Late to the party. If I leave a half hour early, that gives me more time to figure out how to be late.
I walk into the classroom, five minutes early I figure. But all the students are there, turning to look at me, a little startled, both of us. I think right away that I’ve interrupted a class activity that had run over but no, there are the other panel members, all seated, in mid-phrase, already having ingratiated themselves with their young audience.
Oh, there she is, making an entrance. No, there she is, having miscalculated, misread, misinterpreted for the millionth time. It’s fine. I don’t care. Except that I’d planned to be early so my hearing could adjust. The first fifteen minutes in any new setting means a hearing black-out as it were, voices that are buzzy, indecipherable, the looks accompanying the words pointed and expectant.
They stop what they’re talking about and turn to me. They ask questions. What is the question, I wonder? I see them all waiting, students and other panelists alike. What would the question be right now? Of course, who am I? That is the question. I answer the question hoping that is the question. We will never know. Or care.
The students are in an evaluation class taught at a women’s college in town, one of the very few remaining women’s colleges in the universe but incredibly successful and a place that I love dearly even though I attended a distinctly non-women’s university across town. The students are prepared with questions submitted to their professor, my friend and colleague who that night was still in Japan on an extended trip.
Each of us on the panel has a list of their questions but the students are asking them randomly. As the discussion begins to flower, I take to the little stage that is provided by my age and experience and my love of being or appearing to be smart and irreverent. Young people like nothing better than an older person with attitude.
The questions are about evaluation of social programs, problems that arise in obtaining good data, how to negotiate relationships. My greatest attribute in this discussion is my age and the assurance that oddly comes with it. You lose many things getting older but you’re compensated with a sense of presence and entitlement that feels like the most expensive pair of leather gloves you have ever dared put on your hands. They are yours and yours alone. Oh, so luscious. You wait, younger reader, someday, you can wear the gloves if you are lucky.
One of the students in the back row asks a question I just so barely hear but I glean has to do with encountering gender bias as an evaluator. We used to call this sexism, as in so and so is a sexist pig. Now I guess he or she would be a gender bias pig. It doesn’t have quite the same ring.
Have you ever encountered gender bias, the student asks. The woman next to me answers first. She is 27.
When she is done, I answer next. Mostly because the difference between her 27 and my 66 is too incredibly huge to ignore. This is also luscious, I think.
So I start to tell the young women in the class about being their age and sitting in meetings with colleagues and feeling like I was the only person who could hear the sound of my own voice. I tell them about feeling marginalized, about being marginalized, and how it compelled me to go back to school and get a Ph.D. so people would hear me when I spoke and how getting a Ph.D. changed things but it mostly changed things in my own mind because everywhere I go including this classroom on this night I wear my Ph.D. like a cloak, an incredible, extraordinary cloak that makes me invincible. And in telling them this, I churn up inside and swallow again all the times I convinced myself I didn’t know what I was doing, the times I knew everyone in the room was smarter than me, I eat that again like a new lunch made from ingredients freeze-dried for thirty years.
Does it happen anymore, the student asks?
Maybe, I don’t know, I answer.
I can’t be bothered with that. I just can’t be bothered with that anymore.
I wave my gloved hand. I’m done with that, I say.