Monthly Archives: January 2013

Teaching Tigers

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is the one book that all high-schoolers universally adore. We give it to them to read at home on their own, while in class we cover the core curriculum via decontextualized slices of Don Quixote and the Odyssey, nuggets of Confucius and Dante.

I was not pleased at having to re-read the book, and found myself equally entertained and irritated by it. But I will admit to being more intrigued by its ideas than I was the first time around. Pi, the main character and predictably unreliable narrator, has two obsessions–zoology and theology. Throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to separate human aspirations from animal behavior, but they remain frustratingly entwined, all but inextricable. Humans are animals, the book says over and over, but are we just animals? Or does the power of storytelling elevate us beyond the reach of our animal bodies? Is storytelling just a complicated lie to cover our savage nature, or are we in fact capable of sublimity?

These questions are very compelling when you’re facing a classroom full of students who are half-human, half-monster.

I don’t mean that pejoratively. It’s what makes them so interesting. Like minotaurs and mermaids, they have certain human traits, but they frequently behave like beasts, easily distracted by sex and the weather and all the familial drama that is constantly fogging up their home lives. (It’s easy as an adult to forget how much the family drama affected you when you were locked up with it every single day, with only a tiny corner to call your own.) They are, in fact, quite like Pi; they are [SPOILER ALERT] at once thoughtful, philosophical young people and sullen, feral beasts. They are one part starving human and one part part seasick tiger.

I try to nudge them toward humanity by giving them the stories that will make them feel human. I give them The Life of Pi and refrain from criticizing it, instead letting them get caught up in its whirlwind, getting caught up in the whirlwind myself, and then experiencing with them the disappointment and betrayal at its abrupt ending. I read aloud the gory parts of the Odyssey and encourage them to picture the action movie in their heads. I try to explain, futilely, it seems, how poems make meaning not just through their words, but through the shape those words take on the page, the sounds they make when you say them aloud. How parallelism, for instance, can give substance and form to ideas that we know to be true but that our brains would otherwise reject–we call them paradoxes.

“How can surrendering be the same as continuing?” I say. “How can mortality be the same as eternity? How can a person hear deafly? Speak mutely? Why would Marianne Moore write a poem entirely about impossible things?”

How can surrendering be the same as continuing, indeed? In the classroom, there is no control; the harder you push, the harder they push back.

The seniors, in some ways, are the worst. They truly are like caged tigers (“So is that a simile or a metaphor?”), stalking back and forth in their cages and glowering at me through the bars. They’ve been to college campuses; they can smell freedom. They are as emotionally ready as they’ll ever be to step into the big world, but they’re still stuck in a narrow one. They can feel its limitations, but they have no way of transcending them intellectually. They don’t know what it’s like outside the cage, how hard it is to survive, how many rewards there are in freedom and how lost you can feel when you’ve lost your taste for them.

They don’t see a person when they look at me; they see a grown-up, and grown-ups aren’t yet people to them. They think they know what people are like from watching TV and movies, but they don’t recognize the one standing in front of them. I am just one of many adults who stand guard at the cage door, keys dangling provocatively from our belts.

In a strange way, it’s kind of a relief to be misrecognized in that way. It lets you hide in plain sight. I am reminded of my interview with Aspergers Are Us, the sketch troupe made up entirely of comedians on the autism spectrum. This is New Michael Ingemi and Noah Britton talking:

NMI: That’s why it’s so awkward to make eye contact. Because when someone’s addressing you, they’re acknowledging you, that you exist—

NB: They’ve reminded you that you’re a human. And when you’re reminded that you’re a human, that’s really painful and unpleasant. And that’s one thing autism interventions try to do, is force us to do that, which hurts. It’s physically painful.

NMI: Because we’re not human, we’re animals.

There’s a kind of safety in not being human, because the rules of human behavior–compassion, empathy, politesse–don’t apply. For an animal, the only thing you have to worry about, beyond survival, is the fluctuation of power, the jostling of alpha, beta, and omega. And, of course, that’s survival too.

This week, I kicked a girl out of my classroom. I really should have done it months ago. She is a chronic eye-roller. I worry that she will strain her ocular nerve. I worry that someone will hit her on the back and she will look like a white-eyed zombie for the rest of her life. I have seen the northern hemisphere of her irises precisely three times. I want to tell her that her eyes are lovely when she uses them to look at people. Instead I let out an explosive breath of air and I say: “I’ve had it. Go see the principal, Katherine.” (That’s not her real name. Did I mention they all have the weirdest names these days?)

After she left—eyes now squinched with tears of rage and humiliation—the other students, no doubt as sick of her theatrics as I was, started snickering. And I, guardian and treasurer of the humanity of our nation’s youth, said: “Don’t laugh, [last name]. You’re next.”

You know who else said those exact words? The gym teacher played by Tom “Biff Tannen” Wilson on “Freaks and Geeks.” Yes, I have officially become Coach Fredricks.*

Yeah, it sucks making kids do something they’d clearly rather not be doing. All you can do is keep telling them stories and wait for them to feel like humans.

The same day that happened, I assigned my class a literary analysis. I wanted to give them a choice between poetry and prose (too may choices, I always give them too many choices), and I quickly picked “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning for the poem, because, duh. For the prose option, I was temporarily stumped. Finally, I decided to use the “double-consciousness” excerpt from Chapter 1 of W. E. B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Empathy is a decidedly human preoccupation. To save time, I went ahead and allowed my heart to break before class even began. My school is full of white kids. It’s a private school in a largely segregated town. I do not have a single black student, nor have I seen any on the campus. I knew the DuBois excerpt would taste like medicine to them, that only the most sensitive among them would even feel shivers of discomfort, that others would fail to draw any connections at all between the experience of a black man in 1903 and their experience as white teenagers 110 years later. 

“Why should that matter?” I asked myself, ashamed of my initial indecision, and then thought, “It does matter, that’s why I’m assigning it,” and that decided it. 

In class, I pointed to them one after the other and enjoyed one of the few powers a high school teacher retains–the power to command students to read out loud. As I conducted this depressing symphony of not-caring, the last student in the class began to read the double-consciousness paragraph. “One ever feels his twoness–an American, a Negro, two warring ideals in one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” It’s not medicine, it’s straight up grain alcohol.

The kid reading the passage is bright but has been checked out all year. He seems to have given up at some point. I have been prodding him with praise and threats, but it’s not working. He began reading, droning through the difficult first sentence. Then, suddenly, there was a change. He leaned forward. He slowed down his reading. He frowned a little, and his eyes opened a little wider.

I noticed, or remembered, that he’s not white. He has brown skin. He’s not Mexican, he’s South American–adopted–but I’m sure ninety percent of Texans who meet him casually assume he’s Mexican (with all that entails in a border state). I had grown so accustomed to his sullen silence that I didn’t even try to make eye contact with him in class anymore, so when he suddenly spoke, I had to turn my head to look at him.

“It’s about how people see you? And how you’re always thinking about it,” he said. “It’s about how you always have to think about people looking at you, seeing only this one thing about you. You’re different.”

Twice at the University of Chicago, I was reading James Baldwin in an undergraduate class. Both times, when we came to Baldwin, the majority of the students became glazed and restless, while one student perked up, engaged for the first time. Both times, I intuited in a flash that the student, not feeling entirely white, had picked up on high-frequency notes that the other students couldn’t hear, had read the plain, straightforward words as a secret message just for them. Colorblindness is not the absence of racism, and there is a special kind of invisibility that comes from being the only non-white student in a white classroom. James Baldwin and W. E. B. DuBois work on these students like lemon juice on invisible ink. While the rest of the students saw this as “black writing,” they saw it as truth. The text looked straight at them and recognized them as people.

We don’t always know who we’re changing and how. I have said many times that a teacher doesn’t get to see the difference she makes, and that is the hardest part about caring, the thing that wears teachers down over time. We don’t get to see the difference we make. Every lost kid drags a cohort of lost adults behind them. They are animals, and we are animals, and no story you can tell is ever going to change that. So we feel like failures. We can’t tame them. We can only feed them and try to listen to the stories they are telling us about our own humanity. 

*Why is it such a joy to call some kids by their last name? The world may never know.

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Vagina‘s Voice, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Young Feminism

I’m a grumpy old feminist. (And if almost-35 doesn’t seem old to you, just focus on the “grumpy” part.) I started noticing patriarchal bullshit when I was 15, before I knew what to call it, and that’s 20 years of noticing and stewing and bitching and getting over it and then noticing some more.

If there’s one encouraging thing about the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of feminism, post-feminism, and conservative backlash that we seem to be stuck in these days, it’s that people are still finding names for the soft oppressions of patriarchal culture and disseminating them via this messy tool we call the internet.

But, to borrow from Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older while the feminists stay the same age. Every couple of years a new micro-generation of awesome, talented young women go through the phases that all awesome, talented young people are entitled to, and I have to continually remind myself that all lessons have to be re-taught and re-learned, and many have to be lived firsthand.

I started this blog with a vague sense of discomfort over certain habits and expectations younger women I know grew up with, habits I perceived as confusingly anti-feminist, or potentially so, although I struggled to figure out why. While I don’t have a clear answer about what makes a feminist (nor does anyone, nor should anyone), I still find it incredibly frustrating to watch strong, cool, smart women go through their I’m-Not-A-Feminist phase, or, down the line, their Feminism-Means-Whatever-We-Do-Is-Totally-Fine-And-Unproblematic phase. (Of course we can do whatever we want. But nobody is free of structural inequality and the cultural systems that help prop it up–not black women, not white men, not me, not you. I don’t believe it’s in our DNA, but it’s in our brains, and it’s just as hard to root it out as if it were in our DNA. All you can do is look at it long and hard, and keep looking.)

That’s one reason why Hillary-Anne Crosby made such an impression on me. I first interviewed the founding editor of Vagina : : The Zine when I was researching my article about Austin’s booming print culture a few months ago. I found so many great journals and independent presses to write about that I ultimately didn’t have room to delve into zines (embarrassment of riches!), but I was intrigued by Hillary-Anne’s personality and presence, enough to do a follow-up piece on her for the Austin Chronicle. [Disclosure! After the interview, Crosby asked my sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual, to perform at the upcoming release party this Saturday.]

I’m not sure who I was expecting to walk in the door of Cherrywood Coffeehouse to talk up a zine called Vagina–more visible tattoos, perhaps? Definitely not the bouncy, upbeat, up-talking 23-year-old with a pixie cut and a huge smile who walked through the door. Crosby, despite her zine’s in-your-face name, is the opposite of confrontational. Ultimately, my surprise is a little embarrassing in that it reveals a lot about my own preconceptions about the V-Word and about feminism itself–that in its most active and purest form, it’s loud, prickly, and above all, mad.

I’m a grumpy old feminist, but I really liked this perky young feminist a lot. It relieved me to hear her call herself a feminist, and it heartened me that she seems so young and confident, and it didn’t scare me that she seems to have lots to learn. So do I. Ladies and gentlemen, the voice behind the Vagina.

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THE OEDITRIX: So tell me a little bit about how Vagina : : The Zine got started.

HILLARY-ANNE CROSBY: I started it the second semester of my last year in undergrad. Basically I was really bored with things in general, the past four years, and then I was going to graduate in a few months, and I had worked my way through school so I didn’t have any journalism internships. That was my major and that was what I wanted to do. I was kind of terrified of how bad that was going to hurt me when I graduated. And so I kind of just made this my own little internship to try and grind my teeth on something, so that I’ll have learned stuff in the past couple of years, and I was a viable future employee. And that’s how I decided to start doing a zine. I’d never even seen a zine. I’d only heard of them, a couple months prior to that, and I hadn’t even seen one. It was just trying to figure it out as you go along.

OED: So how did you decide to make it a showcase for women’s work?

HAC: I was a photojournalism student, and a lot of had these websites and these blogs full of our work and no one  was seeing them. Like, yay, I have a website! And there are a million websites out there. I wanted a place where they could really share their work with a wider audience who was really looking at it rather than browsing it, flipping through Facebook and things like that. And so I just decided to make it all-girls. I had really no reason for it at the time, that was just my decision. And I called it “Vagina” in my head as, like, a nickname that I had given it before I could decide on a name. But I’d been thinking about it for so long that after our first meting came on January 2, I was like, all right, Vagina. We’re going with it. It’ll stand out. At this point I hadn’t really thought about any other names because I’d just nicknamed it for so long.

OED: Would you say it’s a feminist zine?

HAC: My definition of feminism is just respecting and supporting women. I think that’s what feminism comes down to. So I label us a feminist magazine because I think that everything that we’re doing is respecting and supporting women and their different views on things. We have girls that write really openly about their sex lives, or abortions, or their dream of being a stay-at-home mom. I mean it’s kind of across the board. Instead of being like, oh you need to lose ten pounds and also maybe dye your hair blond. Where it’s like, sure, if you wanted to do those things! But this is to support women in general and all their different opinions and what they want to do.

OED: It takes a lot of guts to call yourself a feminist these days. I think having a magazine that calls itself “Vagina” already paints a certain picture of what you guys might be. The name has this very confrontational kind of connotation to it. Your vision is a little bit different than that.

HAC: Yeah. When you bring that word up it’s like a punch, it’s really in your face. I almost never said the word “vagina” before I started this zine, because it was so in your face and it seemed really aggressive. I was brought up with that being an offensive word that you should never use. But the whole point of the word vagina is just, here’s this sex organ that you have. Or maybe you’re male and you wish you had one! I don’t know. But it’s not like this offensive thing. It’s not meant to be. But I feel like in our culture we’ve made it that, and so Vagina’s also kind of about being—feminism isn’t meant to be aggressive and in your face. No one wants to beat you over the head because you’re a man, or because you want to be a stay-at-home mom. We’re really acculturated in a really specific way. I like that about Vagina, that it scares people into the open. That’s why I like having our events at Cheer Up Charlie’s versus a really dedicated literary space. A lot of people come that are just there for the bar that night, and they would come across the zine, and they would be like, Is it porn? And I would be like, no it’s not! It’s just the word “vagina.” I think it’s great that it’s so in your face, that it gets your attention, but we’re trying to normalize it more and more, basically. I say “vagina” all the time now. My tote bag is not with me but it says “vagina” on it in two different places. I have a lot of interest in trying to normalize feminism and maybe stop believing all these stereotypes that we grew up with. I have a few friends that were like, Oh I don’t consider myself a feminist. And so I was like what, do you think a feminist is? And a few months later they would come back and be like, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, I’m a feminist now, I guess. They’d grown up saying “feminazi.” Just like you grow up thinking vagina is a bad word. I guess we’re all just trying to make that transition.

OED: So the zine started as an experience-building thing. Do you think you’ll keep it going?

HAC: Honestly in that first meeting, I was like, I think I’m going to give this a year, and if it dies, it dies. If it’s not successful, no big deal. But it didn’t die, and I was really happy about that. It’s grown since then, and I kind of don’t ever want to stop now. We love that we’re not a magazine, not a journal, we are very specifically a zine. That [points to a copy of the zine] is computer paper and some staples, you know. And I love that, I love it so much. Maybe in a few years, if we had a big enough following, I would love to make that transition that Bitch and Bust made, from being a zine to being a more, like, grown-up zine that you can call a magazine. I would love that in the next few years to happen. I can’t really imagine it happening right now, but it would be my dream. Those were my inspirations, Bitch and Bust. So I would love that to happen, to really sell on newsstands, maybe on glossy paper. Maybe stop stapling them on my kitchen table! But I love doing it, I love doing a zine.

OED: Are there other feminist magazines coming out of Austin right now that you know of?

HAC: I haven’t seen any. I get a lot of jokes, people who are like, I’m going to think about doing like, “The Gentlemanly Penis.” And I’m like, you should! No one’s doing it. If I can start a zine, having never seen one? Zines are the easiest.

OED: You have a significant online presence too. So why is it even necessary to have a physical publication that’s an object?

HAC: I am really into print journalism in general. I wish I had been a newspaper person. I love that physical object, having something you can sit down and read, versus something you’re going to glance over. You can glance over a website any old time, while you’re on Facebook. I do it too. As opposed to having this physical handmade product that we put time and effort into. And people really buy it! You can read all of this on our website for free, we put the stuff that’s in here online a couple months after it comes out. You can read all of it for free. But I think people like that you can buy the thing that was made by these girls in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes my tears get on here! [pointing to zine]—I don’t think any of them show it. But this one–like, I myself don’t sew, but for a past issue I used a sewing machine, and there were all these problems where like my blood would end up on the design, and I’d be like, here you go friend! It’s really blood, sweat, and tears that go into it. When you make the layout, it comes from scratch every time, we can’t just pop anything into our layout. I think people really like that. I crafted this for you, you can sit down and read it whenever you want, you can throw it in your bag and mess it up versus just browsing it online.

OED: Are you into craft culture more generally?

HAC: Yes. If you had seen  our first two issues, it was literally, like, HEB bags, and inside were the pages, and then it was yarn or glue. Our first issue was a SXSW special issue, and I hand-stitched the letters onto the cover. I remember sitting in my design class stitching one night, and my professor, who was also really into zines, was like, everybody grab one! We’re all going to stitch while we do the lecture! It was cute, there were twelve of us stitching “vagina” into a bunch of brown paper bags. I love craft culture. And we’re getting more and more connected. I’m the only editor here in Austin, it used to be so much easier to have that assembly line, but now it just me and my kitchen table and a stapler.

OED: The making is just you?

HAC: Me and any friends that take pity on me that week.

OED: Anything else about Vagina : : The Zine you’d like people to know? 

HAC: I  really like to drive home how we’re kind of meant to be an alternative to a lot of women’s magazines and everything. Like I’m sorry, and I’m not even trying to be like super-vagina-feminist about this, but I hate Cosmopolitan. I’ll try and read it and I’ll come away really disheartened, and not really sure how I feel about myself. Vagina is meant to be for that woman who’s confident and isn’t wanting to change who she is to fit a certain mold. Who likes who she is. I like how this wide array of girls that write about how they want to be homemakers, and then there are girls who write about masturbation. I love the complete dichotomy and how we’re meant to be for a specific woman who’s confident and funny. That’s how I feel about Bust and Bitch, especially Bust. Bust is this awesome alternative: do you want to learn how to do your hair real pretty? Awesome! Do you want to read about punk music? Here it is! Versus trying to fit you into these specific molds: how to give your boyfriend orgasms—rather than how to give your girlfriend, or yourself orgasms. I’d rather focus on that than on losing 10 pounds and seventeen sex moves you’re not going to remember.

OED: That could be a spoof title: “Seventeen Sex Moves You’re Not Going to Remember.”

HAC: I made this whole double-page spread of all of these spoof headlines. I never have put in the issue how much I loathe Cosmo because I think that would be kind of mean. Personally, when you know me, then you’re like yeah, you would loathe Cosmo. But I feel like it would be too mean if I put it in print.

OED: For someone who runs a magazine with a confrontational name, you’re very polite. 

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