The waves were choppy on the lake as we headed out to the open water, my friend and I on our kayaks this morning. We fought our way to the calm waters, past the bridge, where the tributary winds between banks crowded with trees. Once there, we talk and paddle as turtles slip off their branches into the water when we come near. There was much to catch up on today, changes are coming for both of us, but the story I’ll share here took place many years ago, right before we met.
While in graduate school, a certain professor decided that he was not happy with the writing skills of the art history graduate students. We were a very small cohort; his claim seemed aimed directly at our one international student, a brilliant art historian with a very strong accent. He pushed through a grammar and writing test qualification that was not in our degree requirements. Not only was his target obvious, but the entire concept was insulting. We’d gotten into the program, how could they invent another hurdle for us now?
A fellow student and I saw an opportunity after reading the formal letter about the pending test. We printed it out, marked up the multiple grammar mistakes then used our access as TA’s to put a copy in each faculty members’ mailbox, not just art history, but all of the art department. I remember we were delirious with laughter afterwards. We were the last two to take the test, by then, it was just a performance. All of the wind had been knocked out of the campaign for grammatical prowess. Even though we didn’t tell people it was us, we felt we’d proved ourselves and made a fool of the teacher in the process — I doubt it was much of a secret though.
I relayed this story with glee this morning. As grad students we were just playing. There was no real risk to my fellow student and I. The real threat was to the international student, her funding, her ability to even be there. I don’t think she was laughing about it. She aced the test, of course, but she should never have been put in that position. We were just playfully pointing out the flaw in the system — we couldn’t help ourselves. Questioning was our curriculum, this is what they were training us for. Here they demonstrated for us the imbalance of power, the unstoppable forces of bureaucracy, and our place at the bottom as cheap labor, proctors and graders.
On the creek, we laughed about what had changed over the last twenty years. My kayak friend posited that we hadn’t changed at all, merely that time had caught up with us. I’d argue that we’re not as angry as we used to be, or at least I know I’m not, but I think she has a point. We’ve earned our authority. We’re not at the bottom any more. Turning from the creek, we headed back onto the open water, heading into the waves, steady and strong.