Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On listening to your instincts

I think I mentioned that I recently started teaching a course at a local college.  The course itself is going so well.  Seriously.  I overheard two students talking before class this evening saying, "I really wish this class was more than once a week.  This class is amazing.  We need more classes like this."  I almost cried, because...holy cow.  What a compliment.

My class meets from 7-9:30PM in the basement of one of the buildings in the middle of campus.  When I say "basement," it's not like it's's very nice, actually.  But there are very, very few people around, and when I am there, I feel very, very isolated.  There are 27 students in my class, and once they leave, I walk down the echo-y hallways alone, walk across the poorly lit campus to the empty faculty parking lot, and I leave.  By then, it's typically around 9:45PM, and it feels...wrong.  I didn't feel safe, and I caught myself putting my keys between my fingers, holding my breath, walking fast and demanding myself to look confident.  It did not feel okay.

I emailed a friend and professor and asked him: "so this it safe?  I feel uncomfortable, even though I know it's probably fine...but is safety a concern?"

He's awesome, so he responded that he had spoken with several other female colleagues, and that they noted that they do or would feel unsafe, even though they are reasonably sure that they would be, because it is late, and because the campus is poorly lit, and that they would likely call security, or consider calling security, or that they were pleased to know that calling security for an escort would be an option.  He presented me with several solutions: call security and arrange for an escort.  Talk with the department chair and arrange to park closer in a handicapped parking spot.  Ask for my class to be moved to another building where there would be another night class taking place.  He took my concern seriously, and responded with options he wanted me to take advantage of.

But I'm stupid and hard-headed, and I thought, "you're making a big deal out of nothing.  Every woman says she would call security...but who would, actually, right?"  And then I thought, "if you start talking to people about this, you'll raise a big stink that will cause a big issue that you'll regret.  It's not worth it.  Just suck it up, and walk to your damn car."  And then I thought, "okay.  Don't be too hard on yourself.  Let's do this: wait a week and see how you feel next Tuesday.  If you still feel the same way, THEN make a plan of action."  Seemed like a pretty solid plan to me.

So I went to class, and it was fabulous.  After class, there is consistently a line of students wanting to talk about everything from what is or is not or might be in the syllabus, to complicated questions about personal lives, questions about recommendations for further reading.  Tonight was no exception and, in fact, was a little worse than usual.  As the line wound down, one student, "Zach," was left.  As he approached, he said, "I think somebody's outside waiting for you, so I'll make this quick."  When he said "somebody," I thought he meant, like, the student who always waits for me.  I didn't think twice about it.

"Okay," I said, and began listening and answering his question.  By this time, it was 9:45.  As I'm wrapping up with Zach and about to push him out the door so I can get the heck home, the classroom door opens, and a man walks in.  A tall, well-dressed man, roughly my age (clearly not a college student) with a backpack.  He sets the backpack down on a chair and stands by it, near the door.  I assume this man is Zach's friend.  However, as Zach and I finish up, Zach looks at the man, clearly not knowing who he is, and then looks at me.  He is clearly uncomfortable about leaving me here, and seems to look at me for any sign of recognition.  My mind races, trying to figure out how I can get Zach to stay in the classroom while I figure out what this man wants.  I come up empty, and Zach leaves.  I hope he has the good sense to stay in the hallway.  I convince myself that he does.  (He doesn't).

The man stays near the door, and I stay about 8 feet away from him at the podium.  I immediately realize that I am in the basement of an empty academic building, at 9:45PM, in a classroom alone with a man I do not know, who is approximately 6 feet tall, and standing in front of the door.  My phone is on the other side of the room, and all I can think is you have no way to escape.  You have no way to escape.  You have no way to escape.  I can literally feel my brain starting to shut down. 

"Autodidact?" he says, addressing me by my first name. 

I feel jolted, and my body feels like it is vibrating with adrenaline.  "Yes?"  It comes out louder than I expected.

"Oh...good.  You're a hard woman to track down," he laughs.  "I've been sitting outside your classroom since 7:00, just hoping it was you."

The string of expletives going through my head seems to drown out everything else.  I don't even hear his name as he introduces himself, and I have to consciously tell myself to pay attention to what he's saying.  Shut-up, shut-up, shut-up and listen to the guy, I think.  You're fine.  You're fine.  You're fine.  Just figure out who the hell he is and what he wants.  He's talking, and I have no idea what he's saying.  

"...and there has been a big push on campus for adjunct faculty to start a union.  I'm from the .... union member......something you're interested in?"

He's just some guy asking you to join a union.  Or start a union.  Something about a union.  Listen about the union so you can get rid of him.  Just listen. 

"No, I don't think so, thank you."  He takes a step closer to the podium.  I walk across the room to get my bag and phone.

"...several colleges in the area...spending lots of time tracking down people like yourself...teaching in the spring....union voting process...."

"I won't be teaching in the spring, but thank you for thinking of me," I say, still moving towards the door.  He's not here to hurt you.  He's not here to hurt you.  He's not here to hurt you.  I don't think.  We walk out together.

"You know, the hardest thing about this job is that I have to wait around for hours outside of classrooms.  I've been sitting here since 7:00," he reminded me.

"That's a long time to stalk somebody outside of a classroom," I said, without laughing.

"Yeah," he kind of laughs.  "And then I have to be the big guy that walks in 9:30 at night to an empty classroom with a lone woman...or sometimes I wait in the parking lot and walk up to them then," he says.  "I scare everybody because I know their name and everything."

"Yeah," I say.  "You scared the crap out of me.  Maybe try an email next time."

"I'm sorry about that," he said.  "It's just so important to get the word out."

"Okay," I said.  He turned to go out the closest door, seeming to think that I would follow him. "I'm going to go out the other door," I told him. 

"See ya," he said, shrugging.

I saw him as I walked to my car, and let him stay 50 paces in front of me.  I had my keys between my fingers.  I got to my car, locked the doors, and promptly felt sick to my stomach.  You're fine.  You're fine.  You're fine. 

Why didn't you ever send that fucking email to security or the department chair or somebody?  You knew you didn't feel good about this.  You knew, you knew, you knew.

I'll be honest: I'm having a hard time getting the fear to leave my body.  I called my sister on the way home, and told an expletive-ridden version of the story.  She was appropriately angry, and supportive, and told me that I wasn't crazy for being scared.  My body was so sure we were going to be hurt.  I know it did what it thought it needed to do, but goodness I feel awful now: my muscles hurt, and I'm nauseous, and I'm tense and tight and feel like I need to run to expend this energy that has been released into my body with nowhere to go. 

And I'm angry.  I'm angry at myself for not listening last week when I was ready to take action.  Imagine how different I would have felt if I had security show up before/during this interaction?  If I knew security was on their way?  I would not be this ball of mess I have turned into.

I'm angry at him, because he knew that what he was doing scares women...and he can't find another way to do his job.  Dude.   There are 150 ways to get in touch with someone these days.  Walking into their classroom at 9:30 at night when they're alone, calling them by their first name, and telling them you've been tracking them down and waiting for them for 2.5 hours in the hallway can't be your best or only option.  Acknowledging that it's creepy and apologizing for it almost made you okay in my eyes for a moment.  But no -- you don't get points for that.  If you know it's scary for women for you to do this, figure out another plan.

Mostly, though, I'm just angry, and I'm angry because I'm scared and my body has all sorts of excess chemicals floating around in it that are making me much more volatileI'm angry that I have to feel this way.  I'm so tired of being scared...and having that fear validated.  "But hey," you may say, "nothing bad happened here.  You didn't have to be scared.  This should have DISPROVED your fear, not reinforced it."

But that's not the way it works.  It's just not. 

I don't want to feel like I need my undergraduate student to stay in the classroom to protect me.  I don't want to worry that I will be raped, or robbed, or followed, when I'm walking to my car after I finish having amazing conversations about privilege and power and oppression.  I don't want to have to think about the fact that I am a woman alone in a building on a college campus, and that this makes me vulnerable.  I don't want to be driving away thinking, "well if I just took a self-defense class, maybe I wouldn't feel so scared," or "I wonder if my pepper spray still works if it's, like, 3 years old" or "see, you got to your car safely, so your worry was ridiculous and dramatic."

I'm tired of men not realizing that the way they present can be threatening, even if they don't intend it to be.  I'm angry that he realized it could be perceived as threatening and he did it anyway.  I'm sure it wasn't his intention to be threatening.  But with the power and privilege he has, I guess he chose to turn his head, rather than find another way.  

But mostly, I'm just angry that I need to think about this at all.  I'm tired of this anger, and I'm tired of the fear, and I'm tired of proving myself right every time I try to give the world the benefit of the doubt. 

This is why you listen to your instincts.  Even when you think they're stupid, or wrong, or ridiculous.  This is why you make a big stink about things, and just try to suck up the fact that you feel like an ass about it.

Because if you don't, you end up with aching muscles and teary eyes, cuddled on the couch with your dog at 12AM, still trying to get the flood of adrenaline to leave your body.

Fuck this.  How do we expect women to do their best work when they have things like safety, and pepper spray, and escape routes on their minds?  How can I be the best teacher I want to be when my mind is preoccupied with worrying about union reps and walking to my car?  I will never be able to walk into my classroom again without going over an escape route in my mind...and I'm willing to bet that's not something Mr. Union Rep has ever had to do.  

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