No new Teaching Notes have come in over the transom in the last few months, so I decided to re-publish two oldies.
--Bob Rosen, Teaching Notes editor
I am a gender-bending lesbian who teaches Beowulf at a business university. In this piece, I reflect on an incident that reminds me I have little control over where and when my identity becomes more or less prominent for my students. Because the incident took me by surprise, I failed to capitalize on a teachable moment; this piece is my attempt at making sense of that failure.
The specific incident took place while I traveled through London with eleven students in my Chaucer's World course. One evening, as my students and I rode an escalator to the Tube, a man passed us and stared at me with a penetrating gaze. As he got closer, he yelled to the students, "Get away from this one who appears to be a man. He ... she ... it ... will lead you all to damnation." I could feel his breath on me as he screamed. He implored the students to get away from me, screaming about hell and damnation and my appearing to be both "man and woman."
This was not the first time I was accosted for being transgender. I have been chased down the streets and have had people stare at me in anger as I enter public restrooms. A cab driver in Kalamazoo spent the entire thirty-minute ride to the airport preaching to me to redeem my sins lest I burn in the flames of hell for all eternity.
That evening on the escalator in London, my students did a noble thing. Before we landed at the bottom, five of them surrounded me on every side. By the time we reached the attacker who stood waiting for us, my students were acting as a shield protecting me from him. As we walked down the corridor to the next escalator, my students held their positions. The attacker continued to scream obscenities about my gender, but my students didn't budge. We traveled through the Tube system like this until my attacker eventually got frustrated enough to move on. As he headed down a different corridor, my students asked if I were OK and, when assured, continued toward the train platform. Briefly, before the train arrived, I talked to them about this being a somewhat typical occurrence in my life and apologized to them for their having to be witness to this. They were relatively short on words.
I felt tremendous guilt after the incident. As is the case with many victims...