Facts of Life
My mom swears that I was very young when she took me to the zoo and I called out on sighting elephants, “Pachyderms!” If this story is true, then I owe it to my mom. She set me in front of the aquarium when I was a baby and let me watch the neon tetras race from one side of the tank to the other. As a result of this eye exercise, I learned to speed read before I started kindergarten. She also taught me to call them as I see them.
When I was set to begin first grade, my mom volunteered to cover the first year reading materials in brown paper bags. We sat together at the kitchen table for two weeks, during which I practiced cutting the bags to size. When my fingers grew cramped from cutting the paper and folding it to fit the textbooks, my mom had me read aloud from the books. By the time that school started I had read the entire year’s curriculum.
I was not nearly as well prepared for sex as I was for school. Oh, we had the talk about the facts of life when I was nine. But I was only about six when Gregory, a nasty little boy who lived down the lane, told me about sex. I recall that he stuffed a jump rope down his pants. Then he tugged one of the handles through his open zipper and explained the mechanics of intercourse in the world-weary way of a boy who knows just enough to be dangerous.
I can still remember my disbelief. I stared at him for a long moment and then said, “I have seen your mother, and I can well believe that she has done such a thing. But my mom would never do anything like that. Not ever!” He laughed a little, but then looked just insecure enough for me to press home my point.
So I poked him in the chest with my finger and said, “Ohh, yeah, your mom looks like she would do such a thing, but my mom wouldn’t touch that!” Here I gestured dismissively at the piece of red wood dangling from his open fly. “Because she is a lady.”
When I told my mom what I had said she bit her lip and shook her head in disbelief. Of course, I told her about all of this when I was in my forties.
In high school I was voted to be many things. I don’t remember all of them. But I do recall that my class voted me second most innocent girl. I was outraged–not that there was any point in denying it–and not for the reason you might imagine. The girl voted to be the most innocent girl was a cheerleader. I barely knew her, even though I was voted first or second friendliest girl in the class.
I was outraged because someone told me she was a “slut,” and I did not want anyone to imply the same thing about me. I am pretty sure that I had no idea what it meant to be a “slut” back then.
Oh, I knew by then that Gregory had not lied about the mechanics of intercourse. I knew many things about sex in the same way as I knew that pagan babies in Africa somehow were nourished when I cleaned my plate. All the information was acquired secondhand.
I understood that good girls waited until marriage. My Grandma Elsie loved Harlequin romances and Barbara Cartland novels so I also understood that love was a heady experience and its physical expression was something a girl had to be prepared to halt if she wanted to be a good girl. I knew that good girls were good. I even knew that bad girls had more fun.
I recently described my outrage at being placed in the same category as someone people called a slut and admitted that I am now ashamed of myself for having been quick to distance myself from another girl my age merely because someone else had judged her. I think the decision not to judge others is one of the biggest lessons I have learned in life.
I am not prepared to apologize yet for my comments about Gregory’s mother. She was, after all, a mom who wore a bikini while she watered her lawn. No one who had a grown kid wore a bikini back then. There I go again, judging.
I once had a friend who addressed the issue of “judging others” by surrounding himself only by people just like him. If he only saw people who would act as he did, then he could avoid the urge to judge.
Another friend defended his judgments. When I asked him whether he had an opinion on everything, he tipped his head to one side and asked, “Isn’t that the object of an educated mind?”
I have a friend who rationalizes judgment as discernment. She is always speaking of people as falling into categories based on behavior. At times it appears that all the categories are on the same level. But once in awhile I hear judgment made about an entire category of people sharing a trait as though that made them similar in all material respects.
I felt the sting of another’s judgment this week. I received a letter from one of the schools at which I teach. The school has been investigating the circumstances surrounding my termination on the day I underwent emergency surgery for uterine cancer that presented itself as hemorrhaging.
One supervisor (Martha) ordered me to stay home and not return to work when three days later I told her I was going to be able to teach my next class. She knew I had been terminated, but did not tell me. Her statement was that people who have hysterectomies, like people who have babies, must take longer to recover.
That woman’s supervisor (Susan) sent me an email the next day and informed me that she already had terminated me because people in my situation always suffer setbacks and she could not take the chance I would return only to become too sick to continue.
The deans apparently signed off on these acts. The email I received giving notice of my termination states that the dean of faculty may have agreed to my termination. The law school’s dean later agreed to pay me the remainder of my stipend for the semester, then he or someone else stopped payment. It took me ten months to get payment.
The investigator wrote to me this week:
I’ve completed my investigation into your allegation that Professor Martha . . . may have violated the university’s Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and Procedures. I have determined that she did not violate the policy; therefore, OIDE considers this matter closed. I have attached a letter for your reference.
I feel judged–to be a fool. My complaint to the university, which it solicited from me after learning I also have complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was not about Martha. It was about a series of events triggered by Susan. I could not then determine what Martha’s role was in the entire matter. There also is no mention in the letter of events that have occurred after my initial termination–events I would characterize as retaliation for the initial complaint.
I have written to inquire about the status of my complaint, which involved others and other events. So far, no response.
I do not want to judge those who judge me, but today I am feeling a little more affinity with my friend who asked when I challenged his judging of others, “Isn’t that the object of an educated mind?”
It seems to me that there is a giant pachyderm in the room that some others refuse to see or cannot name. Does the university really want to ignore an email that puts in writing discrimination on the basis of a diagnosis of cancer? Does it want to ignore the fact that my doctor had said before and after surgery that I would be able to return to work the following week? Is it familiar both with the Americans With Disabilities Act’s explicit recognition that a cancer diagnosis can make a person particularly vulnerable to discrimination and its implicit recognition that people can be discriminated against unfairly even when their conditions appear to be a disability but those conditions do not actually prove disabling?
My question: Are these the facts of life? I feel, for the second time in my life, like someone from the neighborhood has shared with me an important lesson on how a person gets screwed. I feel that once again, the message might be right. This might be how a person gets screwed.