I get called some form of nasty every day. It is part of my identity as a rigorous female teacher at an all-male prep school. In my first year, a male colleague told me I would be the students’ “mom, girlfriend, or a total bitch,” and that I might as well choose right away which one I liked best.
When I started, I naively thought I would change all that nonsense. That I could not only mold boys into contributing citizens but (as a good Catholic teacher should) into men people would want to date and even marry. I was single and, at 35, still in shape, hip, youngish looking, but having trouble meeting a nice guy without commitment issues or complexes about women. I told myself These boys need a strong female voice, one to advocate for women, an example of intelligence and reason.
But when, during a conference about her failing son, a student’s mother interrupted my concerns to note that too much of my camisole could be seen through the button gaps of my blouse, I realized the attitude started at home, where my voice would hardly be heard. So, in my year-end interview, I asked the principal to change the school roster to list the mothers by their first names instead of by their husbands’ names, for example Mrs. Peter Smith. He sat back, smiled, and said that I could find the mothers’ names listed in the individual class rosters if I wanted to know them. Wasn’t that enough?
“No,” I said. “This is an outdated practice. Women need to be listed by their first names. Some of these women are doctors and shouldn’t be Mrs. at all.”
“Well, I have nothing to do about that,” he said. “That’s an office thing.” You mean, the office staffed by five overworked women, under your orders? I thought, realizing I’d hit a dogmatic wall, the undoing of which would not be easy.
In my third year, a student in my senior English class waited until I finished my lecture on transcendentalism to place an oversized banana on my podium. “Here,” he said. “For you.” The class laughed, and my lesson on enlightenment was reduced to a giant phallus lying before me, one I’d either need to grip fully in my hand or ignore, letting it remain on my podium atop my carefully-constructed lesson plans. There was little I could do about the incident and the-thing-that-was-only-a-banana. There was little I could say that did not render me bitchy or helpless, a whiner, a weakling. I got a sense that if I wanted to teach boys and among men, I was going to have to put up with their “boy behavior.”
So I said, “Thank you,” and swallowed hard. “Just what I needed, a giant banana after lunch.” My lips curled into a knot, my eyes welled. The banana stared at me the remainder of the class, and I knew in that instant that I had not even earned “girlfriend” status. And, if I had, I pitied their girlfriends.
There are only two female-only bathrooms in the school: one in the basement, four floors away from my classroom, and one in the cafeteria, three floors away. The second is usually locked because—we are told—only guests should use it during assemblies and masses and big presentations for donors. Before they started locking it, I used it during lunch, the only break of my day long enough to pee in peace—until, that is, the male students started using it, too. Once, while I was in there, one of my senior students barged in, the door flinging all the way open so that I could assess what kids were having for lunch, could smell the hot hamburger air emanating from the kitchen. I had just opened the stall, my pants up, at least, though not yet zipped, my shirt untucked, frazzled to see one of my pupils preparing to drop trou’. “I have to pee,” he said indignantly, one eyebrow raised. “It’s an emergency.” I stood still, dumbfounded, scared, even. Didn’t he have a school full of bathrooms from which to choose? Couldn’t he merely raise his hand in class and be excused to use one of them? I dragged the kid across the cafeteria, everyone ogling us as I stomped—as he ambled, a smug grin across his face—toward the Dean of Students’ office, where I told him to sit while I lectured him about the privacy of his female teachers, the sanctity of space, and boundaries he should not cross. He stood, moved toward me until his face was only inches from mine, and told me in a strained voice, “You’re being silly.”
I left him standing there and fumed down the administrative hall. He followed me and yelled so that the front office ladies could hear, so that the students late to their classes could hear,
“This is ridiculous! You’re overreacting! Why do you all overreact?”
It became clear, later, when his father called to complain about my behavior, what the student had meant by “you all.” I expected that he’d at least receive the same form of punishment (suspension) that students who fist-fought did. But he only suffered a few detentions and earned a few winks, nods and pats from his father, maybe even from the dean—the same man who’d defined for me the three types of women. Maybe they had even joked about us silly women and our need for privacy.
This year, on the morning of first day of school, I sat on my bedroom floor, trying to fit leggings over the knee for which I’d just had surgery, careful not to put any pressure on my toes, careful not to bend my knee too much. The leggings wouldn’t slip over the brace, and so I cut one leg at the knee, remembering the capris a male colleague had once called “shorts”—just to harass me, just to imply that I had privileges he didn’t—and I feared his comments in the weeks to come. I struggled to rise from the floor. My hair dripped wet, my stomach, stretched from carrying babies, flapped as I hobbled to my closet in search of a tunic long enough to cover my butt. I had exactly two shirts that did, a fact I learned only after fumbling with six. I decided I would wear the same two not-quite-right outfits every day for the next six weeks, all the while waiting for the bitter comment about shorts, leggings, my butt, or even my tennis shoes, which my doctor ordered I wear.
This colleague and I had gotten into a fight over such comments once, when I hadn’t slept in weeks and had grown weary of hearing them. “It must be nice to wear sandals to work,” he had said of my fashionable flats—the kind with a few cutouts here and there, baring no toes but rather modicums of flesh around my arch and ankles.
“It must be nice to wear comfortable shoes to work,” I said in return, though I wanted to add, and not have a bra strap digging into your tired, overburdened shoulders, or run across the school to use one of the few female-only bathrooms during your three-minute break, or not have to worry about bleeding through your pants in a building in which not one other person gets a period. Yeah, those things must be nice for you. But instead I told him I didn’t want to hear from him anymore. He shouted at me, down the main hallway, “I can’t do those things, you know! Like you can. I can’t get away with them!” And then later, when no one else was listening, in the basement, between exam sessions, he said, his head tilted sideways, his mouth forming a creepy pucker, “If you think I’m hitting on you, you’re wrong. You’re just not my type.”
Which type was that? I wondered. I’d already demonstrated my bitchiness and my whoredom (those cutout shoes! Those capris!), and he hadn’t seemed taken with either. Perhaps he wanted a mom. Perhaps I wasn’t “mom” enough for him.
I drove to school that first day with crutches wondering if anyone would help me into the building. I expected someone would. The men in the building had always been particularly helpful to women rendered helpless. I learned this while pregnant with triplets, when students and other male teachers cleared paths for me in the hallway, carried my books for me to the elevator, even pressed the “down” button for me as I waited. I suspected they’d do the same while I was on crutches. I could tell, when pregnant, that they liked to do such things for me, eyeing my belly before looking me in the eye. I could tell they liked to see me full and round, a woman “fulfilled.” They understood women in such a state. They understood themselves even better.
But the Mom role had another side, as well, which I learned when I returned after my pregnancy sick leave (because we get no maternity leave—the diocese forces us, rather, to use sick days, even though men receive two weeks of paternity leave, because, most likely, when we have babies we should think about quitting and staying home with them). I’d had hints of it before, when that same male colleague with the so-helpful advice my first year said to the boys during our cafeteria duty, “You clean it up. I’m not your mom.”
That first day back I’d brought doughnuts to my new homeroom, having woken early from my interrupted four hours of sleep to go to the Tim Horton’s. I carried the three boxes and all my books through the cafeteria, and the boys watched, some suggesting that I leave the doughnuts there, but none offering to carry them. I presented the box to my homeroom, and each boy came to my desk and thrust his dirty paws into it, some trying to grab more than their fair share, some pushing others to do so. No one thanked me, as though it was my obligation to bring them doughnuts, and maybe even to wipe their hands and faces after they’d eaten. I was reminded that I’d become a mom in my absence, a boy having remarked on one my visits back with the babies, “You look like a mom.” I realized from then on they’d only expect me to clean up their messes.
“There’s a reason they call it a job,” my girlfriend once said to me, regarding hand jobs. “It’s work, and you do it with a smile, knowing it makes you feel like a whore, but hoping, at some point, he rewards you for it.”
I think of that advice often while working at the all-boys’ school. Teaching—especially at a Catholic school at which a teacher gets paid very little—should be a vocation. Not a job. Especially not a hand job. But I often feel pimped out by the men seemingly in charge of my sex, by things like the giant banana, the sexist remarks, the lack of clean, private, accessible bathrooms. Which makes me think about girls and women in much worse scenarios, like the transgender students forced to use the men’s bathrooms, the line of boys pissing in a trough, laughing at their female teacher and the banana they might have given her after lunch. And I wonder what reward it is we are all waiting for. Whether the exchanges are worth it, in the end.
The boys did hold the door for me when I was on crutches, just like I thought they would. They pushed the elevator button and parted the way in the hall. And maybe they did this just because they were nice boys with big hearts. Maybe they did it because I was their teacher, and they respected and liked me, and they wanted to help. No doubt some did.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them liked seeing me helpless, my body and its function at their mercy, their ego bolstered by their assistance. After all, even the sweetest, most well-intended men at the school have a way of patronizing my femininity: the god-sent librarian once referring to a home-dad as a “stay-at-home mom,” the meek assistant principal—trying only to be helpful—saying to me when I was on crutches, “If you need anything—anything, even if your inner woman is roaring and you don’t want to say so—let me know.”
I know such men mean well. I know they don’t imply hatred or bigotry. I nod and smile and thank them for their offers and their conversations and their trying to know me. I even feel grateful for them. But, still, I cringe, knowing that every time I do something myself instead of asking for help—whether it’s carrying boxes of books, or standing on a chair to reach the projector attached to the ceiling—all they hear is one loud bitch roar.
Sometimes, I doubt I will change anything. I worry that being there will only change me. The longer I stay the more silent I become. I wonder what, if anything, I have taught these boys. Or if, rather, they having been teaching me, molding me, into one of their three archetypes.
But I know what is at stake. I know that bigotry exists outside of those prep-school walls, in the highest positions, in the most surreptitious ways. Half a million women marching on Washington proves as much. And so I persevere, knowing my duty: to change those kids’ minds; to be an advocate for equality; to not get caught ill, tired, misunderstood.
A weakened creature in need of a crutch.
JODY GERBIG is a high-school English teacher living with her husband, triplets, and dog, in Columbus, Ohio. Her recent work can be found in Burrow Press, South 85 Review, and Parent.co Magazine.