress that has come to define high school. It is making them tired, it is making them anxious, and it is making them sick. Our school system is crushing the tender hearts and fiery spirits of our teenagers.
Our school system. Our teenagers. We are at the heart of this issue, and we are the ones who can right this wrong. We can make a difference here. Research shows us that our system is working for a lot of different kinds of young people- students of color, LGBTQ students, students with a wide range of abilities and students who come from diverse families are struggling to keep up because our curriculum and system fail to account for and reflect their lives, rendering learning irrelevant.* We see an exceptionally challenging version of this happening for our girls, who learn at every juncture that they are not enough. While girls, and all young people contribute in very significant ways to this world, our system frequently fails to recognize their capacity.** Imagine growing up in a world where you do awesome things and have incredible ideas, but no one has time to listen and the school where you spend your days reminds you- everyday- that what is most important are high test scores and weighted grades, because college is on the horizon, and a good college will mean a good job, and happiness is the result of a good college and good jobs. It sounds like we've gone a bit too far on preparing our young ones to succeed in this world, unless we want to produce rote beings who are to do little more than control their anxiety enough that they may regurgitate answers just so. We have to make a difference: this is our problem, these are our children, and these hurting teenagers are going to be the ones to whom we hand our democracy, our hopes and dreams, our plans for a better world.
I had the privilege of watching two docs this weekend, both by Vicki Ables, on our education system. The first- Race to Nowhere- focuses on the extreme pressures young people experience in schooling, and for what? Teenager after teenager appeared on the screen to tell their story- narrating stories of extreme anxiety and describing the pressure cooker that we typically call high school. Again and again, I imagined myself in ten or fifteen years, staring into the eyes of my little girls. My heart started to hurt- here were families trying to change their children's lives, but in order to create a healthier environment they needed to reach out way beyond the confines of their living rooms. The system is old and sturdy and filled with traditions and ways of doing and being that we have outgrown.
Next I watched Beyond Measure, about the extraordinary ways ordinary people are chipping away at our educational system, carving out moments of success and hope and even, dare I say, pedagogical magic. Pedagogical magic! When I say that, I mean they are finding ways to amplify that spark in a child's or young person's eye- they are surveying the scene and working within the system and starting their own schools and deciding that the tender hearts of our teenagers are quite simply, too important to overlook in favor of test scores and weighted GPAs. Again, I imagined myself designing my daughters' educational futures- how would we choose schools? What would they need? How would we find a school that fostered their individuality, creativity, and hopefulness?
I've long known that film is central to learning and inspiring and change-making- media played a critical role in both of my graduate degrees and at the heart of my conception of media is video (and/or film). I imagine that there can be a story told in film that, when it comes alive on social media, grows out from a center like little roots in fertile soil from a really good seed. This is exactly how I felt about these two films. How might these stories move through the world, inspire us to think about education and learning and youth and ultimately, to effect change?
I can imagine teachers and students using these pieces as an entre to working together and sharing stories- as a way, ultimately, to get vulnerable about who they are and what they need. Ah, it always comes back to vulnerability, doesn't it? It seems a big part of the issue in our contemporary education system is the lack of space to be vulnerable. How do we allow students to fail, and learn from failure, when test scores reign and the teacher is forced to rush through material on the daily to even have a shot at covering it all in a year?
Film- where we all experience these stories first individually in relation to the piece- seems like one way to carve a space of vulnerability. After we have this individual experience collectively- we watch it in a group- can we then open up about our own lives, and can this kind of work give us the language to discuss our reality?
I think so. Actually, I know so because schools are beginning to partner together and in Beyond Measure, we see glimmers of hope, we see how the heart and muscle with which educators, parents and students respond can powerfully transform our schools and education system.
*If you'd like more information about how our educational system is failing young people who experience difference in many different ways (race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, etc....) I'd suggest starting with critical pedagogue and acclaimed feminist Gloria Ladson Billings. She shows us how students of color can't find themselves in our contemporary school systems and why that is so critical for success.
**Girls are having an extremely rough time right now. This is a fine line to walk, because we run the danger of casting them as delicate flowers wilting in the sun. I want to be clear that girls are doing incredible things and are capable of contributing to this world in powerful ways- and it is up to to create a context in which they can do so. So- right now, our context doesn't do a good job of that, and we know that girls experience extreme pressure, challenging social relationships, and deep feelings of imperfection as they move through school. A great starter-read about this is Rachel Simmons work on the construct of the good girl, and the way that this idea shapes how girls move through the world. She's got a phenomenal book directed towards parents, if you're interested!
Yesterday I was in a lecture where the speaker gave each audience member a paper with three increasingly larger pyramids on it. Thinking visually, our task was to show how the pyramid was growing/changing each time. I was hesitant, because I’m really not good at math but I shaded mine. We were then to share with our neighbors. Mine were two dudes. The first one explained his thoughts. The second his. Then they asked me for mine. They pointed out two unshaded triangles and asked me why I hadn’t shaded them. I quickly colored them in and said “Oh I guess I made a mistake.” And then the two guys explained to me what I could have done. But then of course, as per always my experience in math, the teacher put up a slide and my way was one of the ways.
A couple things happened: first of all, I kind of freaked out the second I was asked to do a math-thing. I knew I would mess up before I even knew what the task was, and what kind of gender/tech researcher can’t get a math problem right? Worse, I was in a group with a dude PhD student and an older, professorial man who was stroking his beard for half the time before the math exercise. And they mansplained to me what I did (and incorrectly, too!) and from the moment I turned to them I knew they knew more than me, so I basically shut up. And why? How did I know this? I’m a product of high-performing California public schools, of course. I learned it. I learned pretty early on in my educational career that I’m not a math person.
But here was Jo Boaler, showing me how and why there’s no such thing as “not math people.” Her work examines the ways popular beliefs about mathematics, combined with and reinforced by common teaching methods function together to create a situation where tons of kids are tracked right out of math- and you know who’s mostly effected by these crazy-making beliefs and teaching methods? Girls. Kids of color.
When Dr. Boaler projected an image of those oh so common times tables worksheets, I could feel it in my body- the tightness in my fingers to grip the pencils, ready to race the clock and peek up to make sure I’d be one of the first finished to prove my smartness.
A key piece of the work on experiences of math hinges on beliefs about talent and giftedness. Yet, this kind of model works for no one- it isn’t good for the kids who don’t get into the GATE programs and who receive the message that they aren’t smart, but its even crappy for the kids who are put into the GATE programs and consistently told they’re smart, ripening the conditions for epic, crushing failure when things don’t come easily or when kids fail. What we’ve got is a situation where talent is fixed- you got it or you don’t- in which kids are very stressed and often actually traumatized through their math experiences.
When I was a kid, I was the Gifted and Talented program, and we got all kinds of special things- my favorite of which was a week long trip to an outdoor science center. Being a GATE kid was good- we were the smart ones. In sixth grade, I went to a new school where I knew no one. In the first week of school, Mr. Hoxey, my math teacher, divided the classroom into three groups. He didn’t even know me, but I got put into the “average” math group- the one that wouldn’t do algebra until ninth grade. The advanced group got to do algebra in eighth grade. I was crushed. Obviously my time pretending to be good at math was up and the hoax was over: I was just average. It only got worse over time, when math failure after math struggle after math hate convinced me again and again that I’m not a math person.
Over time, I learned to have an extremely fixed mindset about my math ability, when a creative, open, visual approach to math like the one Dr. Boaler was advocating might have changed that entirely! All of this is to say, that Dr. Boaler’s talk really resonated with me. I loved watching her weave together threads from neuroscience and pedagogy, gender and girlhood studies with STEM education. Check out her work here: https://www.youcubed.org/
My body is working even better than its supposed to: for nineteen days, I have sustained my newborn baby girl, and in those nineteen days, she has been nourished from only one breast. And she’s getting bigger and bigger. And I am having an out-of-this-world celebratory experience of my body’s capacity, and it is amazing.
I only heard negative things about breastfeeding before I did it myself. My friends assured me “it’s so hard” and “no one tells you how much it hurts” and “you will definitely have problems” and “it’s ok to supplement.” I expected to have problems. I expected it to hurt. I expected to need to supplement. After all, I only have one breast and my breasts have a history of causing really awful trauma.
In 2013, cancer was diagnosed in my left breast and chemo and mastectomy followed. The cancer left a hole in my heart and permanently marked body. Though the empty space was filled with silicone it’s unresponsive and unfeeling. There are no milk ducts. For so long, this implant has shaped my relationship with both breasts, and my right breast- which is still intact- has been distant. Ongoing screening means that my right breast is always suspect. It could still kill me. Because it feels like my body failed wildly, horribly, and with no warning, I often tense in the wait for bad news from medical professionals about my breasts.
But with breast feeding, there has not yet been bad news. At the lactation visits, I tensed to hear she wasn’t growing. From the pediatrician, I tensed to hear my milk wasn’t enough. But instead, all I've heard is that she’s thriving. She's getting bigger because I’m feeding her, with my right breast. I would be lying if I said it didn't hurt at first. For a day or two, my nipple bled, I stressed before every feed because I knew it would hurt and my mother fed the baby with a syringe while I pumped. I cursed my cancer and wished I had a second tit so my poor bloody nipple could catch a break.
I didn’t ever want to unilaterally breastfeed. Nor did I imagine that unilateral breastfeeding would result in a magical, tremendous, healing experience. I had no idea I would experience sustaining life from my breast as the opposite of cancer, during which time I was thrust into treatment in order to save myself from my own mutating cells, who had it out to kill me.
Breastfeeding didn't seem like it would result in healing awesomeness, or in power, or in joy. But breastfeeding this tiny human with one tit is a super power. I almost cannot believe that my body- me, my body!- is making up for the absence of my left breast by making enough milk with one breast. I don’t even need it! It doesn’t even matter that I don’t have a second breast. I’d forgotten about this right breast, in all the hullaballoo about the left breast and its too-early departure from this world. It is amazing to feel so hopeful about this part of my body, especially in contrast to feeling so hopeless. In retrospect, it feels like it took forever to be here: I've definitely told cancer-friends that I'd never trust my breasts again, and I've often complained about how I didn't magically and instantly feel better even years after my cancer diagnosis. Breastfeeding Mica is so hopeful it literally makes my heart ache. It reminds me loudly and clearly that I am healthy, and I am ok, and I am even better than ok. I think about the people cancer has stolen from me, and I think about my friends still getting treatment, and I know that exactly what we all deserve is to feel this hopeful about our bodies and to trust this deeply in our bodies' capacities. I am celebrating the possibility and capability of my body to nourish another, and it is glorious.
I hate going places designated for poor people. When I do, I feel like my poverty is an open, public wound that everyone can see. I feel deeply inadequate, and very stupid that I hold a PhD and still can’t shop at Whole Foods. When I go to the doctor, I want to explain away why I am receiving care at the county hospital.
When the people around me who barely finished high school are dumping money into their retirement accounts as I put $6 in quarters into my gas tank and hope it’s enough to get to my research group meeting, I feel resentful and hateful and stupid. The time to write about this is now, because soon my situation will change, and because I know it will change, I feel safer articulating this reality.
I live below the poverty line. I qualify for Medi-Cal and for WIC. At the end of every month, my bank account is almost always in the red. I’m accustomed to account balances like $18 or $3 or $-167.
It’s Christmastime. That means presents. We tried to pare down the gifts this year, focusing on the kids almost exclusively and giving a few well thought out gifts to each other. I got Sam something big and I’ve been saving for it for months. I could barely make the purchase, but I wrapped it proudly. He loves it.
The other day I stood in a toy store, picking gifts for my nieces. I wondered how, even if I bought small gifts each under $15, I would pay for the diapers due to charge automatically and ship to me two days after Christmas? I figured that since my account wouldn’t be overdrawn, the bank would validate the diaper charge even though it’d put me into the red. I rationalized that there was only a week between Christmas and the first of the year, when my paycheck was due.
When those nieces Facetimed on Christmas, I saw how high gifts were piled under their tree. I listened to their excitement over enormous plastic dollhouses and wondered how many hours they’d spent unwrapping gifts. I witnessed the sheer amount of stuff they received, and I wondered if they’d even glanced at the activist girl books and little science projects I’d carefully wrapped. They did not mention my gifts. I wished I’d saved the money and spent it on my own sweet daughters instead.
There’s a disconnect here, between my impoverished state and the ideological values that drive me. I am pretty solidly middle class. I am typing on a MacBook Pro. I like to snack on organic hummus and despite my persistence in poverty, I believe it is only a temporary state. I have a very significant safety net and I know that my mom will deposit money into my in-the-red-account before I become homeless. I am aware of my extraordinary privilege in knowing- and being able to believe- these things.
It is still really f*cking hard to be constantly wondering how I’ll pay for new socks for my babies, whose feet seem to grow by the day. It is still really shameful to turn down conference requests and adventurous outings because I’m afraid I’ll need to use my ATM card and it will say insufficient funds on the screen. You know that wedding gift I told you I’d shipped that never arrived? I didn’t actually buy it but I was too embarrassed to explain I can’t afford the cheapest thing on your registry. I know you wanted me to give to your fundraiser, and I cared about you and your cause, but if I gave to your GoFundMe I was going to have to forgo a trip to the grocery store. When my college friends complain I never visit, I swallow hard but I do not explain that the cost of the plane ticket is more extra than I’ve had in years. Instead I pour cheap wine and change the subject.
Being poor is extremely stressful. Sometimes I’ve sobbed into my husbands shoulder, because I imagined a life where I could take him out for a surpise dinner, and that feels utterly impossible. Sometimes I stare at the crack between the floor and the wall in our bathroom, and hate myself because I know there’s spiders and mold taking up residence in that tiny space, and I feel powerless to fix it. I’ve cursed Facebook, filled up with people I used to know vacationing on beaches, and I’ve wondered if the only way to make do is to marry a synthetic-looking man. I’ve felt failed, inadaquete, stupid, and useless.
I know that in less than two weeks I’ll start a job at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, and there will be a regular paycheck that is four times as much as I’m currently making. I can feel my partners’ shoulders relax when we talk about visiting his family, and our eyebrows don’t immediately furrow, trying to figure out how to gather the funds for plane tickets. We interviewed nannies the other day, and I felt in my bones when one of the nannies said, I just need to make enough to cover my rent. I didn’t explain how I knew, though. I just smiled kindly and said, Of course.
It feels imperative I write of these challenges and necessary to voice them aloud and make them known, rather than sweeping them away and forgetting how deeply challenging, horribly embarrassing, and utterly exhausting it is to live a life in poverty. For I am not the only one. Our soon-to-be-nanny, a fellow Ph.D. from one of the top institutions in the nation looked me in the eye the other day and said, “What Ph.D. doesn’t live in poverty?” My closest Ph.D. buddy, a brilliant researcher focused on global politics, queer theory, and media whispers across the phone lines when we chat, “I just want a grown-up salary.” And we’re not the only ones, though we may be the most educated ones. It’s really hard to talk about money, especially when there’s not enough of it to go around. It’s not just the Ph.D.s suffering in poverty- we are legions and legions of people, and our stories must be told.
I've been following Bana Alaban's posts lately. The seven year old, with support from her mother, has been tweeting about her life as a little girl in the midst of the Syrian war. She lives in Aleppo. In a matter of months, she amassed over 172k followers. Through her eyes, we consume the war, we make sense of extraordinary violence, we watch from afar, we feel our hearts ache. We wish we could do something more, change it, stop it. Bana is one little girl, and at the same time, she is all the little girls- and when she tweets about reading to forget the war, or that a bomb destroyed her home and killed her dolls, she is one little girl and she is all the little girls. The little-girl-ness of her observations tears our hearts out of our bodies. She is a little girl. Seven. She is seven. She is so little her mom helps her manage her tweets.
During the last forty-eight hours, Bana's home has been destroyed. She and her family are on the run. The explosions and bombs have killed many. Bana has seen people die. Her mother posted a farewell message on the 27th, that forewarned us of the intimate threat of death to Bana and her family. She wrote The army got in, this could be our last days sincerely talking. No Internet. Please please please pray for us. -Fatemah #Aleppo. That was followed by an even heavier message reading Last message- under heavy bombardments now, can't be alive anymore. When we die, keep talking for 200,000 still inside. BYE. -Fatemah. But Bana persisted. Since, she's continued to post, and the horror she is living in her seven year old body makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up. She has posted pictures and videos, and they are utterly raw. She has reminded us she is a little girl when she posted about the way her dolls have been stollen by the war, how she has lost even the smallest shred of little girl innocence to this war.
It is surreal to sit in a coffee shop and sift through these texts, viewed already by hundreds of thousands of people, many of them American. I think of my own little girls, playing at home with their father. I have been bowled over lately by the misogynist we have elected to the white house, and the fear I have for my own little girls under this presidency seems entirely woven together with the horror I am experiencing about and with and for Bana and her mother and her family.
I cannot stop thinking about how we are watching something happen in real time that we have seen before. Something that is familiar and comforting in some kind of warped, twisted way. For we know how to relate to little girls. Little girls are innocent. Little girls have dolls. Little girls are not threatening.
There was another little girl, caught in the middle of a war, and it is to her writing we so often turn to understand the Holocaust. The difference is we did not read it as it was happening. Even so, its a safe bet for making sense of an utterly sense-less tragedy. Everyone can agree that little girls should not experience this kind of atrocity. There is nothing to argue over. We can rally together.
Or at least, we can sit in coffee shops around the world, and our jaws can collectively drop and our hearts can ache together as we witness- in real time- each shard of hope, every semblance of normalcy vanish from little Bana's life. We watch as her mother attempts to both be real about possibility, we read her one-liners about how terrifyingly close to death she and her family are, at every moment, and our hearts ache.
So I wonder, what is the role of social media in helping us to educate each other, how can social media be a site of witness, a space of connection, a place of hopefulness? What is the place of witnessing, connection and hopefulness in the life of little Bana?
Dear Baby Girls,
Yesterday I took pictures of you. I thought about the letter I would write to you, reminding you of what you were doing the day the most historic thing happened: I believed, deep in my bones, that you would grow up watching a Madame President lead us, and I believed that that would be the beginning of shaking misogyny loose. I thought we would be celebrating today with apple cider. I was going to teach you how to toast. Instead, we are grieving, and we are steeling our resolve.
Because we didn’t elect our Madame President. We did not pick Hillary. Instead, we elected a man who called Mexican immigrants rapists. We elected a man who bragged about “grabbing (women) by the pussy.” I am really freaking disappointed. Hillary did win the popular vote, which makes me know that there is in fact, more good than hate. But baby girls, today is a dark day.
It is a day that is so hard. It is a day that was completely unexpected, at least for me. It is a day that I wish you never saw. It is a day I wish I could protect you from. We wildly underestimated misogyny and racism and today our underestimation hits hard, home, and real. Our underestimation is shaping your world.
I want you to know we will keep you safe. We will stand up for our beliefs. I want you to know we still believe in justice. I want you to know we know how serious this is. I want you to know how much work we have to do, and how committed we are. I want you to know your voice matters, especially when there’s injustice. You do not have to agree. We will support your voice. We will make space for it. Your voice is valuable, and it counts.
No matter what they tell you, you are allowed to grieve and take action at the same time. You get to have both. That’s what is fair and real and necessary. I want both for you. I also wanted a Madame President for you. I am deeply disappointed. This morning we listened together to the should-have-been-Madame-President give her concession speech. I sipped a homemade americano. Papa organized your toys. Luna read a book called "The Shape of My Heart." Sienna burrowed her head in my shoulder and whimpered. She is right: this will be painful for a long time. She is right, little girls, do not doubt how valuable you are, how important you are, how deeply we promise to fight for you. We will raise you with our values, we will make sure you know what justice is, we will help you find your voice and follow your dreams.
So much heartache this morning, baby girls. We love you, baby girls. We love you.
Typically, when I tell people I'm doing research, they don't really have a sense of what it is I'm actually doing. For the most part, my work does not involve quantitative data collection or heavy stats analysis, and I suppose observation sounds fuzzy, and doing or making or even being with people sounds even fuzzier.
Yesterday, doing research meant gathering iPads and cameras and loading them into a brown paper box. It meant downloading images I searched for on Pinterest under the title documentary photography onto the devices. It meant thinking about how participants could look at images of everyday life- documentary images- that showed something new or interesting about the most common of everyday moments, and spin a story from that image. It meant then imagining how participants could take the cameras packed in the box, and venture out into their world and photograph something- anything, really- from their daily lives. It meant devising a writing prompt that could follow the capturing of images, hoping that they'd continue to engage enough to write something meaningful about the image they had taken.
And so we arrived, my postdoctoral supervisor and myself, to addiction and rehab support center yesterday, and we were greeted by folks at the steps of the building, lingering on the streets and having a smoke. Someone held the door for us- for our hands were full of digital devices and doughnuts and coffee, and we entered a big room with fluorescent lighting and lots of round tables that smelled faintly of elementary school cafeteria food and warm bodies. Men and women of all ages gathered at the tables, clutching paper cups of coffee and chatting. An art table in the corner was littered with plastic boxes of broken crayons and felt markers that I desperately wanted to organized into their proper bins. An older woman with a pair of glasses strung around her neck introduced herself, the director of the center.
I felt out of place, the way I often do in a new space. The difference between me and my pixie haircut and these people was wide. I desperately wished to make the difference disappear so that I could sit down with these folks and have a cup of what I was certain was bad, watery coffee, and talk about life. But of course the way I want to be easily accepted, the way I imagine the chumminess, the camaraderie- it's always all in my head.
This isn't exactly like most of my research, for I am stepping into my post-doc supervisor's project. She's been here, many times. People know her. Young adults greet her. They ask about previous projects. I am new here, and this is the only time I will visit. Typically, I spend lots of time with people I do research with, and time erodes the difference between me and my pixie haircut and the people with whom I work. But not this time. This time, I rely on the relationships built by other researchers to carry me through, to facilitate our research.
I meet some folks. We move downstairs, into a yellowed classroom-cubicle. We gather around a table, men and women of all ages joining us. I try not to stare at a man with a multi-pointed star tattoo adorning the skin around his eye, which, I imagine, was insanely painful to have done. A young woman who must be close to me in age slips into the chair next to him, her straight blond hair falling down her back. She folds her body up in the chair, nervously- incessantly- tapping her fingers on the table. She must be going through withdrawal.
The room fills and we begin. The iPads. The people sharing their opinions of the images. Scrolling through pictures and describing what they like as I silently wish I'd chosen images that more represented this group. My pinterest images- the ones that spoke to me, they are hopelessly tied to my middle class life, my new mom-ness, my academic nerdiness, my documentary photography obsession.
But there's no room to wonder what could have been, and soon everyone has shared and we talk about what makes a good photo and we traipse outside with cameras and iPads and phones and cell phones pulled from participant pockets and backpacks.
A man who was going to photograph characters at the centre as though they were Sesame Street characters takes pictures of leaves as well. Another man isn't sure what he's supposed to do. I explain again, trying to remove the metaphor from my language. The blonde woman has someone else hold her camera while she poses with a cigarette in her hand, and I'm drawn both to the flickering red light and the curve of smoke billowing into the wind. The guy with the eye tattoo searches for a spider. We find one, but it's shaking to much in the wind. We search for another, finding one in the rafters of an octagonal structure that seems out of place.
I wonder if this is going to work. If there will be something to write about. If this is good enough.
And then we head inside, and each participant writes about their image, and one woman narrates a story to me about where she used to play as a little girl around a totem pole that she photographed. She cannot read or write, and she seems embarrassed. She emphasizes the incredible blue sky of the images she took, proud of her pictures. She took them with her camera, and her camera takes amazing pictures, she explains.
People share. The blonde talks about routines and addiction and her smoking photo. The woman who shot the totem pole asks me to read the statement I wrote as she spoke. I do. The man with the eye tattoo uses an app to write something about not getting caught in the spiderweb of life directly onto his image, but then he emails me only the plain image. I want the other one, the one with the writing. A former Pakistani architect shares an angular photo, showing us patterns and how how the image radiates.
And then we are done. The people begin to drift away. We remind them to take the food. We gather the tech. We turn off the recordings. We say thank you. We go to a cafe, and over hot drinks in trendy cups we try to imagine what we will write about multimodality, how we will think about this time, which photographs embody theory. We do not yet know. We will write there, and then we will re-write, and maybe we will know some more, then, after we've had time to think with these images, to let them blur together with ideas.
That's research. That's what I mean, when I say, I'm doing research today.
In the 1940s, Anne Frank wrote a diary that would become famous posthumously, about her experience as a Jewish girl living under Nazi rule. You probably read it in school at some point, if you grew up in North America.
In September of 2016, Bana Alabed opened a Twitter account from Aleppo, Syria about the war from her perspective as a seven-year old girl. In one month, she amassed over 71k followers with tweets like “Good afternoon from #Aleppo, I’m reading to forget the war,” and "My brother really scared of being killed by one of the shells -Bana #Aleppo." In case you haven't caught onto Bana's posts yet (she shares the account with her mom, who sometimes posts as well), you can check it out here: https://twitter.com/alabedbana
Both of these girls belong to a group of young women who, in formats appropriate to their times, leverage their stories of atrocity to effect social change. Anne Frank wrote in a diary that only became public after her death, but which has come to be emblematic of the Holocaust and which is used in classrooms to inspire students to consider major atrocity and the role of an adolescent girl living at that time. Contemporary girls follow in Anne Frank’s footsteps, relying on participatory media platforms to allow them to intervene in global conversations about gender and persistent inequity in real time.
I'm really struck by the way these narratives about life in really drastic, really dire situations are being taken up by those of us in North America. How do we interact with these stories? Who are those seventy thousand people following Bana? I'm willing to bet- though I've yet to look at the analytics- that most of them are not in Syria. Most of them, I think, are consuming her 70-character messages about life as a little girl in a war from vantage points like mine. It's as though she provides an unfiltered view of the war, one unmetered by popular media. But then again, she's seven. I have a seven year old niece. She's concerned with what flavor ice cream is in the freezer and which rides she is going to pick to go on at the county fair. I cannot even fathom her tweeting about war. And yet- I consume little Bana's brief messages, interludes from her world, on the daily, and my heart grips. Reading to forget the war. Her brother is afraid. Boom, Boom, Boom.
And what of these narratives? What can be done with them? If I download all of Bana's tweets, and analyze where her supporters are located geographically, and watch all the videos, and think with her mother's perspective, what then?
Will Bana's words be used like Anne Frank's, an entre into a world so foreign, a story that helps us make sense of atrocity? Some people worry that Anne Frank's diary is merely a balm for normalizing the Holocaust, that it takes the edge off the sheer violence when it celebrates Anne's indomitable spirit, her hopeful words, her little-girl outlook.
How can we take up Bana's words in ways that move us to action, that connect young people globally, that inspire the urgent, urgent need that for peace that is communicated every time she connects and reminds us that somewhere, very far away, many little girls are trying to avoid dying from bombs?
I'm a bit worried. Today wasn't a school day, but tomorrow my seventeen year old niece, who lives with me, will go back to high school after a brutal few days of election campaigning. She is taking both US History and Econ. As of yet, there has not been any conversation about the presidential campaign, which is shocking to me, but she tells me no one likes Trump in the whole school anyway.
But now, now it seems like they must. They must discuss this in classrooms. In every classroom. With all the kids. They have to talk about the way Donald Trump normalized his "locker room talk," they have to help young people understand why it's not ok to "grab [women] by the pussy."
I'm not the first to write on this topic. As news of Trump's "locker room" conversation travels, and we read again and again any blogs have popped up over the last couple of days, reminding us of the urgency surrounding dealing with misogyny in a timely, clear, feminist way.
What really worries me, though, is that most of my women-friends are writing, posting, texting, and remembering the many, many times they've been assaulted- when she was grabbed by the pussy on the train, when she hid in bushes from cat-calling dudes in vans, when that man exposed himself to the little girl at the lake, when the boy next door forced her to be a wife and kissed her even when she didn't want to. Some of the stories are from last week, but so many of the stories are from childhood. And the girls and young women in middle school and high school, watching these debates, scrolling through the most tweeted election scandal, seeing the phrase "grab them by the pussy" in headline after headline?
They're on the front lines. They live in the world my women-friends are remembering. Their little sisters play with the boy next door. They go on runs and hide their faces from cat-calling men. They hear their teachers' snide remarks.
And right now, as this trauma that we know all too well will likely become life-long, we are splashing it across social media feeds, shining the brightest, most public light on their newly ripped wounds, watching as they take in this life lesson that patriarchy offers. You know what? It's our job to help them make sense of this misogyny. It's our job to teach them the word misogyny. It's our job to make sure they know we can talk about what happened- that we want to talk about what happened.
My niece said to me this evening, "So wait, what exactly did he say again?" We talked. I told her. She's a second language learner, so I broke down each comment. I told her I was angry. Our conversation ended abruptly when a baby started crying. And then dinner, and then bedtime, and then homework. We have more to talk about.
But I hope to all the goddesses I'm not the only one talking to her about this. I hope her teachers give her a frame for thinking about this public assault on women's bodies, I hope her peers are horrified in the hallway, I hope her after-school club leaders allow some time and space for this topic.
And then I hope we come together, and we shut down the locker room talk, and it's not allowed, and we are not remembering, collectively, the ongoing nature of violence towards women's bodies, towards our bodies- violence enacted even by one of the men vying for the presidency.
Chelsey is a digital storyteller, geek, mama, researcher and yogi. She loves to make things and her favorite food is artichokes.