Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

Silence & Self-Protection

If you’re comfortable with talking, try getting comfortable with not talking. If you’re comfortable with not talking, try getting comfortable with talking.— via Marshall Ganz

The hardest class I’ve taken, the one that’s prompted me to fall silent, to doubt my ability to think, rendering me incapable of writing anything, is one that has the simple title Power and Pedagogy.

Professor Houman Harouni requires potential students to write about their reasons for taking the course as a way of gaining permission to enroll. As I sat down to take up the task, I quickly found myself in tears. This open-ended offer to write somehow gave me permission to say to this stranger something I’ve never written. Holding the invitation as a kind of extension cord, I found that it electrified my purpose. I wrote in one fevered draft:

As for my reasons for wanting to take the course, my chief reason is a lifelong fascination with power and hierarchies. Part of this is due to my upbringing in an isolated part of the Texas Panhandle; part is due to my major careers: journalism and teaching.

My life is indelibly marked by the structural oppression in Texas, not the least of which is sexism. As an openly gay reporter, I existed in a barely tolerant professional newsroom but found that my sexuality gave me empathy and insight for marginalized populations in our area.

When I left reporting to become a teacher, my education law professor took me aside and said, “You can never be out and you can never admit to being gay or they’ll fire you. They’ll say it’s for something else, but it will be because you came out.”

And because I loved teaching more than anything, I edited and censored myself, conforming to a professional standard in Texas teaching of being closeted if you were anything other than straight and Christian.

Later, when I was recognized as Texas Teacher of the Year, I was told to “make sure to look like a lady” by more than one authority connected to the process.

Still later, when I found out I’d been chosen as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, my first thought was: “They can’t fire me now. It would look bad.”

For most of my professional life, I conformed to invisible power structures and followed unspoken rules. How did I know what these were? Because of group dynamics, I suppose.

Personally, I’ve searched my memory to try to discover how my family transmitted the message to me that being gay is the worst thing you can be, but I can’t remember a time anyone told me this.

I just knew it. But how?

So, my motivations for taking this course are to reckon with these power lines that seem to have been overhead, warping my behavior without me being able to see them or even disagree with them. This, I now know from working exclusively in schools with marginalized populations, is not always the case.

White supremacy, bigotry, and prejudice were blatant for my students. The expectations for their failure, however, were not. Somehow, there were the same power lines over them, convincing them that they were failures unworthy of education or careers.

I had no way to talk to them about this other than “inspiration.” My hope is that the readings and activities of the class will help me to give them a way to see the power lines and begin to dismantle them.

Reading this now, it strikes me as my “center of gravity,” a term I learned from Peter Elbow to describe a recurrent, resonant source of energy and inspiration.

Which yes, it is. But it’s one that’s blasted with fear for me. I’ve spent most of my personal and professional life in fear — first, of having my children legally taken from me just for being in a relationship with another woman; second, of the uncertainty that comes when you can (still) be legally fired for being openly gay.

And so I’ve been, as Tori Amos sang, silent all these years about the most fundamental parts of myself and how it’s warped my ability to be anything other than a shapeshifter who becomes what my environment allows.

A song lyric from that environment illuminates one of its rules: “I don’t need no sweet-faced woman going sour-mouthed on me.” And so I’ve tried really hard to look and stay sweet like dividends paid into some imagined insurance that promises to keep me safe.

This is what sitting in self-imposed silence for three hours every Wednesday night will do — make your middle-aged self think too much about stuff you should’ve already processed when you were young enough to listen to Tori Amos on your CD player.

Now, of course, I’m relatively safe from these fears. My children are grown. I’m not a district employee in Texas, but a graduate student in the most emotionally self-aware school I can imagine. And coming out is so boring that it has its own cliches.

Old habits, though. The problem with silencing myself about the most important aspects of my identity makes it easier for me to stay silent about other oppressions, especially when they happen to other people.

There are ways to break habits, science says, but I’m not sure how to replace the ritualized fright/flight/hide/lie that’s as automatic as saying, “I’m sorry” when someone bumps into me.

Silence always benefits the oppressor, Eli Weisel wrote; that’s deeply true when you are the one who holds the hand over your own mouth.

A course activity is to rewrite the same essay, revising from feedback. This last iteration seemed impossible, like trying to unknot a giant mass of twisted Christmas-tree lights. That’s why I ended it with someone else’s words:

As I stumble for the right way, the better way, I find myself in office hours hearing echoes of Audre Lorde and receiving these familiar words with new sensitivity and urgency:

“Your silences will not protect you….”What’s the worst that could happen if I tell this truth?” Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.

Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.”

I end by asking myself how much longer I’m going to allow the fear of being labeled as difficult or weird, or wrong, or bitchy; the fear of interruption and insult keep my hand over my mouth?