As I think about the stories I tell my students, I realize that many of them involve gender issues. So often my students, especially the 18-20 year olds, come to my classes believing that inequality between the sexes is a thing of the past, something their mothers and grandmothers had to contend with once upon a time. So I tell them my stories, and see if they think that's still true.
Several years ago, back when I lived just a few blocks from downtown Fargo, my friend Bayard and I stayed at Lauerman's, a bar that's not there anymore, until closing time. It was around 1:30am when we started walking home, and it was a lovely summer's night. We hadn't had so much to drink that we were impaired, really, and I remember the night clearly.
Bayard lived three blocks closer to the bar than I did, in The Gardner, a big security builiding that used to be a hotel. We walked west on 1st Avenue north, laughing and talking, until we got to his door.
"You want me to walk you home?" he asked. I laughed at him.
"Nah. It's just three blocks. Have a good night."
For those of you who are unfamiliar, 1st Avenue North is a one-way street, very busy during the day, but almost totally deserted after midnight. Aside from the former hotel-turned apartments, it's lined with little shops, and across from Bayard's building is the federal courthouse (where Leonard Peltier was convicted of murder). There's a lovely art museum, an insurance office, and other small office buildings. Nothing at all is open after 7pm. The nearest gas station was 6 blocks away, past my apartment by several blocks. And the security of Bayard's building is not like other security buildings: there's no entryway where you can run in and buzz to be let in. At this time, in the late 90s, you had to go to the payphone up the block and call whomever you were visiting to come down and let you in.
At this point in my story, the men tend to seem quite bored. I wasn't terribly drunk, so they don't see how this story could get interesting. The women, though, almost every one of them is sitting up straighter, staring at me, with a touch of fear in their eyes. They know where this story is probably headed. And that difference in reaction is exactly why I tell this story.
About a block further, as I'm walking, happy with my dear friends and thinking about my little apartment, a man turns the corner toward me. He's about my size, maybe a little taller, probably thinner than me. He looks to be in his late 40s or early 50s. He's just walking, coming my direction, on the same sidewalk I'm on. There are no cars near us, and the stoplights will soon start blinking off and on, as they did at 2am back then.
I stop my story. The women are leaning toward me, wanting to know what happens. The men are looking out the window, or at the carpet. Sometimes, though this is rare, one or two men will be listening carefully.
By name, I call on the most verbal of the men. "What would you do?" He usually looks a little sheepish, because he hasn't been fully paying attention, and he usually doesn't understand the question.
"I'd keep walking. What else would I do?"
Then I open it to the women, who are itching to speak, by now. "Ladies?"
"I'd taze him!" "Did you have pepper spray?" "I'd get on my cell phone and at least pretend to call the cops!" "I'd cross the street, or run the other way."
The men are almost always startled, thinking they missed some important part of the story. To prove my point further, I ask the women, "Where would your keys be?" They almost always have the same answer.
"In my hand, with one out that I can use as a weapon if I need to." They nod together, as if this is the only answer.
I repeat the story, from when I left Bayard at the apartment until the man turns the corner and begins to walk toward me. I ask the men why they think the women react so differently from them. This man showed no malice, appeared to carry no weapon, and clearly was not following me, but just minding his business. He was not enormous and didn't have a wicked mustache he was twirling evilly. The men squirm uncomfortably, realizing that the possible violence women face is more than they realized, and more deeply feared than they knew. The women are often surprised that the men don't know this is our reality.
They want to know how the story ends, so I tell them. I crossed the street, almost immediately, and the man knew why I did, too. He called out to me, "You don't have to be afraid of me. Honest!" Which, as is clear as soon as I say it out loud, is not a comforting thing to say to a woman on a desolate street late at night. "I know," I called back, and walked the block and a half to my apartment, listening for footsteps the whole way, locking the door behind me. I do feel bad for that guy, who was almost certainly just minding his own business, and who probably had no intention of harming anyone, that night or any night. His intentions didn't matter to me, then, though.
The women point out that we have to do those things, to assume the worst, in order to protect ourselves. I point out that it's a terrible thing, to have so much of our energy go to that kind of self-preservation.
I'm not sure which reaction makes me more sad: the complete surprise from so many of the men, or complete acceptance of this as how the world works from so many of the women. Both, I guess, just break my heart. Which is why I keep teaching, in the end.