One of the last posts I made to this blog was just before I began teaching Marine Science to my kayaking class. It was not the experience I’d expected. I adored the kids. I scrambled nightly to try to align what we had managed to do academically with what I had hoped to do academically and toward my end goal for the curriculum. Seventh graders are delightful, amazingly boisterous curious. Also, they, like me, were simply high on life when we returned to the dock every morning post paddle…and man, was it ever tough to settle them down enough to do anything academic. Some days they were truly impossible. Others…
What follows should, by right, be three or four separate posts, posts I lacked the will and words for during the program.
The program was designed for 44 instructional days. Once we accommodated field trips, field days, assemblies, lack of on-time transportation, and the 10 days’ early end to all the first quarter programs (and all transportation thereto), when the school district abruptly went back to its pre-strike calendar. Notification of this change came when I thought I had 13 remaining instructional days. Now I had four. Now I had another revamping of lesson planning. I still believed the kids could master the overarching goal I had set, but it was going to be a struggle.
The classroom teacher wasn’t responsive to any of the museum’s requests for dialogue during the summer, but we had managed one fifteen minute meeting with both her and the kayaking instructor. I wanted to get some sense of what she wanted the kids to learn. She told me one thing the kids needed: an understanding of matter. That became my starting point. What I’d hoped for as an endpoint that the students would understand the effect that excess carbon dioxide has on the oceans. I had no written syllabus–our progress changed the schedule daily. Very hard way to teach–having to do the plans a week at a time, jettisoning and adding in.
I perceived early on that the “goals” I had …an interdisciplinary picture of the Waterway’s environment, biology, history, importance in trade for thousands of years, and the pollution/contamination/growing population load on the Salish Sea over the past 350 years, as well as the way this delicate marine environment’s illustrates the crisis in our oceans world-wide… as “perhaps” too much. Was I really so naive? Daily I went home and tweaked my plans, sweating over the classroom teacher’s claim that they had no chemistry, thus wouldn’t master even my revised, truncated plan. It was an exercise in burning midnight oil. My manager, K, the museum’s Education Director, was gone on extended vacation out of the country for the last four weeks of the program, and thus missed most of what follows.
I had an assistant instructor. An unfortunate creature, though she’d been recommended to my director by a friend who ran an adult ed kayaking program out of another museum. Turned out that this woman had no science background. At all. She thought that she was going to get her own small group to teach. Teach what was unclear. She said the she’d do better if I had a concrete syllabus to give her. I said I’d do better as well, but right now we are feeling our way. She had not grasped that we taught Marine Science, and I would be assigning her things to learn and lesson plans to present. She did not like this arrangement, and she made this known by undermining me to the students, telling the classroom teacher flat-out falsehoods, and telling me she was unprepared to present something she’d been given three days to prepare, (I’d written the entire lesson plan and worksheet and gave it her) saying that she’d never been told to prepare anything. I said I had emailed it to her. She said she’d never seen it or received the email. I pointed out that I’d given it to her on Friday, and that she not only had the hard copy, she had the email. “You didn’t email me.” I pulled out my folder and handed her the print out of my email and her response to my email: “Sounds good!”.
Well, that was a tough interaction for her. She started showing up a bit late, abdicating her classroom duties to “help the guys with the kayaks”, making nasty remarks to me (which I ignored–this woman is nearly 35 years old and desperately needs some “big girl pants”) and clearly Jessica was not getting what she wanted from her position. She accused me of having a “big binder with all the answers” and I “wasn’t giving her access.” The first time she made that allegation it was to my manager, who explained to her that the curriculum was fluid because of the changing schedule and no one was keeping information from her, nor was there a “big binder”. Later, after K had left for her trip, Jessica asked again whether she “could have access to my binder of information.” I reiterated that there was no “big binder”. I knew she was angry that the social science aspects weren’t part of what we had time to address, but it was a Marine Science course. She became more passive-aggressive, making more sniping comments.
Ultimately, she chose an active though indirect aggression: making a discrimination complaint against me for “refusal to acknowledge the pronoun preference” of one of the employees of the museum, the education coordinator. The young woman in question self identifies as gender: non-binary and sex: female, and has become a very dear to me over the past year. And yes, this woman, E., is adamant about the “they/their” pronoun usage. E. and I had talked about the difficulty getting people to use the pronouns, and E. is now, and was then, fully aware of my struggle/inconsistency: We’d discussed it at length. I’d also discussed it extensively with my manager, the Education Director. I am imperfect but willing and learning. The first 3 or 4 months I knew E. I had no idea of their pronoun choice (nor, to be honest, had I ever met anyone who wanted such pronoun usage.) In my former job, I’d had two employees who were midway through a gender transition, and I asked how they would each like to be addressed, so it wasn’t as though pronoun adjustments were completely foreign to me. However it was foreign to me that someone would choose a plural pronoun. I still have to stop myself from asking “E. and who else?”…I don’t think of E as “they”, not because I don’t think pronouns matter, but because they do matter and specificity of syntax and meaning are the bedrock of communication.
Jessica came to me about three days after the above. She asked me “Do you want to know why Sophie was looking for me?”
I said “No, I’m sure she had good reason.”
Jessica proceeded, unfazed, to tell me that one of the docents had taken her around the museum.
I said “Yes, I saw that. It was nice of her to take the time.”
“Well,” says Jessica, “She used a racial slur when talking about the Puyallups.”
“Oh. What did you say to her when you heard that?”
“Well, I didn’t say anything. I went down to Vickie (HR) to make a complaint about her.”
“Wouldn’t it have shown more leadership to correct the language and explain how and why the word could be construed as a slur?”
“But I did make a complaint.”
Having walked through the museum with the same docent, I do not believe that any slur was used. In one of Jessica and my weirder discussions we talked about movies. Jessica actually thought that the scene in the movie My Cousin Vinnie where Joe Pesci, in tough guy New York-ese, calls his cousin and cousin’s friend “two yutes” meaning two youths was an instance of racism. Jessica claimed it was a racist Indian slur referring to the Ute people. Words failed me on that one.
Jessica claimed to me repeatedly that “people your age” have a lot of trouble changing, and “people your age” don’t really get being “woke” (a buzz word that makes my skin crawl). I confess that after the first time she made remarks about me/ my age/ my developing curriculum I ignored her. In retrospect, perhaps that was a poor strategy.
However, when we had our wrap up meeting: the good, the bad and the ugly, Jessica showed everyone her true nature. She spontaneously commented that “several of the children didn’t like you” and “several of the children thought your teaching style wasn’t good” “several of the children told me they didn’t learn anything” and “a number of the children told me that they had trouble learning because they had no detailed syllabus.” I ignored all of it, as it was just so much bull and so random. I did speak up though, when Jessica said “Season (the classroom teacher) told me that she didn’t like your disciplining the students.” I remarked “Gee, Jessica, Season is a professional, and if there were a problem, Season would have discussed it with me rather than with you.” and didn’t address it further. Jessica was about to say more when Season showed up (got stuck at school) to the meeting. Jessica didn’t say anything else. The meeting closed with recognition of the great successes: huge newspaper stories, terrific video clip on the newspaper’s website, lots of community support, parents loved it, museum board members (who came by to observe) had great things to say about the classroom work they’d observed and the kayaking they’d watched…
I had a meeting with K, the Education Director, a couple of weeks later, off site at a coffee shop we both enjoy. It was a good, marginally healing experience. We spent nearly five hours going through my notes, my ideas for improvement, what it all might look like going forward, but I had not gone back to the museum, nor did I go to the semiannual employee boat trip/cocktail party, though the museum’s Executive Director did email me to ask why I’d declined and he’d really like to see me. I was on the East Coast visiting family at the time and was grateful for the personal email, but was even more grateful that I was away.
Frankly, the whole experience knocked me sideways. I know the entire attacking me in the meeting thing was bullshit. I know the discrimination complaint was something malicious and spurious. But the fact that the “complaint” had been taken seriously by human resources, the fact that there wasn’t any fact checking, the obvious surprised confusion both HR and the Executive Director exhibited by learning, during my “Interview”, that I was then and remain now good friends with the education coordinator, and, in fact, they and their husband were off camping that weekend, after borrowing all of my camping gear. W and V were both confused by this. I was confused as well as disheartened and shocked. I had no idea where this had come from until Jessica proudly told me of her interaction with the docent. Then I knew how it had all come about.
Suddenly, the work I so enjoyed, the magic of the whole thing was gone. My workplace felt toxic.
I’d avoided going back to the museum for weeks, but we had a training program last week. I needed to go. Re-entry was easier than I had expected. Both my manager and E met me at the door with huge hugs and greetings and, frankly, joy. I still feel some trepidation, and some of the distrust of coworkers and worse, distrust of myself and my ability to protect myself persists.
I’d been unable to write during the entire program. Not because of time, but because of will, and hurt, and anger. This self-doubt is something I’m struggling to shake off.