Years ago, I took a course on women writers. I was particularly excited about that. By then, most of my courses focused more on white Christian men; poems, novels, and essays full of justification on why they supported racist ideology, or why they supported keeping a woman subservient (legally or socially) to their fathers and husbands, or how intelligent or stronger they – or their main (white male) character – was compared to the ignorant and weak male character (who was from another country or lower class). The course featured all women writers, ranging from poor to rich, white to POC, Christian to Muslim; our readings ranged from poems, novels, to essays; and public outreach was a large part of the class – for Women’s History Month, we had to create fliers (of our choosing, that had something to do with women), we split into groups and decided what (or whom) to use as a theme in our exhibit at the university library, and we had to do a presentation at the main library downtown. Other than a few accessibility issues, the course was great.
I love courses that make me think – philosophically, spiritually, about myself, about my loved ones, about society. Luckily, being an English and Gender Studies major, I had a lot of courses like that. In this course, we were asked two questions that made me stop and think (and gave me the feels – of the not so good kind):
- Have you claimed your education?
- Why are you angry?
These two questions hit me so hard. You know those questions – those questions that are so simple, so innocent sounding – those questions where the answers come quick but the emotions rarely match and you have to stop and analyze yourself, or your answers end up being longer than you thought – or doesn’t end up being the answer you thought you would have given if you thought of it first, or the answer, after given, leaves you drained, emotionally? Yeah.
As for the first question, it comes from “Claiming an Education,” by Adrienne Rich. She delivered this speech at the convocation of Douglass College in 1977. She says,
The first thing I want to say to you who are students, is that you cannot afford to think of being here to receive an education: you will do much better to think of being here to claim one. One of the dictionary definitions of the verb “to claim” is: to take as the rightful owner; to assert in the face of possible contradiction. “To receive” is to come into possession of: to act as receptacle or container for; to accept as authoritative or true.
Basically, we must be active in claiming our education, not passive. We must be assertive and take responsibility for ourselves and our needs; advocate, never settle for less and know, in the end, you know what you need better than anyone else.
She then goes on to talk about the professors and how they should take their students – women – more seriously. Instead of focusing on their student’s intellectual abilities, they tend to eroticize their students – treating their students as sexual objects.
The education of women has been a matter of debate for centuries, and old, negative attitudes about women’s role, women’s ability to think and take leadership, are still rife both in and outside the university. Many male professors (and I don’t mean only at Douglass) still feel that teaching in a women’s college is a second-rate career. Many tend to eroticize their women students–to treat them as sexual objects–instead of demanding the best of their minds. (At Yale a legal suit [Alexander v. Yale] has been brought against the university by a group of women students demanding a stated policy against sexual advances toward female students by male professors.) Many teachers, both men and women, trained in the male-centered tradition, are still handing the ideas and texts of that tradition on to students without teaching them to criticize its antiwoman attitudes, it’s omission of women as part of the species.
I was so self-assured back then; I told myself that I do claim my education, then list why that statement was true.
As for the second question, I can’t remember why our professor asked us this; all I have are fragmented rambles taken after the question was asked:
I am angry because my professors see nothing wrong in asking students to write down their opinions, while telling me that do to it not being accessible, she will read it to me, and I can tell her how I feel. Out loud. In the middle of class. Meanwhile, the students write down their private thoughts, reassured in their privacy.
I am angry because I am not being represented in books and poems; where is my body? Do I – and others like me – exist outside of medical textbooks?
Out of our five-person group, he was chosen to speak for us. Group discussion: when did we first realize gender differences? He ignored mine; told the story of the boy and the other boy and the girl and the other girl – but did not tell my story. Why said the second girl. He did not verbally answer. I do not understand why. I am angry because too many times my voice, my story, has been put aside, not good enough to be repeated, told, fkjdls;ajfdl
The professor wanted us to write down – anonymously – why we are angry. She would collect them all and turn them into a poem. When I got the poem a few weeks later, I cried. It was raw and ugly and real and heart, stabbing heart-breaking real pain beautiful. I loved it. I still read it from time to time.
With shaky fingers that are no longer used to writing with a pen, I wrote,
I look back at those questions now. I know better now. I have not claimed my education; not entirely, anyway. This is an ableist society and being disabled, claiming education is the difference between living or existing. You either will sink or swim. Too often parents of disabled children are told by friends, doctors, and others – regardless of disability – that the child will be unable to live a reasonable quality of life (because having an impairment has such a traumatic physical or psychological impact on a person). With society set against believing you can achieve success from the start, it is up to the disabled child’s loved ones – then as the disabled child gets older, up to them, to push for accessibility and inclusion.
When I look back at the countless times in college, where I sat silent, not able to fully participate because the materials weren’t made accessible in time – do to the Disability Resource Center running behind, or the professors failing to give the materials to them in time; or when I fell in love with math, and wanted to minor in it, and an advisor kindly told me that it would be too hard, considering my…impairment; or when I failed Gender Studies because the professor refused to create an actual lesson plan, and enjoyed randomly showing – and testing us on – movies that were subtitled or silent…
How many of those times did I stand up for myself? More than half. Did I claim my education? I sent emails to professors a few months before the semester started, informing them of my disability and what I needed done for the class to be made accessible. I invited them to ask me questions if they were unsure of anything; I assured them that I would do everything on my end to make this easy. Most took me up on the offer, some informed me that they knew all of this because they “had a blind student before,” – which then I had to explain that, no, that student can read print, I can’t – but there was a couple who, no matter what I did, I was always an inconvenience. There were professors that had to be reminded constantly to be descriptive when talking about art, or that they had to finish the list of extra readings as soon as possible so that they can be made accessible in time, or that had to be told, no, they can not randomly pick an essay for us to read or movie for us to watch, because it won’t be made accessible in time and I won’t be able to participate in class discussions.
How many times was I silent because I was tired of the constant fight to make sure I had the things I needed to pass the course, or scared because I thought the professor would give me a lower grade out of spite, annoyed by my constant nagging, or ashamed of having a disability. How many times did I feel as if I had to justify to my professors why I was there, in their classroom instead of at home. How many times did I sit in the back, or front, or middle of the classroom, silent because I couldn’t participate. How many times did I feel stupid and weak? How many times did I let things slide because the professor was too busy, or the professor was trying their best, or the professor will get to it later? How many times did I feel as if I didn’t belong there; that I should just give up?
Too many times. So, no, I have not claimed my education. Not entirely.
Am I still angry? Yes. Yes, I fucking am.
However, this time, this time I will let my anger guide me in claiming my education. Claiming my space in classrooms, claiming my voice in class discussions, claiming my right to be here. I will no longer hold my anger back, letting it lay on my tongue, refusing to roar. No longer will I ask politely, then beg; I will ask, then I will demand. I will no longer give a pass to those who barely try; I will no longer be thankful for at least getting ‘something’; I will get everything I deserve, everything that is given to the other students.
I belong here. I have a right to be here. And if you don’t want me here, in your ivory tower, too fucking bad. I will get what I deserve. Make way for my cane. Make space on these desks for my brailled notes and laptop with a screen reader. Become comfortable with me here, in front of you, because you have no other choice.