In order to make sense of this story, it’s important to understand some basic facts about about the geography of my childhood. If you have the patience to wade through enough acreage of central Illinois farmland, you’ll find my parent’s home, just one short block away from the campus of Illinois State University. As a kid, my brothers and I walked the quarter mile distance from our house to our red brick elementary school which sat snugly tucked just one street across from the west end of the quadrangle. My mother earned her masters degree and PhD at the university and still works there as a department head. My dad teaches part time as a retiree from the athletic department. My parents have amassed almost 40 years of service to students and faculty in one way or another. My brothers and I graduated from the affiliated laboratory grade and high schools and my younger brother also earned a bachelors degree from the university. My family truly finds it’s roots deeply embedded into the Illinois State community.
The university campus was essentially an extension of our home. It was a place we went for school and social gatherings, for church and theatrical performances, and to cheer loudly at innumerable athletic events. Even now, as I’ve officially spent just over half my life living away, the campus always feels like a warm hug; like a comfortable and safe place filled with happy memories and palpable nostalgia.
It’s also notable that I am a devout feminist and burgeoning proponent for social justice. That may not seem relevant at first, but hang in there...it’ll become clear near the end.
This weekend, I packed a couple bags and my kids into the family SUV and headed north on I-55 (the ‘long highway’) to join my parents and little brother, visiting from Seattle, for ISU homecoming festivities.
Saturday morning bagan with a brother-sister homecoming 5K. My little brother’s recently acquired super-human speed propelled him to a 3rd place finish in his age group and inspired me to clock a shocking post-baby PR (nearly placing myself among the 30 to 39-year-old women).
Next, we all bundled up to gather candy tossed to us by strangers on the side of the road, an activity generally called ‘watching a parade,’ which I consider to be a little ridiculous, but is widely accepted as enjoyable.
From there, we trudged through the muddy field between the high school that is my alma mater and the university’s football stadium to mingle and watch the kids joyfully partake in various yard games with ‘big kids.’ It was an opportunity to expose my offspring to a treasured American pastime: tailgating.
The next thing that happened was that I learned my kids presently have the collective attention span good for about quarter and a half of collegiate football. Which was fine by me, because my head-on-a-swivel had almost fully fatigued and my anxiety about becoming entangled in an Amber Alert situation had also reached maximum tolerable capacity.
Parenting in the crowds had been mildly stressful, but generally, the day was totally lovely. It was the sort of day that gave me glimpses of the purity, wonder, and innocence with which my kids experience the world. Watching them enthusiastically tackle candy scattered on pavement and gleefully chase a foam football through the sunshine was a reminder to me that parenting can feel like an unending gift of shifting perspectives and actual real bliss.
I was tired, sure, but also feeling like my cup had been filled.
By then, it was around 3:30 PM and the football stadium was the epicenter of campus activity, the sidewalks were filling with students and alums starting to stagger a little.
See, it would seem that things haven’t changed much since I was in school, and Homecoming weekend is still really just considered by many students (and probably alumnus) as an excuse to crack a beer before breakfast, be drunk by game time, and publicly act like an asshole before dinner.
One such asshole happened to have the great misfortune to find herself ambling along behind me and my offspring as we walked amongst the now mostly inebriated crowd, back to my parent’s house from the stadium.
She was with a friend and trying to make some point or another--I wasn’t really paying attention--but apparently felt that cursing loudly was necessary to accomplish that task.
Now. Here is where I should pause to emphasize the following: as most of you know, I have a great appreciation for vulgarity. Our friend Mark Twain tells us: Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
And, I’ll admit, I use it far more casually than that (see use of the word ‘asshole’ above).
To that end, my kids have certainly been exposed to profanity, and I was totally willing to ignore our drunken co-ed until we could round the corner and escape the language.
I should also say, while I consider myself an activist, short on patience for unjust behavior, I’m not typically out in the world looking for trouble. I even see myself as something of a diplomat. I am inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to empathize with their situations (example: the server still gets a decent tip when she’s crabby, because maybe she’s having trouble at home). Often, I run interference in my personal and professional life, acting as a mediator and assisting in cooling jets when things get too heated.
With all these things in mind, it’s hard to initially understand why I suddenly snapped right there on the sunny sidewalk for all the world to see.
The proximity to small children may have been a concept lost on our profanity-spewer but her friend was a little more aware of their surroundings (sober?) and quickly started shushing.
The sentence that caused me to stop short in my tracks was the clear and smug response to the shushing: ‘Well, maaaaybe you should know better than to have your kids out at homecoming.’
And just like that, my previously jovial mood was cancelled. Without warning, a dark cloud descended upon me and I could feel the heat of my blood rising to color my ears and cheeks red.
I twirled around and heard a version of my voice I’d never heard before in all of my 36 years. It was laced with venom and quivering with rage and my words tumbled out and in hindsight, of course, I wish they’d been more coherent and elegant; but I’m wholly satisfied that my message was clear.
‘Excuse me???’ (It was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t wait for an answer) ‘I can’t walk my kids home from a football game??’
Forty eight hours later, I have the benefit of hindsight which allows me to give her some credit for her response; which was mostly stunned silence. She trained her glazed eyes forward, avoiding any contact with the insane woman waving her arms and thrusting her chin.
As she and her friend sped past us, I couldn’t seem to calm myself down. ‘...so check yourself lady. Yeah. Watch your mouth.’
(Because NOW I was suddenly also pissed about the language.)
When I recovered from my rage blindness, we carried on, my kids were a little stunned by my sudden outburst, but recovered quickly and began collecting sticks. We continued on our way, passing by house parties muddy with spilled keg-beer and thumping with the base tracks of music I couldn’t name, porches spilling over with young people, swaying and laughing and clinging to each other carelessly.
I was somehow comforted by the site of the jolly partiers, even as one of their strays had triggered something really dark inside me. By the time we arrived at my parents house, I was pretty much cooled completely. I retold the story with an undertone of bemusement to my mom and my husband, evoking their laughter with my finely-tuned comedic timing. Ha, ha...boy did she learn her lesson...ha, ha.
Still, I was unsettled by the ferocity of my response. I had alarmed myself with the shortness of my fuse and the audacity of my temper. I have touted myself as an advocate of no-shame parenting and I clearly considered this to be my home-turf, so I would be damned if 2 or 3 semesters in Normal would give this young lady the right to dictate where I could take my kids and when.
That was the obvious explanation.
But I woke up in the middle of last night with a more clear and complete picture of the origins of my rage.
For most women, these past few weeks has been agonizing. The mere act of getting out of bed has been an exercise in anger-suppression. It’s been impossible to log onto social media without being confronted by bold expressions of toxic masculinity and signs of the patriarchy, clinging shamelessly to power, are absolutely everywhere.
Most upsetting to me personally, have been the women. Otherwise reasonable, kind women are spewing nonsense about fearing for their sons and claiming there is something to be gained by a victim from outing their abuser; all the while, shaming and blaming the abused and wrapping their arms around the existing power structure as if it were a life raft.
It was the victim-blaming that set me off.
Here was a young woman who very suddenly and aggressively came to embody all of the ignorant memes and flimsy sex-abuser-defense lines from the past few weeks, and all at once became the target of my simmering rage.
This unfortunate young lady had reached out and poked with precision at a shallow and inflamed nerve, unleashing the pain and fury of a woman who’d been clinging to sanity in a world that was just letting her down at every turn.
So I’m not THE victim here, but I have been *a* victim. And I understand the power of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming flips the script on abuse. It reinforces a society built on misogyny and racism and bigotry because it excuses misuse of power and ever so subtly suggests that this structure is acceptable.
When we ask what a woman expected by going home with that guy or suggest that her skirt is to blame for her assault, we are flipping the script and giving a wink to all men and boys to carry on with their bad behavior. We are also silencing victims of assault and misconduct of all sorts.
The co-Ed’s initial offense (profanity) was totally minor and completely forgivable. It was even ignorable and I was happy to do so.
Her second offense (victim-blaming) was understandable and almost as familiar as a drunken college student’s profanity; something I mighty have also shrugged off or at least kept my response to a mere dirty look over the shoulder.
And yet, I’ve lost my patience with it. I am shaken and defeated by the number of women I’ve spoken to recently who’ve shared the stories they had previously buried under a pile of shame and self-blame.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that it took me another 24-hours to realize another important parallel issue reflected in my outburst.
The latest incident of a white person calling the police on an innocent black person for simply existing in the same space happened not too far from my current home in St Louis. Whether it’s barbecuing in a park, taking a nap in a common area, or simply trying to return home after a long day; white people just can’t seem to quit attempting to criminalize the innocent behaviors of POC.
Of course, this young woman didn’t whip out her phone to call the cops on me for exposing my kids to her public drunkenness; but her attempt to shame my presence in what she considered *her* space gave me just the teensiest, tiniest glimpse into what it must feel like to be targeted for simply trying to exist. And worse, when I give it some deeper thought, I realize that my response was afforded to me only because of my whiteness.
If I were a black woman herding her children through this mostly white space, I would NOT have had the luxury of losing my shit. The anger of white women may not often be taken very seriously, but it wields an acceptance that is not available to women of color. This is important to note.
I should say, I am not at all proud of my outburst. I am sad that my kids witnessed what it looks like at the end of my personal rope. This story felt like it needed to be shared mostly because I’ve been wading around in an emotional whirlpool recently and I’m quite certain I’m not alone there. I’ve been repeatedly knocked sideways by alternating waves of despair and outrage but also the occasional snippet of hope and determination. Sharing this story is simply a way to help me cope.
Shouting at drunk 20-year-olds in front of my kids isn’t going to solve any problems, but it ultimately proved to be a cathartic moment for me. When I’m not losing my cool; I have been channeling my suppressed white-lady rage into small of moments of activism which I believe to be propelling larger movement towards positive change. I see smart, powerful allies building a coalition right here in my neighborhood and it’s pretty impressive.
Moms are Demanding.
Women are organizing, running and winning.
The patriarchy is flinching.
I hope my friend with the curse words can find it in her heart to forgive my moment of unraveling. I hope that she enjoys her college experience and then someday looks around to notice where we are slipping as a society and decides to help put us back together.
That should be a good time for her to break out some of those high volume curse words.