“I’ll knock, you’ll talk.”
I smiled as I continued marking the form three composition books. This statement was too familiar, and it took me back to my high school days.
The staffroom is a lot of things to different people, but it is the place where things can accelerate too fast to students. Whether you have done something wrong, or are looking to talk to a teacher, or maybe pick your book for the next lesson, there is a high chance that you will end up in trouble. The likelihood of this happening depends on who you are, and how teachers perceive you.
The two girls standing outside my window were coming to see me, to apologize for submitting their books late. See, I am not a scary person; I am not the teacher you see and start running. Most times, especially when I am on duty, while other teachers only need to stand outside the staffroom door and the students run to class, I have to walk to where they are. And then, they will retreat to their classes, very slowly.
“How many teachers are in the staffroom?” One of the girls asked.
I listened to them mumble the names of all the teachers they had seen that day. I could hear hope in their voice as they eliminated some names from the list. They had seen one walk out the gate, so that was one less body, another one was supervising tea, while another didn’t come.
After they were done, they walked to the door and knocked. I looked up from my marking and waved them in. I couldn’t wait to see who had won the lottery; who was going to voice the apology?
Tacy, the shorter one of the girls, excused herself. Although she was fluent in her words, there was fear in her voice. Maybe it was because other teachers would look up, and then all those eyes would stare at her. She knew that while she directed her energy to me, all the other teachers in the room would listen in; this was one of the most significant disadvantages of a common staffroom.
“We brought our books for marking,” she said, gesturing at her friend, Lynn. “We are sorry to bring them this late, but there was a part we were struggling with.”
She looked at me, hoping that I would say something, and the attention would shift from her.
“It’s okay; I’ll pick the books after class,” I replied.
When they Question who you are
They almost jumped at how easy that was, but as they started walking towards the door, one of the teachers called them back.
“Tacy and Lynn, why are you wearing such short skirts? Do you think this is a modeling agency?”
The girls looked back at him, confused.
Imagine standing in the middle of the staffroom, teachers are staring at you, and they are waiting for your response. The girls looked at each other and had the same debate they had before, but this time with their eyes.
“Who is going to speak?”
The tension was high, and if they stood there a minute longer, things would escalate. Knowing that there was no right way to respond, Tacy looked at me, probably wondering why they hadn’t waited for me in class. It would have been better, easier, to have me asking questions and punishing them for not bringing their books.
Saved by the bell is something many people don’t understand, but if you were those girls, you would have thanked your ancestors when the bell for the next class went. It was school policy that students be in class within the first two minutes, and teachers within the first five.
“Help me carry these books.”
Maybe I said it to get them out of that predicament, but then perhaps I did it for myself. I hate tense situations; I hate unpredictable circumstances.
The girls smiled; each took half of the pile and went to class.
“Mwalimu, if you are not careful with those two, you will end up in trouble. They are very notorious,” one of the teachers warned me as I was standing to go to class.
“What do you mean? I haven’t noticed anything like that while teaching or interacting with them.”
“Have you seen the length of their skirts, this is a mixed school, and they are doing that to attract attention,” he continued.
I looked at what I was wearing and chuckled; if he took time to look at the girls, analyze their skirts, and comment on it, why hadn’t he mentioned my dress or any of the teachers’? Ours were shorter and tighter, so why wasn’t he talking about it.
Staffroom debates are intense and passionate, and the one that ensued after his statement was no different. With every question other female teachers and I asked about the girls, he found something new to add.
The conversation went from the length of their skirts to their concerning interest in boys. Then it became about how they didn’t respect anyone. In this case, respect meant answering a teacher’s question, even when there wasn’t a safe answer. Respect was choosing to respond and get into trouble or stay silent and face the consequences. The concept of respect being discussed in the room was flawed and informed by the idea that the teacher is always right.
We debated the lesson away; we argued why the teacher was looking at the girls’ skirts. Why he hated that they decided to remain silent, for lack of an ideal answer, and then he said it.
“You know, this is the problem with children raised by single mothers, they think the world revolves around them, they don’t know how to live with other people.”
I wouldn’t say I was surprised; everything wrong in this world roots in patriarchy.
What do you do?
Many people have had a Tacy and Lynn moment when someone stops you in your tracks and questions something. They interrupt your blissful existence to let you know that there is a problem with you, whether you are wearing, how you speak or look, and the things you believe in. Someone will point out that something is flawed, and while you hadn’t noticed it before, you start seeing it.
There’s this concept, The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, that you are highly likely to encounter something more often after the first time you see or interact with it. For instance, if you have never heard the word reiterate, you will see it everywhere once you understand what it means.
The same thing happens when it comes to people pointing out things about you that are ‘flawed’ by their standard. They say you are loud, and you constantly have to stop in the middle of saying something to analyze whether you were the right amount of loud.
At times, for most people, this happens subconsciously, and you don’t notice it. While it might have been one statement, in a particular situation, reiteration is inevitable by one person. You question yourself, and the more you keep replaying whatever was said, the more you believe it.
Whether you are the one that keeps repeating it, or you continue hearing it from different people, such statements impact how you see yourself. In most cases, you might end up hating that thing, changing who you are, to avoid it.
This might be the best solution for a one-time thing, but if you can be sure of something, it is that people will always find a problem in who you are.
The thing is, this inclination to change and adjust your essence is a coping mechanism. It is a survival tactic that many people employ in an attempt to fit in.
People who point out your ‘flaws’ speak from a place of ignorance; they don’t know what your journey looks like, or what you have gone through. They haven’t lived your experiences, so they wouldn’t understand why you are the way you are, or why you believe the things you do.
Everything in your life is informed by who you are, and even the smallest things have something to say about you. The problem is, while you understand why you do the things you do, people don’t, and that is their personal problem.
At the end of the day, since you cannot stop people from being people, your power comes from how you respond. You could either apologize and change, or stand there in silence, waiting for them to get tired, or choose yourself.
Your response in those situations determines whether you live the life you want or fall into the trap of explaining yourself to people who cannot understand anything you say.
In most cases, if you stand your ground and refuse to engage, you find an escape. When the time is right, you will find your tribe, people who don’t see the ‘flaw.’ These will defend you and remind you that there is nothing wrong with who you are. But you always need to remember that, while other people might be willing to reassure you and help you exist without the limits of what others think, you need to do it for yourself first.