waiting for the rest of this story? I hope not, and my apologies for the year hiatus in blogging. But I’m baaack!
Here is the conclusion of the article I wrote that was originally published in 1988 Summer/Fall issue of Tradeswomen Journal. Please see the entry just previous to this one for the first installment.
The students were one of the roughest groups of men I had ever seen. Ten of the twelve were from inner city agencies. All of them were big, all were black, all were very street tough. Most had missing teeth. One had “The Kid” tattooed in blue across his knuckles.
The two white men were good ole boys. One was wearing a baseball cap reading “A man deserves one good dog and one good woman in his lifetime.” I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but I knew this wasn’t it.
The first lecture was given by Jack, a mellow hippie with an easy smile and quick wit. He was an excellent teacher and I was cruising right along taking notes on heat and moisture movement, until the slide show began. Jack was enumerating the sources of moisture production in a home, and I looked up to see a slide of a woman standing in a shower wearing a towel that barely covered her from nipples to crotch. Memories of medical school dermatology lectures where Playboy slides illustrated “normal″ skin momentarily obscured the present classroom. As I recalled the ensuing battles with the medical school instructors, the dean and my own classmates, tears filled my eyes. It was starting again. When I returned to the present, I realized my decision had been made. If I had taken on the entire medical school administration and a student body of 400, certainly I could talk to one man about his slide show.
As the students filed out of the class room, I began to have second thoughts. After all, I had only worked at the school three weeks, and was still in the probationary period. My mouth was dry as Jack turned around from the blackboard. As he saw me alone at the back of the room, the look on his face told me he knew why I had remained. Before I could say anything he apologized. “I’m really sorry about that slide It’s just that it helps to develop a rapport with the students. I know I should take it out. Besides, there are hardly ever women in our classes.” As I handed him the standard line about sexism being sexism whether it was in front of me or behind my back, I remembered something Lynn had told me. Jack was often the subject of rumors among the students. They sometimes thought him to be gay because of his easygoing manner and somewhat theatrical lecture style. Jack was using slides of near-naked women. to be “one of the boys.” He was having his own problems fitting into the world of blue-collar men, and sex seemed to be the lowest common denominator. Jack agreed to throw the slide away as I realized, for the first time, how really tough it would be to establish my own credibility among these students.
Over the next several months I studied hard, asked a lot of questions, butched-up even more than usual (a feat thought by some to be impossible) and began pulling a share of the teaching load. And credibility was hard to come by. A very small, very white woman was not these guys’ idea of an authority figure on house construction and roofing repair. Usually the students’ attitudes were condescending but not particularly threatening. “Now little lady don’t you think this would be a better way to do that?” On some days they all but patted me on the head.
But one morning was different. I was lecturing about the minimal effectiveness of storm windows, and why they are the last priority to be funded on every one of the houses we weatherize A man in the front row, who had been slouched in his seat behind crossed arms and mirrored shades all morning, said, “Nah, we put’m on all the time.” I pointed out that in order for an agency to continue being funded, they have to follow the priority system determined by the State. Before I knew what happened he was on his feet, shouting, “You don’t know what the hell you’ re talking about!” I understood now why they had asked the question in the interview about how I would handle a student calling me an asshole. This confrontation was rapidly progressing to that point. Though my knees were weak I replied, “We don’t have many rules here, but one of them is that you stay in that seat. And if you won’t do that I’ll have to ask you to leave. I’d rather continue the class and we can discuss this during a break.” He turned and left the classroom, much to my relief.
After the class was over I informed Jack (who had recently become the director of the school) what had happened. He said as long as the student behaved himself for the rest of the course we would let the incident slide I was satisfied with this, although I wasn’t sure how I would handle it if the student chose to escalate things further: The students were out in the garage working on a lab supervised by another instructor so I went back to my classroom to collect my notes. As I walked past the front table I had a sudden hunch. I picked up the irate student’s Coke can and smelled it. It contained beer. And this man was outside using power tools. I went back upstairs to Jack, showing him the pop can. Within an hour the student was on his way home, and I had earned the reputation as a C.B.— a cold bitch.
That was the first, although not the last, of students that tried to intimidate me. Months later I was outside supervising a lab session. I heard one student say to his team partner, “We better get a five (out of five) on this thing. I bet she never gives fives. She grades tough. Moments later he said to me, “We’re done And we better get a five or I’m going out to my truck and getting my shotgun.” This was coming from a man fully a foot and a half taller than me, no front teeth, and a nasty scar across his cheek. With as much of a smile as I could muster I returned, “You’1l get a zero for trying to intimidate an instructor.”
“Oh no, don’t give us a zero, I was only kidding.” Yeah, right.
Almost as difficult to handle were the students that were way too friendly On more than one occasion I wanted to just tell a student that was coming on to me to just fuck off, but as an instructor I had to maintain a certain degree of professionalism.
On this particular occasion I was outside shingling a couple of large doghouses on which the students practice cutting holes for roof vents. (This was typical procedure: we build, the students tear it up, we rebuild, the next class tears it up, etc). Another team of instructors was conducting a lab, so their students were milling around outside . A very young, very good-looking, very smooth-talking young man approached me.
“Hey baby….how ’bout coming to a pool party at the hotel later. I’d like to see you in a swim suit.”
“No thanks, I’m not interested.”
“Come on, baby It’ll be a good time.”
“I’m an instructor here and I never socialize with the students.” (The cold bitch rises again. I thought that would get him.)
“Yeah, but you’re not my instructor. Maybe you could instruct me after hours.”
I was mad now. “Lay off buddy. I’m not your instructor for this course, but I’ll have your grade in my hands for the next one. Buzz off.”
Really livid, I stomped off, leaving his jaw in the gravel. I raged up the three flights of stairs to the common office that all the six instructors shared. As I slammed the door to the office and kicked the nearest trash can I realized I was not alone in the office. The newest, and straightest instructor, Lou, was at his desk. In one long rush of words I outlined the scene which had just transpired, including quite a few more expletives than is usually my custom. He listened quietly until I finished, then suggested, “Maybe you should just stay out of his way.”
That was the last straw. I exploded. “Stay out of his way! Stay out of his way! I’m the instructor here! He better stay out of my way! Don’t try to take away what little power I have here! It’s not up to me to avoid him, it’s up to him to treat me with respect!” Poor Lou was shocked into silence.
The student didn’t say another word to me. Later in the day I told Lynn the whole story. Lynn, who is black, asked, “Was the student black?” Not sure of the connection, I replied that he was. Lynn, hooting with laughter, informed, me, “They like them small and they like them white!”
Our course load was often so heavy that a class of students would cut holes in the doghouse roof one week, and a new batch of students would arrive the very next week, there to do the same thing. I spent many Sundays at work, re-shingling those damn doghouses. One Sunday I was at the usual place, work belt on, hammering away enjoying working out in the sun after many days of dismal weather. I looked up to see Lynn pull in across the parking lot, undoubtedly picking up more paperwork to tackle at home. Sure enough, she came back out of the building with an armload of papers. As her baby blue pickup truck peeled past me she hung out the window hollering, “Hey baby…. want to go for a ride? Wheeee!” I waved my hammer at her and smiled as she peeled out, enjoying the ridiculous parody. The next day at work she told me, “I saw you out there in your tank top with your tool belt and hammer, enjoying working in the sun, and I knew the scene wouldn’t be complete without some sexist asshole trying to pick you up.’ I was glad for another woman to share the burden of breaking that blue collar ground. And I knew she was glad too.