About fourteen years ago, I received an invitation to give my very first school visit as a published YA author. Even though I was a last minute fill-in for an author who had cancelled, I was excited because YA authors don’t get as many school visit opportunities as other children’s authors, especially unknown, untried authors.
The invitation was for a keynote address at an end-of-year assembly at an elite prep school outside of Washington DC. (No, not that one but one similar to it.) I went with absolutely zero preconceived notions or prejudices. I was mostly just horribly, introvertedly nervous at the prospect of standing up and speaking in front of a crowd of total strangers.
The assembly took place in the school’s vast, modern atrium. I was seated on a dais with several faculty members, all of whom spoke before me. The students were seated in front of the dais but also lining a mezzanine above us. They were noisy, inattentive, more interested in the snacks they were eating than what anyone had to say. (Most of them were wearing and eating candy necklaces, and I admit to wishing someone had given me one.) Remember, these are high school age students we’re talking about.
About halfway through the dean’s speech, empty Doritos bags started fluttering down from the mezzanine. Nobody said anything. Nobody said anything, either, when the librarian got up to introduce me and the entire student body began to rhythmically bark at him and did not stop until he stepped away from the mic. They can’t have heard a word he said. I couldn’t hear a word he said. I just remember seeing him turn and wave me forward, like it was all perfectly normal and I should just stand up there and be their next target.
I also remember thinking “What would happen if I just walked off the dais?” Because I’d started out horribly nervous and now I was appalled and terrified. BUT I also needed the money. Desperately. So I stepped up to the mic and started to speak. They didn’t bark at me, but they didn’t listen to me, either. They ate their candy necklaces and threw Doritos bags around. Fortunately, I had practiced so much that I was able to just rattle off my speech. When I finished, there was some applause. There was also some laughter. But I had gotten through it and was focused on the check. Who had the check and when were they going to give it to me?
Then I was asked if I would speak to one of the English classes. I was so desperate to make a good impression on this, my first outing, I agreed. It was a much smaller group, only about twenty kids. We did a Q&A, so they were more attentive and involved, and most of their questions were writing related.
Then a boy in the second row raised his hand. He was leaning back in his chair with his feet propped on his desk, ankles crossed. He put his hands behind his head and drawled “Tell me, Mrs. Wyatt, does writing fulfill ALL of your needs?”
There was no mistaking the suggestive intent of his question. It was in his voice, in his posture, in his raised eyebrow. It was so apparent that the male teacher PUT HIS FACE IN HIS HANDS and groaned “Oh, Brandon.”
I remember staring at the teacher and waiting for him to do something more than just groan, but he didn’t. I stared at Brandon, who smiled angelically back at me and rocked a little in his chair. He knew he could say whatever he wanted to me, an adult guest at his school, and nobody would do anything about it.
So I said “What needs did you have in mind, Brandon?”
He instantly turned red and sat forward with a bang of his chair legs on the floor and stammered “Uh–oh–financial! I meant financial! Financial needs!”
(Which was still a rotten question.)
But all the same, he knew. He knew he could say it. He knew the teacher would do nothing. And he was surprised at being challenged.
As personal attacks go, it was extremely minor. I’m fine. But in the context of the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about it and thinking about how deeply the flawed structure of power runs in this country, how it breeds Kavanaughs, and how it is tied to privilege and social class.