Each semester when I ask my students to write an autobiographical essay in our Introduction to Women’s Studies class, I reflect on what I would write about if I were required to do this assignment. I decided this time to meet my students in that personal space that I have created in my class—I am writing and sharing my own autobiographical essay connecting a personal experience to feminist issues. Here is my story.
Confessions of a Feminist Teacher: When I Was a Mean Girl
“Wooooman! Wooooooooman!” We taunted her relentlessly, whenever we saw her around our small town. I don’t remember what she said back to us, but I will never forget the day she ended our bullying for good.
It was the middle of our glorious summer in the mountains. Blue skies, the fresh smell of pine trees in the air, freedom! I was in high school and hating every minute, really every second, of it. Summer was my release and my motorcycle was my friend. My only redemption in this small mill town was my Yamaha 80, which my dad let me start driving in eighth grade. It was a hot bike, it was RED. As long as I rode on the alleys and logging roads and did not go on the streets, I could ride as much as I wanted to. By the time of this story, I had my driver’s license so I could also tear up the streets.
My best friend Robin was visiting for a week during the summer. The highlight of our summers was the week I spent visiting Robin and the week she spent with me. I was pretty much a loner, but when Robin was visiting, I was cool and emboldened by having my best friend at my side. We were into boys, clothes, hair, boys…boys…boys. I was like a different person when Robin came to town. We encouraged each other—we were show-offs. The Yamaha made it all the more fun—I cruised town with Robin on the back, our waist-long hair blowing in the wind (no helmet laws back then), looking for adventure.
Then we found it or rather found her. “Woooman! Woooooooman!” We yelled this exaggerated drawn out version of the word “woman” over and over again when we ran into Linda B. We taunted her, we mocked her, we bullied her relentlessly. On the day she ended it, there was a big (for a small town anyway) baseball game going on at the local park and lots of people were out watching the game and hanging out. Robin and I cruised the game on my red Yamaha 80. We spotted Linda B. walking alongside the road near the game, so I geared down the Yamaha to move slowly as we passed by her, to be sure that Linda B. would hear the epithet that we personally made up just for her: “Wooman! Woooooooman!”
Black out. It almost seemed like a black out because it all happened so fast.
The next thing I knew I was sitting in the dirt on the side of the road holding my aching head, Robin was sitting in the dirt holding her head, and the red Yamaha was laying on its side in the dirt beside us. Linda B. had had enough. When we slowly passed and called her “Woooooman!” instead of making moves to get away from us as she had in the past, Linda B. moved toward Robin and me. She grabbed Robin by the hair and dragged her off of the Yamaha and tossed her into the dirt. Linda B. was not done. I was sitting on the bike and could not assist Robin or move away from Linda B.’s revenge. She grabbed a fistful of my long hair and dragged my full body weight off the bike, the Yamaha falling in our wake, a billow of dust rising from the road. I don’t remember if she hit us or if she said anything—she didn’t need to. I have no memory of Linda B. walking away from the spoils of that scene, since my total focus was on how much my head hurt. Oh my God, she dragged both Robin and me by the hair off of the Yamaha and left us in the dirt clutching our beloved long hair and aching heads. Have you ever been dragged by your hair? It was certainly a shocker, both psychologically and physically. Linda B. had the final word. We never bullied her again.
Stories spread fast in our small town. My parents were out of town when this happened, but when we got home my big brother was waiting for us, not so much out of compassion for our welfare, but wanting to circumvent any trouble for himself: “I heard that you got beat up at the park. I’m supposed to be taking care of things. What are we going to tell Mom and Dad?” It’s best to have our stories straight… Robin and I went upstairs to my room, curled up in my bed still stunned by the experience of being “beat up.” It was all a blur, a bad dream. Poor us, we just held our aching heads all night long.
I think that I will always be haunted by this experience and ashamed of myself for the cruelty that I inflicted on Linda B. It disturbs me that I cannot remember how the bullying started or an incident that might explain why Linda B. was the target. She was younger, a grade or two behind me, so I do not recall any interaction with her at school or in outside of school activities. In a sense, it feels like she was a random target for a bullying that somehow made Robin and I feel a perverted sense of power. I suppose there was a gang mentality, even if our gang was only the two of us. I never bullied Linda B. except when Robin was with me. I think we reinforced each other, we were showing off for each other. About this same time, I was bullied pretty aggressively by older girls in high school—they cornered me on my bike and threw eggs at me, slammed volley balls at me during P.E., and accused me over and over again of being a “snitch” since my dad was the town deputy sheriff. I fought back where I could—slamming the volley ball right back at them—but mostly just waited it out. I could not have been happier than the day those older girls graduated from high school. This explanation of my own bullying feels a little too simple—bullied girl turns into a bully—too much of a single story.
Of course, the thick coke bottle glasses that I wore when I was a teenager did not have a feminist tint to the lenses. Women’s Studies and feminist perspectives have given me new insights into this story; if not insights, at least I am asking deeper questions about how my assumptions and biases about race and sexuality influenced my behavior. Linda B. was dark-skinned—her family was Italian, I think. There were a few Black families in our town, but everyone else was white. Racist comments were made in my home, my father being a cop and all (yes, I am stereotyping cops). I think that we targeted Linda B. in part because of her dark complexion. In the absence of any education about race, she was dark and different, so we felt some prejudice towards her. Linda B. was also very tall and well-developed for her age. We called her “woman” and our expression extended the vowel “o” in the word, almost as if the sound mirrored what we were making fun of or threated by—she was developing into a woman at an earlier age than we were. Looking back with a feminist lens, I wonder if we targeted Linda B. due to the intersection of racism and sexuality, and for our own insecure need for drama and a sense of power. This theory feels a little closer to the truth.
I like to imagine that Linda B. took a Women’s Studies class sometime along the way and when asked to write a personal essay, wrote about these two horrible mean girls who bullied her for no reason. I like to imagine the ending of her story…how she had the courage and strength to stand up to two mean girls and take her power back.