My eleventh grade English teacher was a guy named Paul MacAdam. I got a D in the class, and I only got the D because I wrote a paper about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye over the summer. I was a crap student: I didn’t read; I didn’t participate; I didn’t turn in papers, or when I did, it was embarrassingly obvious I hadn’t read the books. I also skipped class a lot. It was in the morning, and I didn’t think very highly of morning classes.
I actually said that to him once. He took me aside after the bell rang one day and said you’ve been missing a lot of class, and I was like, “Yeah, I don’t think too highly of morning classes.” I was a real peach.
But when I did go to class, I was usually the last person to file into the room. One thing I remember about that class: Mr. MacAdam always held the door open for us until the bell rang. We’d walk in, and he’d greet each of us. He always held the door open until the bell started ringing, and I’d come in last, three seconds before the bell rang, staring at my untied sneakers, stinking of cigarette smoke, and he’d say, “Mr. Green, always a pleasure,” and then he and the class would talk about the book. Say it was Slaughterhouse Five. I hadn’t read it, of course, but they would talk about it, and MacAdam would get to talking about war and the nonlinear nature of time and how Vonnegut had stripped down the language to tell the nakedest of truths.
But the discussion was always so interesting—these big, hot, fun ideas seemed to matter so much. So I read the books. I never read them when I was supposed to read them; I’d read them a week later, after I’d already gotten an F on my reaction paper. But I’d read them. In essence, I was reading great books for fun. MacAdam didn’t know it, of course. He probably still doesn’t know it. But it didn’t matter whether I was worthy of his faith; he kept it. He still held the door open every day for me. He still treated me like I was the smartest kid in the class, still took me seriously on those rare occasions when I’d raise my hand, still listened thoughtfully to me when I’d give him my reading of a passage I could comment upon only because he’d just read it out loud. He believed I was real, that I mattered. I wasn’t yet able to understand that he mattered, but he was okay with that. He just kept holding the door open for me.
When Stuyvesant says that women’s dress and bodies are distraction in a learning environment, for example, what they’re really saying is that they’re distracting to male students. The default student we are concerned about - the student whose learning we want to ensure is protected - is male. Never mind how “distracting” it is to be pulled from class, humiliated, and made to change outfits - publicly degrading young women is small price to pay to make sure that a boy doesn’t have to suffer through the momentary distraction of glancing at a girl’s legs. When this dentist in Iowa can fire his assistant for turning him on - even though she’s done absolutely nothing wrong - the message again is that it’s men’s ability to work that’s important.
And when rape victims are blamed for the crime committed against them, the message is the same: This is something that happened to the perpetrator, who was driven to assault by a skirt, or a date, or the oh-so-sexy invitation of being passed out drunk. Women have infringed on their right to exist without being turned on. (Ta-Nehisi Coates describes this centering of male sexual vulnerability quite well.) Our very presence is a disruption of the male status quo.