Saturday, August 19, 2006
the perils of orientation
Late summer has come and gone, and many of us can no longer pretend that the beginning of a new semester isn't here. The difference for me this year is that I am not going back to school to teach it. The old sfrajett has finally left the building. Last week, she bought a new computer, took a carload of stuff downstate, and re-entered the front door as a student. Take Rodney Dangerfield, reimagine him as Phyllis Diller with spiky hair and a nose ring, and you have me, middle-aged and paunchy, trundling through a sea of young, thin, glamorous, incredibly normal twentysomethings at the beginning of their professional lives. Ye gods.
The trip down was itself an excercise in the dangers of being different. Trying to avoid construction in the city, I took an alternate route and ended up lost for an hour and a half in the strange sprawl that bleeds south of the city into the cornfields. Why oh why couldn't I just stick to the script, obediently following the line of cars moving slowly through the dusty sheep pens of changed lanes and orange cones, patiently waiting my turn? Lost, on strange roads with numbers I didn't recognize, I called gf, who patiently helped me navigate with help from google maps. I finally arrived at my new house at 8pm, met the roommate who owns the place, decided he was incredibly sweet, and proceeded to miserably unpack my room. I put flannel sheets on my bed because they seemed soft and comforting. I put a few lamps around the room to get some low-level illumination ambiance going on.
The next day was the first of two packed orientation days for 1Ls. From 830 to 5 we were welcomed, exhorted, flattered, warned, and celebrated. They fed us sandwiches. They reminded us of the next day's mock class. They invited us out to bowling and miniature golf that night.
I returned exhausted to my new house, where I live with three other students, all of them boys. But more on that later. I sat down in the livingroom to watch the finale of So You Think You Can Dance, knowing that my gf and friends in Chicago were all sitting down to watch it together at the same time. I pretended I was with them. I decided to stay in and reread the case we had been given for the mock class, the landmark 1974 New Hampshire labor case Olga Monge v. Beebe Rubber Company. Turns out Olga gets fired because she won't go out with her boss, so she sues NOT for sexual harassment, because such a thing didn't really exist yet, but for breach of employment contract. The NH Supreme Court upholds her lower-court victory, but takes some of her damages away, reasoning that she should only be entitled to lost wages under a contract dispute, not compensation for mental suffering. The decision changes labor law because it argues that an employer cannot terminate an employment contract for bad faith, malice, or retaliation, and that the public has an interest in the fair balance of employer and employee rights.
Next day I nearly oversleep, spring out of bed, slug down some coffee, and dash to day two. There is some anticipation about the mock class because the professor leading it is known as a tough and entertaning interlocutor who chooses his victims according to whimsical categories that appeal to him at any given moment. So for example he may choose students with the same surnames as baseball players or movie actors. Today he has chosen students with common last names, such as Jones. One duplicate name strikes him because, unlike Smith or Jones, it seems unlikely to turn up twice in one class, yet has. This name is Chamberlain. I sigh in relief. My last name, while English, is rare.
Having chosen a Jones and a Chamberlain, he proceeds with his interrogation. What are the facts? How do we know? What is at stake? What is the new rule of law fashioned here? How would this new rule apply to different situations? "Can an employer fire someone because he doesn't like them?" he asks. He decides to muddy the waters. "Can he fire someone because they are stupid?" There is some discussion about whather or not "stupid" constitutes a category of incompetence that could justify termination without malice.
Then he decides to get outrageous. "Ok, so what if Olga is a lesbian?" he asks. "What is the difference between firing someone because they are a lesbian and firing someone because they are stupid?"
I sit there, the only recognizably out lesbian or gay man in a sea of 188 faces, and think about why this example is still ok to bring up as a marketably entertaining example of minority status. If he had asked about Olga's race, he certainly would have been more circumspect about the proximity of color and stupidity. If he had said "gay" instead of "lesbian," it wouldn't have gotten laughs. He says "lesbian" with a big round "L," the way some people say "ho-mo-sexual" with emphasis on every syllable. Pronunciation makes the word strange, unpracticed. Pronunciation can imply that the speaker is unused to this word, and by association, the idea it conveys. At least he didn't say "one-legged" or "one-armed," the way so many people using the lesbian example often do, collapsing disability and sexual variation into one steaming, hilarious package.
The students he calls on are a little upset by the juxtaposition of his examples. One boy stutters that you can't discriminate against a lesbian because sexual orientation is something that a person can't help. "What about stupidity?" the professor asks. More laughs. The boy clarifies his argument, pointing out that lesbianism doesn't affect job performance, whereas stupidity might. He is indignant. I feel that the heart of the class is with him. I love him very much at this moment, and think that this generation of young people is lovely.
But there is that little matter of his argument about what you can and can't help. I ponder it as I sit in my seat towards the back of the auditorium. It is much easier to defend a quality that someone can't help having than a quality they choose. This certainly explains why the gay rights movement has jumped on the biological determination bandwagon in the last few years. But is it fair to defend people's right to be different only if they can't help it? What if Olga chooses to be a lesbian? What if I do? Do I still get protected from hate speech, employment discrimination, violence?
And why is the best and "funniest" example of true minority status still the one-armed lesbian?