We put on our jackets to go up to the roof of Liz’s building in Brooklyn. Liz carried a Ziploc bag, and I carried a pack of cigarettes. When I took out a cigarette, she took out a spoon and reached into the bottom of the Ziploc bag to gather the herbs that she threw, broken up and dry, into her mouth. I watched and imagined the way that it must have felt—the various pieces, dusty and green, attaching themselves to the roof of her mouth and the inside of her cheek. I didn’t know Liz that well, but the only other time I had met her previously was in Madrid. We spent the day at a bar called “El Bar,” drinking beer to continue the high we’d started after smoking pot in the park. Here, on the roof, in the cold, Liz was telling me about yoga and the value of the herbs and how she had lost so much weight. I listened to her explanations with effort. It was hard to keep from laughing.
I didn’t yet know that, years later, I’d find myself close to tears while discussing the value of acupuncture and the herbal supplements I’d been given by my acupuncturist. My husband and I were in our first months in D.C., and we were standing in front of a glass building, waiting to see a documentary on North Korea. He was skeptical about my new discovery. Smirking, he talked about the placebo effect. He mentioned something about the science being impossible to prove. But physically I felt different, I told him. I really, really did.
That same year, I made a plan to take walks in the mornings with my roommate. Then she decided that the walks weren’t enough exercise for her and she joined a gym, telling me that it “became a kind of happy place for her, like Whole Foods.”
Growing up, my father always told me I’d love San Francisco, and over the years, other people close to me have suggested that I’d like it out west, too. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m person who wears hiking boots even when I’m not hiking, argues about inequality at the dinner table, and teaches at a progressive school that values, above all else, the individual, but something about me seems to suggest that I’d be happier on another coast. A part of me understands the sentiment, but another part of me won’t forget that time, on the San Juan islands, that I overheard a table of people talking about the East Coast and why they couldn’t see themselves there. I couldn’t help but notice that the man, who was claiming that he couldn’t live there because “there’s just such an overlay of tradition,” was entirely unaware of the waitress trying to get around him to serve other customers. Surely, attention to tradition is different than attention to manners, but in him, they seemed to collide. As he gestured with his hands and continued his monologue about the ills of The East, he practically leaned into the woman who was trying to slide past him with plates and drinks for the other tables. His repulsion toward tradition seemed to buoy him toward a lack of awareness, and I seethed as I watched him sit back in his chair with his goatee, Hawaiian shirt, and cowboy hat. When he was done, he finally noticed the waitress, and scooted in his chair. Without an apology.
I questioned table manners as a child. I remember thinking that there was something inherently elitist in the code. Where to put the glass. How to hold your fork. Not to sit back in your chair. In middle school, I went to a private school where we had a dress code, and we ate lunch family-style. We learned how to pass food and have conversation over the passed food and to say “please” and “thank you” and to not, under any circumstances, get up for more bacon bits from the salad bar unless we had asked permission. We put our napkins on our lap, and we were conscious of cutting our food, being careful to not elbow the person next to us.
At home, when my grandmother would shame one of us at the dinner table for not knowing how to hold our knives or pass the salt with the pepper, I would sense a kind of pompousness that I didn’t want to be a part of. What I didn’t put together at the time was that my grandmother had grown up with less privilege than many of her peers, and it’s taken time for me to realize that the real privilege is being able to reject manners; the code shifters and breakers are often the people that know exactly what to do at a dinner table. They simply choose not to.
In high school, I revered the code shifters, and I went to Milton Academy instead of Taft because one of the seniors I saw on my visit day had bright orange hair. By the time I made it to 12th grade, I was starting to understand that this senior with orange hair was not altogether that different than the senior graduating from Taft, but for a while, I was under the impression that my boarding school was somehow different than any other boarding school, and I liked telling people as much.
In 11th grade, I decided to write my research paper in history class on Bob Dylan. I wanted to use his lyrics and his actions to show how he was an activist and an influential part of the civil-rights and antiwar movements—a true change-maker. His lyrics were useful, but his story didn’t match up. I was disappointed to find out that Dylan never wanted to be an activist. He didn’t even want to call himself one. Worse, his childhood was not full of hardship. It turned out that, as far as anyone knew, he had nothing to run away from or scream about or express with block letters on big signs held up with wood scraps. It was just that he felt he was “born, you know, [to] the wrong names, wrong parents.” He said, “I mean, that happens. You call yourself what you want to call yourself. This is the land of the free.”
This discovery led me to find hypocrisy in all the heroes of alternative culture. It wasn’t enough to make work that addressed the ills of society—I wanted artists, musicians, and writers to be authentically striving for that in their lives. The beat poets became my next conquest. In 12th grade, I wrote a paper that illustrated the many ways in which Kerouac and Ginsberg and were not real Buddhists and therefore shouldn’t have been able to cherry-pick parts of that philosophy. They drank and smoked cigarettes and took drugs and, in general, were not treating their bodies like temples. I was proud of myself for outing that contradiction, for uncovering what I naively thought they didn’t know existed themselves.
All the while, I was becoming more ingrained with a group of friends who were not always the people they claimed to be. More accurately, they were not entirely the people that I wanted them to be or thought they were. Afternoons were spent bemoaning Milton Academy, as we sat on the stoop of my friend’s three story house in Dorchester, MA, smoking pot and listening to hip-hop. I thought that because some of their parents were neglectful, so neglectful that we could smoke pot on their stoops and in their basements every day, it meant they were special in some way. Somehow, the size of their houses and the fact that the parents weren’t around—not because they were working long hours but because they liked their second home better—didn’t compute for me. In my friends, I saw men with long hair and good taste in films and an appreciation for the teachers who challenged them and looked the other way about their drug use. I kissed them and tasted smoke and thought it was a turn on. I entered cars blasting Old Dirty Bastard and The Roots and Lauryn Hill and said “I’m just sayin’” a lot and made my own mix tapes with American Mic League and Nas on them. I walked into the woods during school to find them, to smoke cigarettes, and to talk more about how Talib Kweli had sold out on his new album.
In many moments, I felt nervous. I was nervous about getting caught, sure, but I was perhaps more nervous about smoking too much weed and appearing like “those lame potheads that always appear in the movies.” In fact, throughout high school, I had no idea that people smoked pot to laugh—that it was a tool for enjoyment. I thought it was a serious endeavor done in dark cars and on empty stoops, in service of a deeper connection with the world.
Before I took the job at The Field School, I met students who went to The Field School. Three of them went to the summer camp I worked at, and they often talked about how much they loved their school. A year after I moved to D.C., I looked one of them up and asked him to connect me with some people there. One of the teachers welcomed me, and I met with her in her office. When her Department Chair came in to give her feedback on her exam, and she told me that he was leaving for Portland, Oregon to be with his girlfriend: “we all joke,” she said, “that he is in love with love.”
When I went to San Francisco for the first time, I felt a certain elation. I found myself lifted up by the queer culture, so varied and pulsing, so in-your-face and loud, so much more diverse than the handful of lesbians I spent time with in college. Standing at a ladies night at a gay bar in the mission, I remember feeling not just surprised by the scope of bodies and races and genders, but also energized by the way in which conversations about social structures and feminist theory and the nuances of being transgender, with claiming a body more powerful or less powerful than your own, just happened. To even say the word “energized” aligns me with the areas of the culture I can sometimes find grating, but I’ll freely admit that I first ran up and then down a mountain that same night, after looking at the city from above, to make out with a girl and then go home with her and play and sing Ani Difranco songs on the guitar. For a week, I was excited to think that I was actually gay even though the friend I’d been visiting told me I was one of the straightest people he knew.
My grandmother used to poke fun at my vegetarian cousins. Specifically, she liked to challenge the boy cousin. Something about his choosing not to eat meat upset her, along with his shaggy hair and penchant for computers. Those details were enough for her to sense a difference in him, and she was mean to him because of it. I think her meanness came partly from a worry about that difference, but it also came from a feeling about choice. She often told us what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression, and to be forced to eat the same meals over and over. You ate what you got, she would tell us, you didn’t stick up your nose to something you didn’t like. We always yelled at her when she was mean to him, but the other day I laughed at my friend’s boyfriend when he told me that he, like his girlfriend, was going to try to be a Pescatarian. He said he wanted to see if he would feel better. She was doing it for moral reasons: “I mean, have you heard about what they put into meat?” I scoffed and said something about fish being bottom eaters. Then, I felt guilty and sent them my favorite fish recipe the next day as a kind of offering.
A few days later, a piece aired on NPR: “Was Your Seafood Caught By Slaves: AP Uncovers Unsavory Trade.”
The camp where I met the Field students was a place we referred to as The Farm. It was a camp housed on a farm in the middle of Pennsylvania, and it attracted teenagers who believed in authenticity, the power of the land, and the importance of community. One summer, Sandy, the farm manager, dated two women at the camp at the same time. The two happened to share a tent, and the hardest nights for them and consequently, the easiest nights for him, were the nights when one of them would be required to stay at the campsite to do the nightly rounds with the campers. For the one who stayed, the stress would build as the hours passed; she couldn’t help but imagine just what the other one was doing with him while she stared at the empty sleeping bag. Was she on the porch with him at Jack and Rori’s, having a beer and deep in conversation? Were they dancing to Arcade Fire, just as she had done with him the night before? Or were they sharing a kiss in his bedroom? The facts the girlfriend at the campsite did know—what he was wearing (jeans and a white tank top) and what he was drinking (Rogue Dead Guy Ale)—did not makeup for the ones she didn’t.
When asked about the situation, Sandy would freely admit that he was dating them both. His honesty, he felt, was genuine—it was less prone to weathering than his jeans were and more secure than his loose ponytail. He asserted that both women were aware of each other and the situation. They knew exactly what was going on and he, though he never said this directly, felt like it would be even patronizing to end it for their sake. Both of them can get out, he said, and he wouldn’t be the one to make that decision for them. Eventually, even I came to believe that the situation with Sandy and his girlfriends was O.K. One of the women was a best friend of mine from high school, and though she was mostly able to talk herself through the situation, I saw her crying in anguish about it once. I couldn’t help her because I, too, believed she didn’t have any options.
In No Direction Home, a documentary about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez tells the story of their relationship. At first, it was she who had all the power. She was already a known entity when they met, admired for her pristine voice and songwriting. His lyrics and their voices together— his scraping and shaky, hers perfectly pitched and whole—excited her. She decided to invite him to some gigs, to which he responded, “Well, yea, what the fuck.” Soon, the crowds were pulled to his poetry and persona, and she fell into line, following him to his tour in England and letting herself be demoralized by the fact that he never invited her onstage to sing with him. In the film she blames herself for it, saying that she “didn’t have the brains to leave.” She even goes as far as to say that he “suffered” under her demands of him. Baez wanted him to stand up for the peace movement and be a part of it in a way he wasn’t willing to be.
My 11th grade self relates to what she desired from Bob Dylan. She wanted a bit more graciousness. She desired more responsibility for the impact he was having on the country. She “wanted him to be a political spokesperson…wanted him to be out in public…wanted him to be on our team.” And why couldn’t he be? She’s happy to cede now, saying “he didn’t need to be on the team, he wrote our songs. It was the most powerful stuff we had in our nonviolent arsenal.”
My husband and I recently hosted a barbecue in D.C., and a friend who was moving to San Francisco brought gluten-free beer with him. He does not have celiac, nor does he have gluten sensitivity, but he wanted to test it out, to see if it would make him feel better. A friend of mine laughed aloud when he saw the bottles of Omission in our friend’s hand, and that gave me the permission to laugh out loud, too.
We’ve had the Omission in our fridge ever since. After trying one, the friend who brought it drank PBR the rest of the night.
After the Obama campaign in ‘08, I thought of myself as a community organizer. Before I found my job at the school, I applied for a job as an organizer with an organization called The Young Women’s Project. I didn’t know just how different a political campaign was than a youth development organization that was always in a crisis mode. I applied because I was ready to bring my skills to people in need, and I was ready, as I was always told I should be at Milton, to take “responsibility for my privilege.” I applied to work specifically with the Foster Care Campaign, a group made up of one other woman and eight or so teenagers, working on two separate initiatives working with Foster Care youth in D.C.
When I arrived at my interview, I didn’t know where to go. The office was housed in the upper floors of a school building, and there was no sign. My interview with the executive director and soon-to-be-former head of The Foster Care Campaign was at a table in the middle of her office, and I couldn’t help but notice the piles of paper everywhere. Pink folders were squashed under files that were pushed down by more paper, and on her desk was more paper, full of crossed out words and red marks that, in that moment, exuded a feeling that work was being done here. A desktop computer sat in front of a few framed photos of her and her kids.
I wanted the job so much that day that I overlooked what was clearly a mess of an organization. In the first month, I assumed grainy, opaque windows and boxes everywhere and a website stuck in 90’s was what one signed up for when one went to do real work. I appreciated ˜that everything was makeshift, and that I was asked to do payroll for the teenagers and write up a summer curriculum for the Transition Center campaign and hire and manage an intern.
I was twenty-five, and I had only lived in D.C. for one month, and I didn’t know the first thing about foster care and the system and how to get teenagers to write testimonies that they would then deliver in front of the city council. I was not alone, but I felt it, and it all came to a head when one of the teenagers yelled at me because his money didn’t come in one week. He came over to my cubicle and said it was my fault, and even though it probably was, I couldn’t help but blame my boss.
What she’d done for me that summer was make me a CD of songs by people like Dar Williams and the Indigo Girls to get me pumped up for the active summer of advocacy and campaigning. Even though she worked tirelessly—her e-mails often coming in with the timestamps of 1 AM and 2 AM and even 4 AM—she was never available for the work itself, for the kids themselves, for us.
On my second trip to San Francisco, I went to help my friend recover from elective top surgery. His new girlfriend was there, too, and assisted in dumping out the fluid that gathered in the plastic pockets attached by a tube to his chest. One night his girlfriend, who did part-time work as a sex worker, had to work a bachelor party. While we sat watching Mad Men, she and her coworker danced and chatted and charged men for the shots they took off their bodies.
When they came back, they were visibly shaken up. They started counting out their $1 bills and simultaneously recounting the ways in which they had been violated by the friends of the groom. I didn’t completely follow. I tried not to gawk. I’d never met a sex worker before, and all I knew was the ways in which my friend had offended her and nearly lost her when they first started dating, what with his questions and concerns about sex work. I knew I couldn’t ask, exactly, just what had happened or what they thought was supposed to happen on a boat with twenty or so drunk men, lest I come off as judgmental. What I did follow was that the men hadn’t respected the rules. They had put their hands in places that were off-limits. They hadn’t paid enough for what they asked from them. They weren’t moving the chess pieces in the order they were supposed to—they headed straight for check-mate without moving a pawn.
My grandmother used to sit in the back of the church and yell to people “That’s enough! That’s enough!” when they would talk for too long during “Prayers & Concerns” portion of the service. As a person was expressing thoughtful words about a parent with Alzheimer’s or a kid in a car accident, she would say, “Ok! Sit down now.” Aside from our embarrassment, no one in the church really minded all that much. In fact, people appreciated her outspoken behavior. At her memorial service, the church was filled.
When I first started teaching, I taught 11th grade, and my favorite book to teach was Their Eyes Were Watching God. I liked posing this question: do you think that Zora Neale Hurston kills off Tea Cake because she knows that Janie will have a better future without him? I didn’t think that was what Hurston wanted us to take away necessarily, but I wanted the students to consider it.
Before meeting Tea Cake, Janie is in two bad relationships with men who do not understand her. Her first husband has no interest in her as a partner—he sees her as a farmhand. Her second husband, similarly, uses her for his interests. He admires her beauty, and treats her like a trophy to show around town. Tea Cake, then, is a breath of fresh air. He makes her laugh, he teaches her how to play checkers, and he offers her intimacy and romance in way that her others suitors don’t. The part one cannot ignore, however, is that, at one point, he hits her in front of his friends to show off. Like her husbands before, he needs to dominate her. He must show his power.
I asked my students if they thought Zora Neale Hurston kills off Tea Cake because she knows that Janie will have a better future without him because I wanted them to really ponder his charming, guitar playing, juke going, confident and boisterous personality and see that it also had a destructive side, a side that makes decisions that put Janie in danger. I was not upset that Tea Cake was flawed—of course he is, we all are—but it was the surprising nature of his flaws that disappointed me every time I read the novel. So much so that one year I almost skipped teaching the part in the novel where he hits her, not wanting to acknowledge that truth.
At The Field School, the students call us by our first name. The school asks us to think of it as a community first, not as a serious institution of learning. It’s a place where people can feel free to be who they are without judgment. The administrators speak a lot about kindness and uniqueness, and both “self-discovery” and “generosity of heart” are parts of the school’s mission. When I arrived for my first job interview, I noticed that books were stapled all along the walls. I was charmed by it, and enjoyed not just the fact that books were on a wall but also that some were falling off, or had fallen off already. I liked that the school was not obsessed with creating a pristine version of themselves, but one in which a creative yet arguably bad idea was celebrated and there for all to see.
The school prides itself on its ability to work with boys—boys who can’t sit still, boys who yell out in class, and boys who talk back to teachers. We like to think that a more casual, less structured environment is all they need to thrive. There is no consistent disciplinary code—a suspension for one kid might be a call home for another. The reason is that we treat the kids as individuals—we hear them out. Having been there for six years, I can say that on the whole, this policy is mostly the right way to go for teenagers, at least for the ones who truly cannot control their behavior. But I can’t help but wonder about the students who choose our school because they are “sick” of the rigidity at other schools, and then use their freedom to cut class to eat breakfast outside. Why can’t we kick out the student who threw a pillow in my face and cut class most days to flirt with a staff member?
Every year at graduation, a group of people—faculty, administrators, or students—sing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Each year, afterwards, I look it up to see if Dylan really wrote that song because I can’t really believe he wrote such corny lyrics. They remind me of the ones by “anonymous” plastered on the cards you can buy at Whole Foods and in Grand Central: “May God bless and keep you always, may your wishes all come true” and “May you always know the truth and see the light surrounding you.” Really? I look it up again. Yes, it’s Dylan.
There are days when I can’t imagine working anywhere else. The autonomy is too sweet. And watching the student—not the one who threw the pillow, but the one who couldn’t write a paper without actually pulling his hair out—walk across the stage to get a diploma is an elixir; it keeps me coming back for more. I’m not convinced, though, that every student who wants to come there needs it. I think some actually need my grandmother at the head of their dinner table, telling them that regardless of who they think they are and what they might be, they need to say “thank you” and they sure as hell better pick up that wet towel off the floor.
Laura Gill is a writer and former high school teacher living in Washington, D.C. She recently finished her MFA at Bennington College, and her thesis was a collection of personal essays, titled “A Type of Legacy.” Her essay, “Disorder,” was recently published in Windmill.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.