Friday, January 2, 2009

Take It Like A Man - First published Nov. 8, 2005 in Live Journal

We finally saw "North Country." I liked it a lot. It made me remember being picked on by one bully when I took drafting instead of cooking class at age 12 and was the only girl in the class. The bully constantly taunted me, teased me with sexual innuendos spoken close to my ear, and tried to touch me all the time. He finally managed one day to pinch my chest, hard, and that was the last straw; I chased him screaming through the classroom with a t-square raised over my head trying to beat him with it. Well, he did not ever pinch me again. I have a memory of him falling and me standing over him with the t-shaped implement raised over his head, screaming, "Bill Harry, if you ever touch me again I'll kill you!" That day a substitute teacher ran the class. He did nothing. He acted as if he never saw the event. But what is strange thinking back on it, in 1972 or any year what kid gets away with chasing another through the aisles of an otherwise quiet classroom threatening to kill them? What kind of teacher, substitute or not, pretends not to hear or see it? A deaf one? A blind one? And afterwards I, in full sight of every boy (and teacher,) walked back to my seat with tears streaming down my face, the skin on my chest where it was pinched aching, my body shaking so bad I could barely stay seated. The only person who ever stood up for me or tried to comfort me with kind words was a gawky boy named Kenny Leake. Out of about 30 kids, he was the only one.

But the above is not the worst of it. At the time I did not realize, as I do now as an adult, that the teacher was as much to blame as the bully. When I first started the class, he told me that because I was a girl I would have to do extra good work, better than the boys, to receive an A (and I did receive an A.) He seemed to think I was wasting my time because there was no future in drafting for girls. Mr. Rickert. Boy, he was an asshole, possibly even more than the bully boy who picked on me because he let it go on. I think he was surprised that I did probably some of the best work he'd seen by any of his students. I remember he would look at my work and try to find fault and finally admit he could not and he'd give me an A and just tell me to round my eights better. I remember feeling weird when boys would go up with their work and he would only give it a cursory exam before grading it. He gave A's to boys whose work was even shoddy. With mine he pored over it practically with a magnifying glass. Also, he knew about the bullying and pretended he did not see it. The substitute was mystified and did not know the history of the class, but Mr. Rickert knew. To stand by and let someone be bullied, to actually witness it as a teacher and do nothing is, I think, the bigger crime.

I am lucky in my life that I have managed to have jobs or be around people who mostly were not gender prejudice. Movies like North Country remind me that it is not like that everywhere. Things get better with every decade, but it's still tough for women on the workforce depending on the job. I remember how horribly the first girl to attend Westpoint was treated. I remember the Anita Hill hearings. People say "take it like a man." But if you are a man or a woman being harassed daily, what are you supposed to do? What does "take it like a man" even mean to a man, let alone a woman? I wonder, do people even think about what they say, what their words even mean to each other? Some of the men in "North Country" had an idea that they were right about something, about women taking men's jobs, or some dumb reasoning like that. So that made it ok to treat the female workers badly. But did they ever think about their reasons, really? They did not have real reasons for anything they did, and they did not think. It's amazing to me to realize that people can decide they don't like someone else because of a quirk, a look, a gender or whatever, and then feel justified in picking on them. You might expect it from a third graders, but not an adult. I think we all try to say we are civlized, that we humans are better than beasts, but we are not so far from the beast inside if we can allow ourselves to treat others badly just because they are different or simply not to our liking.

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