Day 8 - International Women's Day
Happy International Women's Day! Or for some, Happy When is International Men's Day Day. (November 19, in case you're really interested). I have made it through the first week!
The blankness of the paper mocked her, called her every name in the book, and still she could find nothing to say. What kind of assignment is that, she thought. Why would any teacher give such an assignment? Write about being a woman. Great. What did she know about being a woman? It was just…well, it just was. It wasn’t something she did, or thought about. She just woke up every morning as a woman. So what did it mean to be a woman?
Jen licked the end of her pencil, and made a mark on the paper, hoping the shape would lead to inspiration. It just looked like a worm. Now there would be an assignment. Write about being a worm. That was something she could think about, something she could understand. Worms were…well, they were thin and long and lived in the dirt, and did worm things. A woman…oh, shit, I’m going to have to do it, aren’t I? What the hell did I take this class for, anyway? Who ever takes a class in creative writing unless they already know how to write?
Her pencil hovered over the paper, not willing to get near the pristine whiteness. Her mind felt as blank as the paper. What is a woman? Well, let’s see, a woman has breasts…no, I can’t write about that! What does it feel like to have breasts? Stupid question. “It feels like I have to squish half my body into a straight jacket every morning just so people won’t think I’m a slut.” Jen stared at the paper in front of her, surprised that she had written it down. She scribbled it through. She couldn’t say that, it sounded…whiny. Boring. Feminist. The teacher would hate it, and hate her, and that would be the end of her college career.
If she were a man…if she were a man, what would she think about being a woman? Funny, that thought had never occurred to her before. What were the men in the class doing? She grabbed her phone and texted Doug. He’d have something clever to say, he always had something clever to say. Doug was never lost for words. The pencil hovered again, waiting for the return text.
Doug’s words returned with a slap. “Stupid cunt, what do you think men think about women? Get a grip.”
The phone trembled as she read and re-read that awful message. Of course that wasn’t Doug, the sweet young man who sat at the back of the class and cut up every time Professor Lund turned her back. He did such a funny imitation of her, rolling his eyes up into his head, thrusting out his chest, and lisping in a high falsetto…Jen remembered laughing at his antics just this morning, and her face burned. Disrespect, that was his intent, not amusing the students. He was making fun of her because she was a woman, not because she was a teacher. Professor Lund really didn’t talk like that, and she didn’t roll her eyes, not even when she turned around and caught Doug doing his imitation.
Jen jabbed her pencil at the paper so hard the tip broke. She grabbed the sharpener and sharpened it with a ferocity that surprised her. She’d never felt like this before, this…this…dirty and ugly. She had just sort of been a woman, not thinking about what it meant, and now she had this stupid assignment, and she was embarrassed, ashamed of being a woman. Why should she be put on the spot like this?
She thrust her pencil at the paper, willing it to take over and write the paper for her. “You’re a pencil, it’s your job to write”, she shouted, angry at the tool that refused to help her out of her dilemma. Slowly, she lowered the pencil and traced the letters c – u – n – t on the paper. It was the ugliest word she thought she had ever heard, and now there it was, written in her own hand.
The pencil began to move, almost like it had finally woken up and decided to do its job. The paper filled with words – ugly words, nasty words, words that hurt and burned. Jen scribbled every nasty word she had ever been called, every phrase that had ever been used to describe her, until she had filled three legal size pages with ugliness and loathing. She moved faster and faster, driven by a burst of energy from some unknown fountain inside the core of her being.
Exhausted, Jen sat back and stared at the list of words, the lewd suggestions, the put downs and criticisms, subtle and blunt, that filled her page…filled her life. This…this was what it meant to be a woman. To be called a stupid cunt when you reached out for advice. To be overlooked when you went for a job interview, as they called the men on both sides of you, and then when you reminded them you had an appointment, being laughed at and told to go home and play with your dolls. To be ordered up from the dinner table to fill glasses for your father and your brothers, while your own dinner got cold. To be told by your own mother at the age of nine that you were too ugly, and no man would ever want you. To be propositioned endlessly by men who apparently did want you, in spite of what your mother thought. To not be able to do anything right, including writing a story about what it felt like to be a woman.
Now the story flowed, every word seeming to come naturally as Jen crafted a tale of a woman who tried to go to college, only to find all the money had been spent sending her brothers to school. Although the brothers were given every advantage, neither of them was able to complete anything. Finally, when it was her turn, she struggled and worked to get a scholarship, working full time at the drive-through to pay for her books. She wrote about a girl who was given an assignment that proved too difficult, an assignment to describe what it meant to be a woman. Her character, struggling to identify with her own sex, reached out to an acquaintance, and found herself snubbed and insulted. In the end, the young woman sat at her table, blood pouring from her slashed wrists, and wrote the story in her own blood. When her body was collected from her dorm room the next morning, the police never even noticed the yellow legal pad filled with insults, because it was so crumpled and torn it looked like it was not important.
Jen handed in her paper the next morning, stapled to the white pages that started the thought. She tried to forget about the assignment as she hustled back and forth between the register and the fry vat at work, but the image of those pages haunted every move. She tossed and turned in her bed, trying to sleep in spite of the roaring insults that pounded her from every side of her brain. Was this really what it felt like to be a woman? How come she’d never realized it before? Why had she not seen the horror of those phrases, those words, until she had written them down? She cursed Professor Lund for the assignment, wishing she could have been left in the blessed numbness of her own obliviousness.
Two days passed before creative writing class met again, and Jen stumbled around on automatic pilot, keeping her work done, taking notes in her other classes, and avoiding her older brother who was in an especially foul mood for some reason, and on the prowl for someone to thrash. Her parents were ignoring each other, and that meant she was especially important to them, because someone had to deliver their messages to the spouse sitting three feet away. She was almost glad for their fight, because it allowed her to stay outside herself, and forget about that awful story residing in Professor Lund’s briefcase.
Professor Lund stood before the class, papers in her hand, ready to read work out loud. Jen hated this part. Her work had never been selected, probably because she was at best a mediocre writer, and she felt small as she listened to the words of students who knew how to craft a phrase and build a story. She mostly enjoyed the stories, except for the ones written by the guy who seemed to think every story had to have a woman stuffed in a refrigerator. He had said at the beginning of class he hoped to write movies for Quentin Tarentino some day. She suspected he had a pretty good shot at his goal.
The papers rustled as Professor Lund made a show of searching for the story she wanted to read. The students shifted in their seats, staring at their hands, each one hoping it would be their story she chose to read, but determined to look as if they didn’t care. Jen didn’t care. She was used to having her story on the bottom of the pile, never quite up to snuff, but at least not one that was read to demonstrate poor style.
The words thundered in Jen’s brain. Professor Lund was reading her list! She was enunciating those awful words, those phrases on the papers stapled to the back. Then she plunged into the body of the story, bringing to life the daily embarrassment of being born a woman. Jen shrank in her seat, hoping nobody would realize it was her, in spite of the honor of having her story read for the first time.
When the story was finished, all the students stared at each other, wondering at the author. Each student shrugged, no one stepping up to claim the paper. Professor Lund never revealed the author, allowing each student privacy, but encouraging them to come forward to have their word discussed and evaluated. Jen sat silent, not ready to acknowledge the pain that coursed through her words. Professor Lund did not look at her, nor did she look at any other student, unwilling to take the risk of violating the privacy of any one who wasn’t ready to talk.
Doug stood and thrust out his chin. “I think I know who wrote that”, he announced. “I think it was…”
Professor Lund stopped him. “You know the rules, Doug. No one can out someone else on a story. If the author wishes to remain anonymous, that is their prerogative. With a story this raw and this personal, it becomes doubly important that the author’s privacy is respected.”
Doug started to protest, but one of his friends pulled him back down in his seat. The two young men whispered, and Jen could see them looking at her, but neither of them spoke. Professor Lund discussed the strengths and weaknesses of her story, and finished by saying that this was an excellent example of...Jen couldn't hear what she was saying through the roar in her ears. Then class was over, and the students filed out. Jen remained behind, not wanting to be in the group when Doug revealed her identity in the hallway.
Professor Lund settled down beside her. “This story…it’s much different than anything you’ve written before, Jen.” Jen nodded. “It is a brilliant piece of work, and shows an astute grasp of psychological terror. I would like to take it to a conference with me, and present it there, if you don’t mind.”
Jen stared. She wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly. Why would anyone take her writing to a major conference? She was such an amateur, she was hanging onto a C in this class by sheer force of will. She shook her head, then nodded, then shook her head again.
“I understand if you find it impossible to share this right now. I just thought, since you’d been willing to share it with me, that you might not mind if I read it at that meeting…totally anonymous, of course.” Professor Lund looked straight into her eyes, something Jen wasn’t used to, and it felt uncomfortable. “I would like to keep the list of words attached…I assume this is words that you have been called, phrases you’ve been told?”
Jen nodded. She felt filthy and unloved.
“Me, too.” The professor’s words were quiet, but there was no mistaking them. She was making her own admission, her own moment of truth.
“You? But…you’re a college professor. You have a lot of degrees, and you’re a famous writer, and….” Jen stopped. She didn’t know anything more to say.
“You think I don’t understand this, right? This is not unique to you. These are familiar phrases, things we’ve all been hearing for years. That’s one reason why I led with them before I read your story. The sheer immensity of the hatred and disrespect is unmistakable. Jen, I’ve been giving this assignment for seven years, and I’ve never gotten a story as powerful, as intense, or as…honest…as yours. And I wanted to ask you, before you leave…do you need to talk to anyone?”
Jen shook her head. “No. I…I’m just an ordinary girl…woman…I think. I just…never thought about it before, until I started writing down all the things people have said to and about me. I never…once you put it all together in one place, well, it sort of changes how you look at the world…how you look at yourself.”
The other woman nodded. “Yes, it does. I stared at your story for an hour after reading it…I read that list over and over again. It burns.”
Professor Lund stood and extended her hand to Jen. Jen took the hand, and rose to her feet, unsteady but ready to leave. She felt strong enough for the first time to face whatever waited for her in the hallway. It was good to know she wasn’t alone.