I am a white woman and I teach a black man and I know that he is an
african american man and I have read many books by afro-american authors and I have
learned many lessons concerning afro-american politics and I am horrified by rwanda and
somalia flashing starving death baby heads and riots of fire melting down L.A. but he
keeps looking right at me and I keep trying to look right back at him and this stupid
thought keeps coming into my mind: I don't understand the oversized jeans and I
I am a white woman and I teach a woman from china and she is all silence
I mean she is more silent than kristeva ever theorized she is a longer and more deafening
silence than I can bear and I keep trying to get her to write personal narratives because
personal narrative is a form closer to her experience than argument and logic and I keep
telling myself it is because it will help her I will help her we must all help her but really it
would help me because if she wrote personal narratives then I could give her A's and not
C's and I would feel so much better about myself.
I am a white woman and I teach another white woman and I recognize her I
think because she looks so angry like I looked when people were trying to tell me what to
think what to do what to write how to punctuate how to capitalize and I think we should
have a kind of bond because I understand her anger and I know not to behave like a
militant feminist or a fascist white teacher because that is what she hates but when I take
a step in her direction I reach toward her like a comrade and she is closed she is lethal
resistance she is like a gun at my temple another life another nation another world another
language: who the hell am I to teach her?
I am a white woman and I teach a woman half chicano and half pueblo and
I am spilling over with glee that we are studying a native american novel I am spilling
over with all my sensitivity and my research into the myths and symbols of native
cultures and my slides of petroglyphs from my trip to new mexico and arizona and my
spirituality rap and I keep nodding and winking in her direction and her eyes are black
and her hair is black and her stare is blacker than the chalkboard backing me up blacker
than the words on the white page blacker than night and suddenly I get a jolt like I have
been invaded by lethal molecules: get off of me, get off of me.
I am so lucky to have such a diverse class, aren't I the lucky one, the little white liberal
teacher teaching varieties of new improved knowledge to her very special students.
You can't keep them all in, you know, some drift out of sight now and again. But you try.
You try not to lose one gesture, one expression, one head tilt or fist clench or foot tap.
You try to keep each body in your small vision. But you only have two eyes and one
mouth against all those others.
Meanwhile, you spill words and words out at them. You watch as some of the words
land gently and perfectly on the waiting sponges - those who are hungry and ready. This
puffs you up somewhat, gives you the courage to go on. Some nod, blink recognition.
This also makes you feel confident. You wave your hands around like a dove; bird of
peace and victory.
But some of your words slice and gash at one of them. You try not to notice, but soon it
becomes impossible to ignore, every word out of your mouth is an attack, a ripping open
of the air around her. It is true enough that the wall surrounding her here is quiet and the
voices burrowing in the channels of her brain have shut up for just five seconds, that's all
she needs, she can draw the perfect line on the milk-white wrist, she can slice the thin
skin and watch a small mouth open beautifully in the back waiting. For all we know
tonight's the night.
A woman in a room today is a dangerous thing, Virginia. Right now there
woman in a room in the back near the door who is only pretending to listen, who has a
razor-blade and a fork in her bag. And her impenetrable eyes are set on anyone watching
but her heart is on the razor and the fork inside. The razor-blade is for her, so that in
some moment when there is quiet and the voices burrowing in the channels of her brain
have shut up for just five seconds, that's all she needs, she can draw the perfect line on the
milk-white wrist, she can slice the thin skin and watch a small
mouth open beautifully into kiss. For all we know tonight's the night.
And there is a woman whose face is weathered from years and she tries to
catch your attention just outside the door of the room because she wants in, she wants a
drink, she wants you to buy her a drink, but maybe even more than that she tries to catch
your attention because she has an amazing story to tell and it takes a really long time.
Everybody knows this so they all avoid her eyes, you avoid her eyes too so that she won't
talk to you, so that she won't tell you this really long story. But if by
chance she does catch your attention she will shake your hand and introduce herself and
she will begin to tell you the most fantastic tales of riding in a boat on the Nile, of riding
in a gondola in Venice, and just about the time you think boats are all this woman has on
her mind, that is all she is going to talk about she starts telling you about how she wrote
letters to Herman Hesse and HE WROTE BACK so she wrote this really long book about
his life, and there were of course many boats in his life and pretty soon you realize that
it's not the boats she needs to tell you about but her life - THAT's what no one wants to
listen to or hear about because it's too damn long.
And there is a woman in a room who works a few blocks from here at a
large institution where they have a sort of secret language, I mean it is as if you need a
secret decoder ring just to get in the door. There is a woman from there here and she is
sitting in this room and she has fantasies about going on the road with an
all-girls honky-tonk band because she always wanted to put a twang in her voice and play the tambourine
on her hip. It's like she's been on a bus, a really ritzy, double-decker bus
with a bar and lounge music and scary pointy-headed guys with postmodern white shirts
and black pants and she couldn't get off, and now she is off and she just wants to stay
here in this room and think regular thoughts and use regular words even though she
knows it is true that language is not transparent and the epistemological ramifications of
spending too much time alone in a room are HEAVY.
And there is a woman in a room with way too much make-up whose face is
familiar in the mirror that she cannot recognize it.
And there are two women sitting next to each other in a room and one of
has her hand on her belly because she watched the future miscarry last night and the other
has her hand on her belly because she is trying to decide whether or not she can afford to
take a leave of absence when the baby is born.
And there is a woman standing with other women who wants a woman
room; her arm is almost touching the arm next to hers and there is heat-shiver there and
on her other side she can smell another woman's hair like intoxication moving down her
throat making the mind dizzy and her body untamed. And all the men in the room seem
like children to her and she keeps wanting to scoop them all up in her arms and say come
now, off to bed, little ones, so that she can turn out the lights and get on with it. And she
is paralyzed between the women and the children, and as she stands there with useless
hands and an unyielding mouth she is slowly forgetting her own name to desire.
And there is a brown-skinned woman watching a war-a-week on tv as the
u.s. stitches border after border like a big white quilt around its whiteness. And the tv
gets more and more animated and the policies get whiter and whiter until she looks down
at the brown skin of her own arm and thinks, how do they tell the difference between
molecules of difference? Is my arm ending or beginning?
And there is a clueless woman in the corner who is wondering what to do
hands. She puts her hands on the table she takes them off the table she holds a drink she
sets the drink down she holds a pencil she drops the pencil she brushes her hair out of her
face she tucks a strand behind her ear she plays with her lip she scratches her front tooth
she touches the rim of her glass she touches the face of the paper she puts
her hands underneath her legs she folds them she sees them as incomprehensible.
And that's the trouble these days, isn't it Virginia, that we just don't know what we
Yukman: editor of two girls review / phud from u of oregon / teaches fiction writing and am lit at pacific university
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and the author. All rights reserved.