Thursday, September 2, 2010


Literacy changed my life, you know. I don't mean the kind of literacy where you learn to read and write. I knew that from a very young age. I read Galileo in the 7th grade and worked my way through a chemistry textbook in junior high. I read novels by 4th grade and spent most of my nights during high school staying up late reading a book. Skipped lots of days at school doing the same thing. Pepsi, sunflower seeds and Stephen King. That was the life, but the definition of literacy is too narrow.

No, I'm talking about a different kind of literacy. I'm talking my last semester of course work at OU. After December, I will have taken every single class offered through the doctoral program. There just isn't another curriculum offered for my discipline. I went beyond my plan of study. Of course, any other major opens a plethora of new doors, but for this particular path, this is the end of the line. It's terminal. If I pass my general exams, these classes and successfully defend my dissertation, I will be considered an expert in something. Not an Ed.D. which carries its own merit, but a philosophy doctorate. I will be qualified to ask questions and wonder what just happened. I've practically made an art form out of being lost.

But this is it, the last time I look to masters in the field for guidance. This is the last time I get to say "I don't know, please show me." This is my last chance to just enjoy the luxury of being a student. And it's scary. I will no longer wear the cloak of ignorance. I will no longer have an excuse for acting stupid.

All of my adult life I've wanted to be a student. I hated high school and couldn't wait to be done and out the door, into a glamorous life of work and money and living the high life, whatever that was. And I did that. And I was poor. Really poor. And I hated it. And there wasn't a way out that I could find. Men couldn't save me, my family couldn't help and I just didn't see a way to college. So my highest paying job up until 1996 was making $6.50 an hour as the night manager of a Red Lion Hotel. Adjusting for inflation, that's $9.14 per hour in today's terms. Which is pathetic.

My literacies were highly specialized and included where to buy the cheapest cigarettes, how to up-sell hotel rooms, how to make it look like I wasn't poor and figuring out how many apples I could steal from the hotel to help me make it from one paycheck to the other. I knew the foods that had the highest calories for the buck- peanut butter- and that top ramen would always have a place on the shelf. I volunteered for evening manager duties because it came with dinner from the hotel's restaurant.

I learned about recreation and about reading. I had a tennis racket and would play at the park with a friend. I went jogging a lot because it was free and I could move around and there wasn't any specialized equipment needed. I checked out books from the library and even read "The Iliad" because someone told me that this is what college students read. I dreamed about what college must be like- students studying hard at a campus library, furiously scribbling notes from some bespectacled professor with a lovely foreign accent, wisdom passing from one generation to another and somehow, through the process of attendance to an ivory tower, that college students became better people than the rest of us.

That last part came from my work place. Those who had college degrees acted as though they came from another world, one with fancy apartments and tanning beds, bills that miraculously paid for themselves and vacations that didn't involve their grandparents. And for some reason, they never had acne and always had their clothes dry cleaned. Of course, they talked down to us. It made me mad. I don't like people talking down to me. These were the same people that would have me edit their grammar before sending out memos.

One time, I didn't have any money, and didn't wear pantyhose to work because my last pair had gotten a really bad runner in them. Pantyhose are their own literacy, in case you didn't know. I always preferred the kind that were control top and that were really tight on the legs. If they're too loose, they end up around your ankles by the end of the day. The problem with the ones I bought were that any little thing caused them to run. So I kept a bottle of nail polish close by for runners. Anyway, this day, a manager named Lori walked into the office. I was behind the counter, checking in a guest. I was only visible from the waist up, for what it's worth. She was the director of marketing or something like that. Busty, dark hair, mid-thirties, lots of make up and a reputation for doing whatever it takes to move up in our company. That was Lori. She seemed to enjoy throwing her weight around. I just stayed out of the way, lest she see me as a human being.
As soon as the guest left, Lori told me to put on some nylons. Um, ok. Not only did I not have money to buy a pair but it's not like I could just leave and go to the store. Lori did not care; she said if I didn't have them by the end of the day that she would "write me up". Being written up meant that a letter of reprimand would go in my permanent file for the next time I had a review. I had several complimentary write ups done by guests of the hotel and one from one of the managers for cashing a bad check from another manager. Did I mention that most evenings, my manager was in the basement watching porn? Or that he often harassed me for filing a sexual harassment complaint against his buddy in banquets?

I didn't get pantyhose by the end of the day. Lori did the write-up and blamed me for my own non-compliance. She wasn't even in my department. This is how I developed an understanding of oppression. I didn't sit back and think "how oppressive!", I thought about how unfair it was that I worked hard and did a good job and that there were many, many people like me just in that hotel. The women who didn't speak English cleaned rooms and were taken advantage of by the managers. Once, a man who often stayed in the hotel gave a $50 bonus to his housekeeper because she always did a good job. He actually asked me to take their picture. I guess it was so he could look back and reflect on his own act of charity. Perhaps he masturbated to his own perceived goodness. Perhaps Lori did the same thing to the thought of her own power.

So I moved to Las Vegas and went to college and it was nothing like what I thought it would be. I had always seen myself as an English major and for a time I did major in English. That part lived up to my expectations. I loved reading literature and writing about it. I loved talking about things we'd read as a class and interacting with professors who were experts and who had more experience with text than I did. I couldn't wait to get new books and read them and think deeply. I just didn't know what I'd do when I graduated. I wanted badly to be something great, something greater than an English teacher so that my ex-husband would look at me as an equal. His ex-wife was a physician's assistant so I knew I'd have to be a doctor of something. So I applied for vet school and was accepted there in the top three of over 300 applicants. I didn't even have to interview. It was the essay I'd written, apparently.

But I was truly an English major and didn't go, even after we'd moved to Oklahoma for that reason. And I lost a lot then; my home and husband, and I'd already alienated my family with my holier-than-thou attitude. So I went to to graduate school, learned the word "literacy" and got a master's degree. I started teaching an emancipatory curriculum and focused on student learning and I figured out many of the mechanics of oppression and taught my students ways around it. I decided I wouldn't wear pantyhose on a daily basis. It still wasn't enough- there were still the "powers that be" who controlled things and who told me what I could and could not do in a classroom and even which classrooms I'd be welcome in. I wanted more, needed more.

So in the fall of 2008, I returned once again to an institution and began again in earnest. There was so much to learn, so many books and so much writing to do. I began to teach those who would go into positions in management and I hope that what I taught about equality, humanity and fairness stuck. Because there is a cycle somewhere; Lori learned it, my manager learned it and the patronizing hotel guest with $50 to burn on his own ego learned those behaviors somewhere. For that I can have compassion and I can recognize my own responsibility to offer an alternative to that cycle. So that's what I've been doing with literacy. I've been developing my own.

Along the road, I've repaired my relationships with family. I apologized and asked forgiveness for my part of things. I enjoy pretty good relations with my family these days. I get to do my part now. For instance, a few years ago, my little nephew said "Aunt Mindie, I think I need an apple pie." so his mom and he climbed an apple tree and shook it until the fruit fell. I picked it up and made the pie for him. He says I'm his favorite aunt. He's my favorite kid and his mom is one of my best friends. The language and literacy of family is one of my favorite kinds.

I'm not sure what I'll do next. Maybe move around the world; maybe stay in my own back yard. Maybe I'll drink Pepsi, eat apples and read trashy love stories on a Saturday night. Maybe I'll begin a new discipline and just keep going to school forever. I can tell you this much, though: I'll never work at a hotel again. I'll never let people get away with power games, and hopefully I will have the tools and confidence that I'll never have to play them myself.

And with that, I'm off to the library.

No comments:

Post a Comment