Special Treatment

Before I got pregnant, a friend and fellow English teacher told me I wouldn’t believe how much differently students, and particularly their parents, would treat me once the word was out. We chalked part of it up to the knowledge that a teacher is having her own child undermines the image that some parents seem to harbor of me living in a closet at school, dreaming up ways to prevent Deserving Offspring from getting an A and subsequently into Princeton.

Less cynically, I do believe that some of the extra consideration comes from a purely good place: men, and especially women, remembering the exhaustion of early pregnancy, sharing in excitement for the wonderful, scary, exhausting, thrilling challenges ahead. Parents at track meets have offered me blankets and food, which is wonderful because if I’m already cranky and nauseated, I really do feel stressed about being stuck outside for 12 hours in early New England spring, but also a little strange, because, I mean, I definitely got cold and hungry and exhausted at track meets last year, or any of the other 9 years I’ve been coaching track.

I started thinking about the other things that I’ve noticed get me treated differently: the first one, and actually the thing that prompted the initial conversation with my teacher friend, is marriage. I have this really nosy next door neighbor, who, in the past, has sent me emails with passive aggressive “information” like: “There is a weed in your yard! It is so big you might think it is a plant! But, I wanted to let you know it is a weed.” (Uh, thanks? I”m working 70 hours a week and don’t really care too much about weeds?). Once Nick and I got married, she’s been much friendlier. Maybe she thinks I’m less likely to become a crazy old lady whose house is slowly deteriorating and becoming covered with weeds, now that my manly husband is here to help with lawn work. Or, maybe she’s relived to understand that when my best friend and her partner came over, I was simply hanging out with my best friend, not starting a lesbian commune that might change the neighborhood. Regardless, I get the sense that she likes having figured me out.

The other two biographical details that I’ve noticed change the way people treat me are much more blatantly about privilege (can you tell that even though I’ve been avoiding the news that absurd hullaballoo over the Princeton student’s sophomoric editorial has been seeping into my brain?): where I grew up and where I went to college. Revealing either of these two pieces of information seem to have the strongest impact when I’m talking with parents of students or athletes at work. I went to the high school where I now teach, and I have often observed looks of unrestrained relief cross the faces of parents at back to school night when I mention this. Part of this, I’m sure (trying to be fair and start with the less cynical explanation again) has to do with the imagined (and often real) class tension between public school teachers in one of the most affluent towns in America and their students. Recently our student newspaper published an article with an infographic comparing the average per capita income in town with the average teacher’s salary, the cars students drive with the cars teachers drive, and the average home price in the town where I teach and in the towns where most teachers live. I have heard, and remember from when I was a student there, many teachers making a point to enlighten students about privilege. Now that I’m on the other side, I’ll say that there certain are issues of entitlement (“my taxes pay your salary”), but there are also a lot of assumptions made about students in school based on town-wide demographic data. I imagine that some of the relief I’ve seen when parents “figure me out” in this way has to do with their own fears about what I’m assuming about them. Though this relief is often undeniably coupled with a (sometimes rather overt) sense of: oh, you’re one of us.

The other time I’ve seen faces change from skeptical distance to warm, enthusiastic surprise is when parents find out where I went to college. Often, this is followed with an incredulous (I imagine some people think is polite or subtle): “what made you decide to become a teacher?” Once, the first year I was teaching an AP class, a father raised his hand at back to school night and asked: “where did you go to college?” I had been teaching for a year, was flustered, young, felt outnumbered, but still hate that I answered (later, I would come up with retorts I wish I’d used, like: “college? I didn’t even graduate from high school!”). Even more, I hate how I felt when I saw the relief on his face and heard the approval in his voice. I was annoyed at myself for participating in this elitism disguised as accomplishment-based recognition. I thought of friends who couldn’t afford to go to the best schools they got into, friends whose high schools hadn’t even suggested applying anywhere outside the local state school system, kids I’ve taught who had a storm of life-event-hell throughout high school that made SAT prep and GPA perfecting beside the point.

I feel a little bit uneasy when I’m treated differently because I’m going to have a baby. I am so excited to have a baby. I am so grateful that so far I have been healthy, and all signs point toward a healthy baby. But, I didn’t really accomplish anything to have this baby. I was lucky to be born with a working reproductive system. I am lucky that I found a man I love and want to have a family with who was also born with a working reproductive system. Because I’m a straight woman with access to healthcare, the logistics of conceiving were uncomplicated and, well, free. I guess it’s not at all that I mind additional kindness when someone finds out I’m pregnant, or additional respect when someone finds out I went to a college that they think means something exciting, but guilt to be benefitting from the narrow-minded direction of kindness to such a privileged and narrow definition of what it means to be successful.

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