By Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh
I was 19 years old the first time I cried in school.
Okay, actually, that was the third time.
The first time was because I spilled grape juice on my white corduroys. Nobody was home to bring me new pants, so I had to go back to class and the other kids laughed.
The second time was when I lost the Arbor Day poster contest to my classmate, Tracy. I was jealous. I thought my poem about a tree was better than her picture of a tree. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. When I did not win, I told my friends at recess to play 3-square instead of 4-square, so Tracy could not play. Which was a total dick move. (Tracy, I’m so sorry. Seriously. I don’t know where you are right now, but if you are ever up for a legit game of 4-square, please give me a call.) Tracy told the teacher, who pulled me aside, told me I was being a dick, and sent me back to the classroom to put my head down. I cried until the bell rang to go home.
If we are being technical, I also cried in the bathroom during junior high dances because Steve was dancing with Allison and not with me. But everybody cried about that, plus, it was after school, so I do not think it should count.
But the other first time I cried in school, the one I remember most vividly, was not an occasion when I was clumsy or jilted or mean. It was because someone was mean to me.
I had prepared a presentation about Elizabeth Bishop, who was not only a luminary poet, but someone who fought all her life to be recognized in the literary canon, which was snooty, and patriarchal, and totally biased against the contributions of women. I gave my presentation with all the exuberance of a college sophomore. I was naïve and excited and proud that I had quoted so many of Bishop’s poems in my talk, which I thought made me seem smart and worldly. I argued that Elizabeth Bishop had paved the way for female writers, and that even though she did not reap the gains during her lifetime, her very existence argued against a protected space for women’s poets. Our work was worthy. We had achieved an equal playing field. WE HAD ARRIVED. It was at this point that my professor, an avid women’s poetry guru, interrupted me. Had I “learned NOTHING in her class?” Had I not been listening to “the way women’s voices are SILENCED?” She announced she could not hear one more word from me, and if I did not have something better to say then I should sit down.
In the days that followed, I thought of many better things to say:
“As a matter of fact, I do have more to say, but I don’t want to hear one more word from you. Good day, madam. I said, good day.” At which point, I flipped my cape over my shoulder, and strode boldly out of the room. (In this version of the daydream, I am wearing a cape, but not a weird cape, more like a sort of poetry ninja kind of thing.)
“If you are so concerned about how women’s voices have been silenced, why are you silencing mine? Please sit down, professor. I am not yet finished.”
In one version of the daydream, I simply return to my desk, gather my things, and walk to the door. At which point, I turn and say to the rest of the class, “Who else is coming?” One by one, my classmates exit the room, leaving my professor with her shame. She calls later and begs me to return, begs all of us to return, but we refuse. Instead, Mary Oliver—who was a guest instructor at my college that term and who, because I was too busy suffering from poetry abuse down the hall, I did not even learn about until much later in life—Mary Oliver agrees to teach me and my classmates about women and poetry and silence and decency.
Instead, in the real version of events, I shook my head, indicated that No, of course I did not have anything else to say, and I took my seat. As the next terrified presenter walked to the podium, I began to weep. And though there were fourteen other young adults in that classroom, no one said anything. No one even looked my way. Only Dana, who sat in front of me, a usually flamboyant and playful fellow, who had flown on wires and sung “Beauty School Dropout” in a recent production of Grease, reached over and took my hand. He held it for the remaining forty-five minutes of that godforsaken class. Afterwards, he wanted to go see the dean and file a formal complaint. There was no excuse for the way I had been treated.
But I was cowardly and afraid and thought I had done something wrong by floating an idea with which my professor had disagreed.
I did not fight for myself.
And I did not allow someone else to fight for me.
Instead, I attended that class for the remainder of the semester, accepted my B-, and never took another poetry course again.
I was 19 years old.
When I talk to my daughters about school, I do not harp on homework or spelling tests, or how they should eat their vegetables at lunch. I just remind them to be like Dana.
Whenever you see someone left out of four square, go to her.
If you see someone sad about poster contests or slow dancing, comfort her.
When you see someone suffering and alone, reach out your hand.
And, if that person needs help that is bigger than you, find it. Tell a teacher, tell a grownup. Find Mary Oliver. Don’t let anyone be silenced.
Be a Dana.
Annmarie Kelly-Harbaugh is a mother, teacher, and dog lover—an above-average cook and below-average housekeeper. Both a dancing queen and a brick house, she is an avid reader of cooking websites, fitness magazines, and articles that promise she’ll lose weight fast. She has taught Shakespeare to gang members, sung lullabies in a wilderness detention center, and is the author of Here Be Dragons: A Parent’s Guide to Rediscovering Purpose, Adventure, and the Unfathomable Joy of the Journey. Follow her at DadvMom.com, an online community dedicated to the proposition that couples can love one another and their children at the same time. Mostly.