Category Archives: Ideas

My Life Bagging Groceries And Grading Papers

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

The day in January I brought my job application back to the grocery store, I assumed I'd just be dropping it off, but the manager, Scott, wanted to look it over with me standing right there. He read through my work experience on the front. I hadn't worked retail since college, but I'd had management experience in the private sector. Then he turned the paper over and I watched his eyes move across the hours available section.

“Lots of availability,” he said, nodding. “That's good.”

“The only times I can't do are daytime Monday, Tuesday nights, and then late afternoon Thursdays.”

Scott flipped the application over again, looked at my info, then back up at me. “How many hours are you hoping for?”

I was teaching two three-credit undergraduate courses at one college near my home in Connecticut and a three-credit class at another, along with a private writing workshop Tuesday nights. I also write weekly reviews for a TV website and do private editing work when it's available. I'm 44 years old. My wife and I have two teenagers. The town we live in is one of the most expensive in the country.

“As many as you can give me,” I said.

I'm not the only college teacher in this boat, and I'm certainly not the worst off. To be clear from the start: I'm not poor, and I'm not claiming hardship. My wife works at a good job in TV in New York City. We live in a part of Connecticut known as the Gold Coast. Those are some of the facts.

Here are others. I'm unable to make a living teaching college classes; my employment in higher education exists on a semester-by-semester basis, and there are no benefits for adjuncts. My wife's TV job, like a great many of them, is what's known in the industry as a “permalancer” position, meaning: You work on an ongoing, long-term basis, but with no benefits, and your employer can terminate you at any time with no warning. Right now our insurance bill, under the Affordable Care Act, is just over $1,500 for our family of four. There were times when the adults didn't have insurance at all.

Sometimes I think I did everything wrong. I should have stayed in public relations. We should have stayed in New York. Or maybe we should have moved to Los Angeles before we had kids and became entrenched in the TV industry there. I should have gotten my MFA in my twenties, not my thirties. I should have begun writing seriously earlier. I should have gotten better grades in high school. I should have written novels instead of short stories, or tried writing for TV instead of either. I should have been more aggressive about many, many things. I should never have fallen in love with teaching. There are a lot of should-haves. At some point, though, there come the what-are-you-going-to-do-about-its.

I worked in PR throughout my twenties, and then we had a kid and decided one of us would be the stay-at-home parent while working freelance — a decision we were lucky to be able to make. I earned much less, so it made sense for me to be the one to stay home. I had freelance clients and made a go of that. We moved to Connecticut 13 years ago to be closer to family while still being within commuting range of the city. I went to graduate school and transitioned to educational sales — an entirely commission-based job that involved more travel than PR, but which would still allow me to work from home. As an independent salesperson, I worked for two or three companies at a time, selling their DVDs, VHS tapes, and streaming licenses to schools and libraries. I would visit colleges all over New England and think, Someday I will teach at one of these.

Grocery is a physical job. At my store, you're rotated all shift long, doing something new every few hours: stocking, cleaning, cash register/bagging, shopping cart runs. A crate of milk weighs around 35 pounds. You're lifting two or three dozen of these off the pallets they're shipped on, then wheeling them somewhere in stacks of five. You're doing this at 4:30 in the morning, hours before the store opens, and when the milk's done it's on to loading up long carts with 40- or 50-pound boxes of chicken, cheese, bottled water, produce, and whatever else makes it onto the shelves. Between 11 and 15 pallets come in each morning, and a small crew of four to six people is dismantling all of them. If you're there for the evening shift, there's another load at 7 p.m. In either case, morning or night, you have to stock all the stuff you just took off the pallets.

At the end of my first week at the grocery store, everything hurt. My FitBit was set to buzz at 10,000 steps, or roughly 4.5 miles. Pre-grocery, it would buzz around the end of the day. After, if I started work at 4:30 a.m., it went off by 9:30 a.m. Some days, I'd get out of work in the early afternoon, take an hour nap, pick up my middle-schooler from his after-school program, then head out to teach. I'm drawing a picture here, not complaining. My wife, for years, has routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days.

My co-workers at the grocery are great. I was familiar with many of them already, having shopped at this store since we'd moved here. There are at least nine non-American nationalities represented, including Ghanaian, Haitian, German, and Cambodian. I'm definitely not the only one with a weird job history. One person used to be in advertising. Someone else worked in the music industry during the '80s and '90s boom times. Another drove military transport trucks in Afghanistan. Several people are getting their degrees. One guy's studying physics after switching from literature. Another person recently finished back-to-back poli-sci and math degrees. Another owned a pair of small delis in a nearby city and finally gave it up for the stability and health care of working for someone else.

I learned most of these details the first week, when you're paired with a mentor of sorts and conversation begins with “So what's your story?” At one point during this week, the physics guy — a Latino dude who likes to talk books and who used to hang out at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe back in the day — turned to me in the break room, where conversations were zipping around us in at least four different languages. He grinned and said, “Welcome to the French Foreign Legion.”

A few years ago, the two main companies I sold for decided to eliminate their sales teams. One opted to sell entirely through its existing retail channels; the other handed its education business over to a call-center company. People who'd been doing the job for 30 years, who'd begun selling cans of 16 mm film in the 1970s, were out of work with no safety net in place. I was teaching by then and thought, Jeez, I dodged that bullet.

In 2012, two years after publishing a book of short fiction, I'd begun mentoring in the low-residency MFA program at a nearby state university. I worked remotely with graduate students on their writing via emailed “packets,” sending them my comments and revisions, helping them develop their fiction while they remained active in their lives and jobs. But I know my strengths, and I'm the person you want in a classroom setting. So I put my hat in the ring with the undergraduate writing department too, and they picked me up to teach a business writing class.

Last year, through a fellow adjunct friend, I was able to interview for and take over a pair of media history classes he was teaching at a small college in New York an hour away from my house. I love this school. The kids are great, the learning atmosphere is positive and affordable — it's everything I think a college should be. I only wish I could afford to teach there more.

The numbers are important. If I teach undergrad for the Connecticut school, it's just under $4,800 per course per semester. For the small New York college, it's $2,000. It sounds like there's a clear winner here, except there's a rule in Connecticut: Adjuncts can't teach more than two courses at one time across the entire Connecticut State College system, which comprises 4 four-year colleges, 12 two-year colleges, and an online university. So the most I can make in-state is $9,600 for a semester, regardless of which state institution I teach in. But there's also no guarantee I'll get more than one undergrad class, and most of the time I haven't; there are too few classes and too many other adjuncts to go around. Meanwhile, there's the graduate program, which pays a fraction of what the undergrad classes do — but Connecticut counts the MFA courses and the undergrad classes as the same thing. So while the pay is wildly different and the credits are different, one undergrad course plus one grad course equals Maxed Out for the Semester.

If $4,800 sounds like a lot, by the way, that's for 16 weeks of work, which equals $300 a week before taxes. I have the opportunity to make this twice in a year, for a total of 32 weeks. (The calendar year, as you may know, is a few more than that.) I'm also driving 50 minutes each way, and not getting reimbursed for gas. If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm actually pointing out that the person who does this work must really want to do this work.

My No. 1 fear with the job at the grocery store, and why I resisted applying here for so long, is that it's in my town. Meaning: I'm gonna run into people I know. There are people here whom I've taught in writing workshops; there are others who've seen me lecture at the library; there are people whose kids go to school with mine. I saw people from all these categories the first week.

It wasn't that I was ashamed; it was that there was a certain narrative that I assumed would be playing in people's heads if we ran into each other. On its own, the store pays about $100 better per week than my teaching, and it lives up to its national reputation as a place that treats its workers well: At three months I'll be eligible for dental and vision; at six, it's full benefits, including family health care. But it also represents a well-worn punchline among network sitcoms and hacky standups alike: the retail job with a nametag. This might not rattle me if we didn't live where we do.

My kids have slept in honest-to-god mansions, then returned the next morning to our little house (“great condo alternative!” was the real estate come-on) in the town's lone neighborhood of rentals, multifamily dwellings, and zoned low-income housing. We've always been aware of the class disparity here. The first year we hosted a kids' Halloween party, one of the mothers said to my wife, “Your house is so cute! Is it your only one?”

But it's one thing to pick up your kid at a 5,000-square-foot house and chat with the dad about your book or your teaching because hey, he's seen those things on TV and those people seem to do all right for themselves, and he'll confess to you that he's always envied people in the creative fields. It's another thing entirely to hand that same dad a bag of kale while your name tag reminds him exactly who you are and where he knows you from. Instead of being embarrassed, I was reminded that first week that it's not up to me what goes through someone's head about my work situation, if they're thinking of it at all.

At the same time, maybe there's a reckoning of sorts on both sides of the register counter: It may be a perfect distillation of Education in America 2015 when one of the parents says, “You're, uh, still teaching, though?” and I answer, “Yup!” and we both know they have an older kid who's already going to a $60,000-a-year college that likely employs the same percentage of adjuncts as the schools where I work.

While I genuinely love both my teaching job and my retail job, it's a daily reminder that shit, as they say, is fucked up. A reminder that America is a very different place than just a few decades ago. While all the adjuncts I know are juggling multiple campuses, most of my fellow grocery employees — nonmanagement level — have second jobs as well. When I was growing up, “retail employee” and “college teacher” were both career options. Now they might still be, but only if you combine them. I knew people, growing up, who were solidly middle class and whose moms or dads worked at our town's big, local retail store. (It's since become a Walmart.) At the same time, there are far more people now who are going to college and who are paying exponentially more to do so. (In 2012, there were 48% more kids in college than there were in 1990, the year I met my wife at our tiny Massachusetts state school.)

Forget, for a moment, the question of what kind of instruction and attention your $60,000 a year is buying. Forget what happens to a school's identity when a large chunk of its teaching staff isn't really staff, don't sit on department meetings, aren't able to be involved in campus organizations, aren't part of the college's daily life. I certainly don't have office space at either place I teach. Hell, I have a mail slot at only one of them.

Instead, for a second, ask yourself: If people with a good amount of higher education themselves are having to work additional jobs or go on welfare just to afford to teach the next generation, what is the message? Besides “Don't go into higher education”?

And for me, that's the other, quieter tragedy in all this. For every one of the people I've met who honestly hate their jobs, their $100,000-plus-a-year jobs, there's an adjunct out there who's willing to do whatever it takes just for another chance at another semester of doing what they love. And because it pains them to think of that same job falling to someone who just doesn't care.

I worried about publishing this piece. I worried about torpedoing what teaching career I have. I worried about certain people in my life finding out I work at a grocery store. But I'm also a writer, and I'm writing about something that's important to me and getting paid to do so. I don't see a downside.

I've been at the grocery job nearly four months now. I love it. The people are great, it keeps me physically fit, I like interacting with customers, it works with my school schedule, it allows me to stay within close range of my kids. Meanwhile, I'm working on a new book of stories and waiting to see if I'll be assigned classes for the fall. I had a banquet of fears and narratives laid out for how all this would go, but what's surprised me the most is how normal the routine feels — wake, work, nap, teach — and how quickly that normalcy came.

Last semester, pre-grocery, I met an adjunct who was guest-teaching a class at one of my schools. He lived closer to the New York–Connecticut border and was teaching at five colleges between the Bronx and Bridgeport. He was older than me and had two small kids and when I asked him what it was like teaching at five schools, he told me the teaching was great but he still wasn't earning enough. He shrugged and gave me a tired but knowing smile.

“Gonna try and find a sixth, I guess,” he said.

While a lot of teachers hearing that might at least sympathize with him, most other people would find it flat-out insane. I'm starting to wonder if most other people wouldn't be right.

I’m An Adjunct Who Also Works In A Grocery Store

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed

The day in January I brought my job application back to the grocery store, I assumed I'd just be dropping it off, but the manager, Scott, wanted to look it over with me standing right there. He read through my work experience on the front. I hadn't worked retail since college, but I'd had management experience in the private sector. Then he turned the paper over and I watched his eyes move across the hours available section.

“Lots of availability,” he said, nodding. “That's good.”

“The only times I can't do are daytime Monday, Tuesday nights, and then late afternoon Thursdays.”

Scott flipped the application over again, looked at my info, then back up at me. “How many hours are you hoping for?”

I was teaching two three-credit undergraduate courses at one college near my home in Connecticut and a three-credit class at another, along with a private writing workshop Tuesday nights. I also write weekly reviews for a TV website and do private editing work when it's available. I'm 44 years old. My wife and I have two teenagers. The town we live in is one of the most expensive in the country.

“As many as you can give me,” I said.

I'm not the only college teacher in this boat, and I'm certainly not the worst off. To be clear from the start: I'm not poor, and I'm not claiming hardship. My wife works at a good job in New York City. We live in a part of Connecticut known as the Gold Coast. Those are some of the facts.

Here are others. I'm unable to make a living teaching college classes; my employment in higher education exists on a semester-by-semester basis, and there are no benefits for adjuncts. My wife works in an industry not known for its stability.

Sometimes I think I did everything wrong. I should have stayed in public relations. We should have stayed in New York. Or maybe we should have moved to Los Angeles before we had kids and became entrenched in the TV industry there. I should have gotten my MFA in my twenties, not my thirties. I should have begun writing seriously earlier. I should have gotten better grades in high school. I should have written novels instead of short stories, or tried writing for TV instead of either. I should have been more aggressive about many, many things. I should never have fallen in love with teaching. There are a lot of should-haves. At some point, though, there come the what-are-you-going-to-do-about-its.

I worked in PR throughout my twenties, and then we had a kid and decided one of us would be the stay-at-home parent while working freelance — a decision we were lucky to be able to make. I earned much less, so it made sense for me to be the one to stay home. I had freelance clients and made a go of that. We moved to Connecticut 13 years ago to be closer to family while still being within commuting range of the city. I went to graduate school and transitioned to educational sales — an entirely commission-based job that involved more travel than PR, but which would still allow me to work from home. As an independent salesperson, I worked for two or three companies at a time, selling their DVDs, VHS tapes, and streaming licenses to schools and libraries. I would visit colleges all over New England and think, Someday I will teach at one of these.

Grocery is a physical job. At my store, you're rotated all shift long, doing something new every few hours: stocking, cleaning, cash register/bagging, shopping cart runs. A crate of milk weighs around 35 pounds. You're lifting two or three dozen of these off the pallets they're shipped on, then wheeling them somewhere in stacks of five. You're doing this at 4:30 in the morning, hours before the store opens, and when the milk's done it's on to loading up long carts with 40- or 50-pound boxes of chicken, cheese, bottled water, produce, and whatever else makes it onto the shelves. Between 11 and 15 pallets come in each morning, and a small crew of four to six people is dismantling all of them. If you're there for the evening shift, there's another load at 7 p.m. In either case, morning or night, you have to stock all the stuff you just took off the pallets.

At the end of my first week at the grocery store, everything hurt. My FitBit was set to buzz at 10,000 steps, or roughly 4.5 miles. Pre-grocery, it would buzz around the end of the day. After, if I started work at 4:30 a.m., it went off by 9:30 a.m. Some days, I'd get out of work in the early afternoon, take an hour nap, pick up my middle-schooler from his after-school program, then head out to teach. I'm drawing a picture here, not complaining. My wife, for years, has routinely worked 12- to 14-hour days.

My co-workers at the grocery are great. I was familiar with many of them already, having shopped at this store since we'd moved here. There are at least nine non-American nationalities represented, including Ghanaian, Haitian, German, and Cambodian. I'm definitely not the only one with a weird job history. One person used to be in advertising. Someone else worked in the music industry during the '80s and '90s boom times. Another drove military transport trucks in Afghanistan. Several people are getting their degrees. One guy's studying physics after switching from literature. Another person recently finished back-to-back poli-sci and math degrees. Another owned a pair of small delis in a nearby city and finally gave it up for the stability and health care of working for someone else.

I learned most of these details the first week, when you're paired with a mentor of sorts and conversation begins with “So what's your story?” At one point during this week, the physics guy — a Latino dude who likes to talk books and who used to hang out at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe back in the day — turned to me in the break room, where conversations were zipping around us in at least four different languages. He grinned and said, “Welcome to the French Foreign Legion.”

A few years ago, the two main companies I sold for decided to eliminate their sales teams. One opted to sell entirely through its existing retail channels; the other handed its education business over to a call-center company. People who'd been doing the job for 30 years, who'd begun selling cans of 16 mm film in the 1970s, were out of work with no safety net in place. I was teaching by then and thought, Jeez, I dodged that bullet.

In 2012, two years after publishing a book of short fiction, I'd begun mentoring in the low-residency MFA program at a nearby state university. I worked remotely with graduate students on their writing via emailed “packets,” sending them my comments and revisions, helping them develop their fiction while they remained active in their lives and jobs. But I know my strengths, and I'm the person you want in a classroom setting. So I put my hat in the ring with the undergraduate writing department too, and they picked me up to teach a business writing class.

Last year, through a fellow adjunct friend, I was able to interview for and take over a pair of media history classes he was teaching at a small college in New York an hour away from my house. I love this school. The kids are great, the learning atmosphere is positive and affordable — it's everything I think a college should be. I only wish I could afford to teach there more.

The numbers are important. If I teach undergrad for the Connecticut school, it's just under $4,800 per course per semester. For the small New York college, it's $2,000. It sounds like there's a clear winner here, except there's a rule in Connecticut: Adjuncts can't teach more than two courses at one time across the entire Connecticut State College system, which comprises 4 four-year colleges, 12 two-year colleges, and an online university. So the most I can make in-state is $9,600 for a semester, regardless of which state institution I teach in. But there's also no guarantee I'll get more than one undergrad class, and most of the time I haven't; there are too few classes and too many other adjuncts to go around. Meanwhile, there's the graduate program, which pays a fraction of what the undergrad classes do — but Connecticut counts the MFA courses and the undergrad classes as the same thing. So while the pay is wildly different and the credits are different, one undergrad course plus one grad course equals Maxed Out for the Semester.

If $4,800 sounds like a lot, by the way, that's for 16 weeks of work, which equals $300 a week before taxes. I have the opportunity to make this twice in a year, for a total of 32 weeks. (The calendar year, as you may know, is a few more than that.) I'm also driving 50 minutes each way, and not getting reimbursed for gas. If it sounds like I'm complaining, I'm actually pointing out that the person who does this work must really want to do this work.

My No. 1 fear with the job at the grocery store, and why I resisted applying here for so long, is that it's in my town. Meaning: I'm gonna run into people I know. There are people here whom I've taught in writing workshops; there are others who've seen me lecture at the library; there are people whose kids go to school with mine. I saw people from all these categories the first week.

It wasn't that I was ashamed; it was that there was a certain narrative that I assumed would be playing in people's heads if we ran into each other. On its own, the store pays about $100 better per week than my teaching, and it lives up to its national reputation as a place that treats its workers well: At three months I'll be eligible for dental and vision; at six, it's full benefits, including family health care. But it also represents a well-worn punchline among network sitcoms and hacky standups alike: the retail job with a nametag. This might not rattle me if we didn't live where we do.

My kids have slept in honest-to-god mansions, then returned the next morning to our little house (“great condo alternative!” was the real estate come-on) in the town's lone neighborhood of rentals, multifamily dwellings, and zoned low-income housing. We've always been aware of the class disparity here. The first year we hosted a kids' Halloween party, one of the mothers said to my wife, “Your house is so cute! Is it your only one?”

But it's one thing to pick up your kid at a 5,000-square-foot house and chat with the dad about your book or your teaching because hey, he's seen those things on TV and those people seem to do all right for themselves, and he'll confess to you that he's always envied people in the creative fields. It's another thing entirely to hand that same dad a bag of kale while your name tag reminds him exactly who you are and where he knows you from. Instead of being embarrassed, I was reminded that first week that it's not up to me what goes through someone's head about my work situation, if they're thinking of it at all.

At the same time, maybe there's a reckoning of sorts on both sides of the register counter: It may be a perfect distillation of Education in America 2015 when one of the parents says, “You're, uh, still teaching, though?” and I answer, “Yup!” and we both know they have an older kid who's already going to a $60,000-a-year college that likely employs the same percentage of adjuncts as the schools where I work.

While I genuinely love both my teaching job and my retail job, it's a daily reminder that shit, as they say, is fucked up. A reminder that America is a very different place than just a few decades ago. While all the adjuncts I know are juggling multiple campuses, most of my fellow grocery employees — nonmanagement level — have second jobs as well. When I was growing up, “retail employee” and “college teacher” were both career options. Now they might still be, but only if you combine them. I knew people, growing up, who were solidly middle class and whose moms or dads worked at our town's big, local retail store. (It's since become a Walmart.) At the same time, there are far more people now who are going to college and who are paying exponentially more to do so. (In 2012, there were 48% more kids in college than there were in 1990, the year I met my wife at our tiny Massachusetts state school.)

Forget, for a moment, the question of what kind of instruction and attention your $60,000 a year is buying. Forget what happens to a school's identity when a large chunk of its teaching staff isn't really staff, don't sit on department meetings, aren't able to be involved in campus organizations, aren't part of the college's daily life. I certainly don't have office space at either place I teach. Hell, I have a mail slot at only one of them.

Instead, for a second, ask yourself: If people with a good amount of higher education themselves are having to work additional jobs or go on welfare just to afford to teach the next generation, what is the message? Besides “Don't go into higher education”?

And for me, that's the other, quieter tragedy in all this. For every one of the people I've met who honestly hate their jobs, their $100,000-plus-a-year jobs, there's an adjunct out there who's willing to do whatever it takes just for another chance at another semester of doing what they love. And because it pains them to think of that same job falling to someone who just doesn't care.

I worried about publishing this piece. I worried about torpedoing what teaching career I have. I worried about certain people in my life finding out I work at a grocery store. But I'm also a writer, and I'm writing about something that's important to me and getting paid to do so. I don't see a downside.

I've been at the grocery job nearly four months now. I love it. The people are great, it keeps me physically fit, I like interacting with customers, it works with my school schedule, it allows me to stay within close range of my kids. Meanwhile, I'm working on a new book of stories and waiting to see if I'll be assigned classes for the fall. I had a banquet of fears and narratives laid out for how all this would go, but what's surprised me the most is how normal the routine feels — wake, work, nap, teach — and how quickly that normalcy came.

Last semester, pre-grocery, I met an adjunct who was guest-teaching a class at one of my schools. He lived closer to the New York–Connecticut border and was teaching at five colleges between the Bronx and Bridgeport. He was older than me and had two small kids and when I asked him what it was like teaching at five schools, he told me the teaching was great but he still wasn't earning enough. He shrugged and gave me a tired but knowing smile.

“Gonna try and find a sixth, I guess,” he said.

While a lot of teachers hearing that might at least sympathize with him, most other people would find it flat-out insane. I'm starting to wonder if most other people wouldn't be right.

The Big Lesson We Haven’t Learned From Riots Of The Last 50 Years

Riots happen when marginalized communities feel brutalized by harsh police tactics, according to research done in their aftermath since the 1960s.

Baltimore Police officers in riot gear on April 27.

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

As Edward Ransford, a sociologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, listened to reports from his car radio of the rioting in Baltimore this week, he was transported back to the summer of 1965.

Then a young graduate student at UCLA, Ransford was studying civil rights activism in the city's Watts neighborhood. Ironically, he was interested in why Los Angeles seemed more peaceful than other cities. Then, on Aug. 11, Watts erupted into six days of rioting, looting, and arson. Thirty-four people died, and order was only restored after 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard were put onto the streets.

Ransford quickly adapted his survey questions to ask neighborhood residents about the root causes of the violence. Two-thirds of respondents mentioned long-standing tensions between the police and the local black community — including allegations of frequent excessive force. (The immediate trigger was a dispute that followed the arrest of a black motorist for drunk driving.) Ransford also asked about people's willingness to engage in violent protests, and found that this was linked to political powerlessness: Those who endorsed violence felt that other forms of protest weren't getting anywhere.

This week's Baltimore riots are “so very much like my old 1965 Watts study, in which police tension and perceived brutality were the big things,” Ransford told BuzzFeed News.

That study, published in the American Journal of Sociology and in a later book, is one of many sociological studies, journalistic investigations, and official reports to have since explored why riots happen. Although the precise circumstances that cause a city to erupt into violence vary from case to case, these events have a common thread. They usually happen when poor communities with little hope of economic or social advancement are subjected to harsh and discriminatory policing. Economic deprivation alone, without tension between a community and the police, does not seem to spawn riots.

It's a relatively simple lesson that we've seen again and again, from Detroit in 1967, to Los Angeles in 1992, to London in 2011.

In Baltimore, as in Ferguson before it, there's little doubt that aggressive policing helped create the tinderbox that exploded this week. And given that Baltimore — unlike Ferguson — is a city where the mayor, police commissioner, and many police officers are black, it should be clear that it's the system, not the race of those enforcing it, that matters.

Detroit, 1967

Detroit, 1967

A federal soldier stands guard in a Detroit street on July 25, 1967.

AFP / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

Back in the 1960s, such disturbances were known as “race riots.” That's why the five days of violence that convulsed Detroit in July of 1967, leaving 43 dead and 2,000 buildings in ruins, had city leaders grasping for an explanation. At the time, Detroit saw itself as a leader in race relations, a liberal counterpoint to attitudes that prevailed in the Deep South.

Perhaps the riots had been led by migrants from the South who were not assimilating well, commentators speculated, or maybe by a disaffected minority who'd fallen off the bottom of the economic ladder. It took a pioneering journalist, who believed in applying scientific methods to answer questions about how society works, to demolish those explanations.

Philip Meyer of the Detroit Free Press devised a questionnaire to test theories of why the riot happened, and sent black interviewers — mostly school teachers — into the affected neighborhoods to gather responses. He found that blacks who grew up in Detroit and other northern cities were more likely to have participated than black migrants from the South, and that college graduates were as likely as high-school dropouts to have gotten involved.

The Detroit Free Press, which won a Pulitzer for its coverage, concluded that the main cause was a pervasive lack of opportunity for advancement in the local black community — even in the face of gains made by the civil rights movement. “The closer you get to an unreached goal, the greater your frustration at not reaching it,” Meyer told BuzzFeed News.

The trigger for the riot was a police raid on a late-night drinking den. And the leading explanation given by the black residents interviewed by Meyer's team was “police brutality,” mentioned by 57% of them. A year later, when his team surveyed the area again, the proportion citing police brutality as a major complaint had risen to 71%.


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7 Essays To Read This Weekend: Baltimore, Bruce Jenner, And Black Exhaustion

This week, BuzzFeed News editor Adam Serwer asks how a city with black representation in power erupted in riots not seen since Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Read that and others from Medium, the New York Times, and The Nation.

The Biggest Mystery of Baltimore’s Riots” — BuzzFeed Ideas

"The Biggest Mystery of Baltimore’s Riots" — BuzzFeed Ideas

BuzzFeed News editor Adam Serwer looked back to April 1968, when Baltimore burned shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death. Fifty years later, the city has erupted into riots again. Even with blacks in city government and on the police force, inequality persists. “Instead of a beacon of hope, black representation has become a bitterly ironic symbol of how little has changed,” he writes. Read it at BuzzFeed Ideas.

Chip Somodevilla / Via Getty Images

Black Exhaustion” — Medium

"Black Exhaustion" — Medium

Pilot Viruet wrote a poignant piece on what it's like to be black. “Increasingly, I am learning, remaining alive while black is a radical act,” she writes. At the same time, however, it is exhausting constantly having to worry about her own existence and the lives of her black brothers and sisters. Read it at Medium.

Pilot Viruet / Via medium.com

Mormon, Childless, and Constantly Condescended To” — BuzzFeed Ideas

"Mormon, Childless, and Constantly Condescended To" — BuzzFeed Ideas

It's no secret that more women are delaying marriage and childbirth in order to pursue higher education and to establish their careers, but Jennifer Purdie doesn't want to have children at all. Purdie, who is a 38-year-old Mormon, wrote about what it's like to reject motherhood as a woman whose religious identity is tied so closely to homemaking. Read it at BuzzFeed Ideas.

Jenny Chang / BuzzFeed

No Labels, No Drama, Right?” — New York Times

"No Labels, No Drama, Right?" — New York Times

Jordana Narin wrote an essay on that one person you never had, the one whom you semi-dated but never told how you really felt. In it, she explains what it's like being steeped in the past and longing for a relationship that never truly began. Read it at the New York Times.

Brian Rea / Via nytimes.com


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Peggy Olson, Life Heroine

Peggy Olson has always been my heroine. Not because she’s clever or stylish or charming, but because she’s competent, focused, neurotic, and, above all, because she challenges everything the boys club of Mad Men represented. Through the last seven seasons, she’s a persistent reminder that it could all — whatever “all” might be — happen.

Despite the 40 years that separate our lives, Peggy and I are always more alike than not. She chose poor romantic and sexual partners and kept her nose to the grindstone; I was so frightened by the chaotic sexual politics and maneuvering of college that I eventually closed myself off to any pursuits, instead focusing on schoolwork, extracurriculars, career prospects, and bleary-eyed crushes on anyone who didn’t treat me like meat. The years went on, and as Peggy began to grapple with the intricacies of the agency, I found myself maneuvering multiple jobs, a busy course load, and a slew of other interests. She felt like she was being talked down to; I learned about intersectional feminism. She fell in lust with her boss and was then rejected; I made an innocent fool of myself over and over again with men.

As I headed into the final stretch of my “relationship” with Peggy, I thought I’d betrayed her: I met someone, which distanced me from Peggy’s sad-sack personal life. For half a season, I was able to watch her and not instinctively see every triumph or failure on her part as a reflection of my possible future self. When Ginsberg cut off his nipple and handed it to her, my first reaction wasn’t that this was a morbid forecast for my love life, but instead that oh god, why do the writers always give her the terrible male body interactions. When she, Don, and Pete bonded together over Burger Chef, the fluttering in my heart wasn’t from the hope that I would find such a community, but happiness that she was finally catching a break, however long it would last. Peggy Olson as pop culture doppelgänger was in my rearview mirror. Or so I thought.

AMC / Via ori345love.tumblr.com

Peggy is 21 years old when she gives up her baby boy for adoption. The pregnancy is a sudden revelation, unnoticed by her until the moment she goes into labor. When it’s over, Don, a man of many secrets himself, tells her, “It will shock you how much it never happened.”

Over the course of Mad Men’s decadelong internal clock, Peggy becomes an unwitting trailblazer — a feminist if not in name, then in direct action. She holds sexless power in a field dominated by men who still don’t see women as equals, and tackles subtle and overt sexism head on. She believes in her work, and holds everybody, especially herself, to a standard of integrity, honesty, and practicality. Everybody — from her priest to the mentor who first heralded her talent — lets her down, and it’s played as both hilarious and sad. The same applies to her interactions with children.

Peggy’s baby is a footnote until it isn’t, and the façade splinters. In the episode “Time & Life,” she demonstrated that behind her girlboss assurance and attitude, Peggy hasn’t forgotten that in order achieve what she has, she had to leave not just something, but someone, behind. For someone so dedicated to sincerity and who judges others so harshly for their contradictions, the realization that she still cares — about her baby, about caring about her baby — is the deepest contradiction of all.

I was two months away from 22 years old when I learned I was pregnant. I realized it, ironically enough, after going to a screening of Jenny Slate’s abortion comedy Obvious Child; the scenes where she talked about her breasts hurting resonated too sharply with me. An initial pregnancy test came back negative, but the hurt became more and more urgent; soon I was sitting on the toilet in our 10-person house, holding the little blue plus in my trembling hands.

I didn’t cry a lot in the beginning. I’d just started my first job out of college, working as a publicity assistant for a local Los Angeles business, and I had the support and commitment of my friends and my partner. When he and I walked to Planned Parenthood together so I could do the “formal” test, our hands were fused together, fingers wrapping around knuckles to clutch at the bones. I put off making an appointment because I didn’t want to miss work.

A couple of weeks later, I went to the bathroom after a shift and threw up what seemed to be the complete guts of my body. This went on for a day, and then the day became days. During this time, I couldn’t hold myself up for a shower, let alone put on makeup and strap myself into business casual, and I knew my co-workers were processing all of it — the weakness, the dishevelment, the visible shame. I couldn’t drink water or hold down any food; I could feel my cheeks thinning, and at my worst, I'd be throwing up the snot I’d ingested during all of my bouts of crying. I scheduled an appointment for as early as possible, and within the week, it was done. We split the full brunt of the cost evenly.

I think about this moment a lot. Not in a way of regret: I couldn’t have safely and lovingly raised a child, and I made my decision firmly and very early on. But there’s one thing that hasn’t left me and that I suspect never will. One of my nurses asked if I’d like to see the ultrasound. I told her no, and she obeyed my wish, except when she mentioned offhandedly that “it was only the size of a grain of rice.”

She wasn’t supposed to tell me anything; she wasn’t supposed to say anything real. Once the physical relief passed, my internal mourning began, and it continues on: even in my happiest moments since, even when I feel like I’m failing and falling for other reasons. Even as I reassure myself, Maybe you did what you thought was the best thing.

AMC

Peggy’s deep sense of guilt for having “paid the price” and “dodged a bullet” doesn’t imbue her with empathy. Instead, it metaphorizes into judgement. When she unleashes her fury onto a mother who left her child in the office, only to have her “motherly” concern flung in her face — only then does Peggy finally engage the part of her that isn’t missing, but whose absence is felt.

Peggy wants fortune, fame, and, yes, family, but the order of achievements eludes her. The number of times she’s mentioned having her own family in the show can be counted on one hand, but it’s only in her interaction with Stan that she faces the full scope of her feelings on the subject:

“I'm…I'm here. And… He's with a family somewhere. I don't know, but it's not because I don't care.”

AMC

For Peggy, the issue is as much that it happened as that she knows that she did the right thing for her. The trauma is double: that you did something you swore never to do, and yet when the time came, you knew exactly what you had to do. The lack of hesitation is both liberating and startling, but it acknowledges the autonomy of the person making the choice.

That’s what matters: You did what you had to do and you’re happy and you moved on — for you. That is fulfillment, that is the prioritization of the self, that is the thought you summon when you hear children laughing and your stomach sinks into a familiar nausea. Or, when your friend or co-worker or a stranger on the street thoughtlessly places her hand on her belly, you wait for the phantom kick, and it doesn’t come, and you learn that at least in this way, at this time, it’ll never come.

But even after you’ve steeled yourself against regret and its downward spiraling cousins, something still builds, swells, and every once in a while, breaks unbidden, surprises you like a sudden footfall in the dark. It passes, and the fear subsides, and it’s as if it never happened. As Peggy herself puts it: “I don't know because you're not supposed to know. Or you can't go on with your life.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t engage with it, even a year later, even a decade later.

I’ve moved on, but I still struggle with my decision, and in some ways, that’s the point. And in some ways, I know it isn’t. And in the way that matters most, I will never know the difference.

Two Nights In Baltimore Central Booking

A number of men react to the smell and sight of freedom after being released from central booking on Wednesday, April 29, as unrest continues following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Baltimore Sun / Getty Images

Most of the more than 200 protesters who were arrested in Monday's riots in Baltimore were detained for two days, without formal charges or bail hearings, while the court system closed due to violence. Baltimore public defender Marci Tarrant Johnson described the conditions in the crowded Central Booking and Intake Facility in a viral Facebook post, republished here with her permission.

I'm going to try to keep this as brief as I can, but I've been asked by several people about what happened at Central Booking today, so I'll give you guys the shocking highlights. As much as I'd like to, I can't describe the particulars of some of the more egregious arrests, due to attorney/client privilege issues. But I would like to describe the Civil Liberties violations, and the deplorable conditions which people have had to endure.

As many of you know, more than 250 people have been arrested since Monday here in Baltimore. Normally when you are arrested, you are given a copy of your charging documents. Then you must see a commissioner within 24 hours for a bail determination (“prompt presentment”) and given a trial date. If you are not released after the commissioner hearing, you will be brought before a judge for a review of the bail set by the commissioner. None of this was happening, so we sent some lawyers to Central Booking yesterday to try to help. I heard, however, that only two commissioners showed up, and the correctional officers only brought about nine people to be interviewed because the jail was on a mysterious “lockdown.”

Today we were divided into two groups. Some of the lawyers were assigned the task of actually doing judicial bail reviews for as many folks as they could get interviewed and docketed. I was assigned to the other group. We were the “habeas team,” and we were to interview folks that we felt were being illegally detained, so we could file writs of habeas corpus. Governor Hogan had issued an executive order extending the time for prompt presentment to 47 hours. We believed that this order was invalid because the governor has no authority to alter the Maryland Rules. As a result, all people who were being detained for more than 24 hours without seeing a commissioner were being held illegally. Knowing all of this, I was still not prepared for what I saw when I arrived.

The small concrete booking cells were filled with hundreds of people, most with more than 10 people per cell. Three of us were sent to the women's side where there were up to 15 women per holding cell. Most of them had been there since Monday afternoon/evening. With the exception of three or four women, the women who weren't there for Monday's roundups were there for breaking curfew violations. Many had not seen a doctor or received required medication. Many had not been able to reach a family member by phone.

But here is the WORST thing. Not only had these women been held for two days and two nights without any sort of formal booking, BUT ALMOST NONE OF THEM HAD ACTUALLY BEEN CHARGED WITH ANYTHING. They were brought to CBIF via paddy wagons (most without seatbelts, btw — a real shocker after all that's happened) and taken to holding cells without ever being charged with an actual crime. No offense reports. No statements of probable cause. A few women had a vague idea what they might be charged with, some because of what they had actually been involved in, and some because of what the officer said, but quite a few had no idea why they were even there. Incidentally, I interviewed no one whose potential charges would have been more serious than petty theft, and most seemed to be disorderly conduct or failure to obey, charges which would usually result in an immediate recog/release.

The holding cells are approximately 10 by 10 (some slightly larger), with one open sink and toilet. The women were instructed that the water was “bad” and that they shouldn't drink it. There are no beds — just a concrete cube. No blankets or pillows. The cells were designed to hold people for a few hours, not a few days. In the one cell which housed 15 women, there wasn't even enough room for them all to lie down at the same time. Three times a day, the guards brought each woman four slices of bread, a slice of American cheese, and a small bag of cookies. They sometimes got juice, but water was scarce, as the COs had to wheel a watercooler through every so often (the regular water being “broken”).

My fellow attorneys and I all separately heard the same sickening story over and over. None of the women really wanted to eat four slices of bread three times a day, so they were saving slices of bread TO USE AS PILLOWS. Let me say that again. THEY WERE ALL USING BREAD AS PILLOWS SO THAT THEY WOULDN'T HAVE TO LAY THEIR HEADS ON THE FILTHY CONCRETE FLOOR.

Interviewing these women was emotionally exhausting. Quite a few of them began crying — so happy to finally see someone who might know why they were there, or perhaps how they might get out of this Kafkaesque nightmare. These women came from all walks of life. We interviewed high school students, college students, people with graduate degrees, people with GEDs, single women, married women, mothers, the well-employed, the unemployed, black women, and white women. Almost all of them had no record. Those that did had things like DUIs and very minor misdemeanors. Our group didn't interview any of the men on the other side, but my colleagues reported very similar situations. On the men's side there were journalists and activists, as well as high school kids with no records, barely 18 years old.

As we were getting ready to leave, we heard that many of these folks might be released without charges, after being held for two days. When we returned to the office, our amazing “habeas fellow,” Zina Makar, single-handedly filed 82 habeas petitions. That is when we heard that 101 people were released without charges. I'd like to think that the amazing legal response to this injustice played a large part in their release, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. They may be charged later, but I'm guessing most of them won't, based on how minor their alleged infractions are. There are still over 100 folks in there that need to see a commissioner and/or a judge, but hopefully we have thinned the ranks a little, and we will keep fighting until everyone has received due process. (We are concerned about these folks' potential bails, as we are hearing about bails in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for misdemeanor charges.)

I'll wrap this up by reminding everyone that all lives matter. We are all human beings. And we are Americans, and as such we are afforded protections under the law, the guilty and innocent alike. If one person is denied due process, we all suffer. If one person's rights and freedoms are trampled on, it's not only a reflection on all of us, but it puts our own liberty at risk. The moment we view some individuals as more important than others, we cheapen ourselves. At the very essence of our democracy is the right to question and stand up to authority. During these trying times, we should all keep that in mind. I'll leave you with a beautiful picture that was taken today of one of the women who was released without charges. Her husband had been waiting outside CBIF trying to find something…ANYTHING out about when she might be charged or released. This was taken moments after she walked out the door….

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LINK: Baltimore Demonstrators Forced To Use Bread As Pillows, Attorney Says

The Deplorable Conditions In Baltimore’s Crowded Central Booking

A number of men react to the smell and sight of freedom after being released from central booking on Wednesday, April 29, as unrest continues following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Baltimore Sun / Getty Images

Most of the more than 200 protesters who were arrested in Monday's riots in Baltimore were detained for two days, without formal charges or bail hearings, while the court system closed due to violence. Baltimore public defender Marci Tarrant Johnson described the conditions in the crowded Central Booking and Intake Facility in a viral Facebook post, republished here with her permission.

I'm going to try to keep this as brief as I can, but I've been asked by several people about what happened at Central Booking today, so I'll give you guys the shocking highlights. As much as I'd like to, I can't describe the particulars of some of the more egregious arrests, due to attorney/client privilege issues. But I would like to describe the Civil Liberties violations, and the deplorable conditions which people have had to endure.

As many of you know, more than 250 people have been arrested since Monday here in Baltimore. Normally when you are arrested, you are given a copy of your charging documents. Then you must see a commissioner within 24 hours for a bail determination (“prompt presentment”) and given a trial date. If you are not released after the commissioner hearing, you will be brought before a judge for a review of the bail set by the commissioner. None of this was happening, so we sent some lawyers to Central Booking yesterday to try to help. I heard, however, that only two commissioners showed up, and the correctional officers only brought about nine people to be interviewed because the jail was on a mysterious “lockdown.”

Today we were divided into two groups. Some of the lawyers were assigned the task of actually doing judicial bail reviews for as many folks as they could get interviewed and docketed. I was assigned to the other group. We were the “habeas team,” and we were to interview folks that we felt were being illegally detained, so we could file writs of habeas corpus. Governor Hogan had issued an executive order extending the time for prompt presentment to 47 hours. We believed that this order was invalid because the governor has no authority to alter the Maryland Rules. As a result, all people who were being detained for more than 24 hours without seeing a commissioner were being held illegally. Knowing all of this, I was still not prepared for what I saw when I arrived.

The small concrete booking cells were filled with hundreds of people, most with more than 10 people per cell. Three of us were sent to the women's side where there were up to 15 women per holding cell. Most of them had been there since Monday afternoon/evening. With the exception of three or four women, the women who weren't there for Monday's roundups were there for breaking curfew violations. Many had not seen a doctor or received required medication. Many had not been able to reach a family member by phone.

But here is the WORST thing. Not only had these women been held for two days and two nights without any sort of formal booking, BUT ALMOST NONE OF THEM HAD ACTUALLY BEEN CHARGED WITH ANYTHING. They were brought to CBIF via paddy wagons (most without seatbelts, btw — a real shocker after all that's happened) and taken to holding cells without ever being charged with an actual crime. No offense reports. No statements of probable cause. A few women had a vague idea what they might be charged with, some because of what they had actually been involved in, and some because of what the officer said, but quite a few had no idea why they were even there. Incidentally, I interviewed no one whose potential charges would have been more serious than petty theft, and most seemed to be disorderly conduct or failure to obey, charges which would usually result in an immediate recog/release.

The holding cells are approximately 10 by 10 (some slightly larger), with one open sink and toilet. The women were instructed that the water was “bad” and that they shouldn't drink it. There are no beds — just a concrete cube. No blankets or pillows. The cells were designed to hold people for a few hours, not a few days. In the one cell which housed 15 women, there wasn't even enough room for them all to lie down at the same time. Three times a day, the guards brought each woman four slices of bread, a slice of American cheese, and a small bag of cookies. They sometimes got juice, but water was scarce, as the COs had to wheel a watercooler through every so often (the regular water being “broken”).

My fellow attorneys and I all separately heard the same sickening story over and over. None of the women really wanted to eat four slices of bread three times a day, so they were saving slices of bread TO USE AS PILLOWS. Let me say that again. THEY WERE ALL USING BREAD AS PILLOWS SO THAT THEY WOULDN'T HAVE TO LAY THEIR HEADS ON THE FILTHY CONCRETE FLOOR.

Interviewing these women was emotionally exhausting. Quite a few of them began crying — so happy to finally see someone who might know why they were there, or perhaps how they might get out of this Kafkaesque nightmare. These women came from all walks of life. We interviewed high school students, college students, people with graduate degrees, people with GEDs, single women, married women, mothers, the well-employed, the unemployed, black women, and white women. Almost all of them had no record. Those that did had things like DUIs and very minor misdemeanors. Our group didn't interview any of the men on the other side, but my colleagues reported very similar situations. On the men's side there were journalists and activists, as well as high school kids with no records, barely 18 years old.

As we were getting ready to leave, we heard that many of these folks might be released without charges, after being held for two days. When we returned to the office, our amazing “habeas fellow,” Zina Makar, single-handedly filed 82 habeas petitions. That is when we heard that 101 people were released without charges. I'd like to think that the amazing legal response to this injustice played a large part in their release, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it. They may be charged later, but I'm guessing most of them won't, based on how minor their alleged infractions are. There are still over 100 folks in there that need to see a commissioner and/or a judge, but hopefully we have thinned the ranks a little, and we will keep fighting until everyone has received due process. (We are concerned about these folks' potential bails, as we are hearing about bails in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for misdemeanor charges.)

I'll wrap this up by reminding everyone that all lives matter. We are all human beings. And we are Americans, and as such we are afforded protections under the law, the guilty and innocent alike. If one person is denied due process, we all suffer. If one person's rights and freedoms are trampled on, it's not only a reflection on all of us, but it puts our own liberty at risk. The moment we view some individuals as more important than others, we cheapen ourselves. At the very essence of our democracy is the right to question and stand up to authority. During these trying times, we should all keep that in mind. I'll leave you with a beautiful picture that was taken today of one of the women who was released without charges. Her husband had been waiting outside CBIF trying to find something…ANYTHING out about when she might be charged or released. This was taken moments after she walked out the door….

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LINK: Baltimore Demonstrators Forced To Use Bread As Pillows, Attorney Says

Texts From My Parents: What It Was Like To Leave Vietnam

Aircraft carriers, refugee camp, and a lost shoe.

Alice Mongkongllite / BuzzFeed / Thinkstock

Today is the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. This morning, my dad texted my mom and me.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. This morning, my dad texted my mom and me.

And so began my parents' retelling of what happened that week in 1975 to their eldest daughter, who grew up loving pizza Hot Pockets more than anything in the entire world.

They left Vietnam four days apart: my mom from the central region and my dad from what is now Ho Chi Minh City.

They left Vietnam four days apart: my mom from the central region and my dad from what is now Ho Chi Minh City.


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How I Made A Career Out Of Showing People My Cervix

I use my own body to teach medical students how to perform pelvic exams. And it’s the best, most empowering work I’ve ever done.

Alice Monkongllite / BuzzFeed Life

I'm sitting on a low exam table in an Orthodox Jewish medical school, wearing a hospital gown, waiting for my students to arrive. They knock on the door, and I call, “Come in!”

There are five of them. They are all men, they are all tall, and they all look very professional and authoritative in their white coats. Two of them are wearing wedding rings; two are wearing yarmulkes. All five of them are about to see my cervix.

And they are all, it becomes immediately clear, completely terrified.

I'm a gynecological teaching associate, or GTA, which means I use my own body to teach medical, nursing, and physician assistant students how to perform safe, comfortable, and empowering gynecological exams. Basically, I go into universities and hospitals and take my pants off for feminism. I love my job: It has made me feel at home in my body in a way I never imagined, and I get to help the next generation of health care providers get really, really excited about ovaries. Given that they usually come to me scared and somewhat squicked out by the whole concept, this feels like a triumph.

Even though that exam at the hospital was my first time ever teaching a group of real, live medical students as a GTA, it was entirely my show from the start. When I lowered my hospital gown to talk them through the breast exam, one turned so red I worried he might pass out, and they all stared fixedly at the wall. I pointed out that to examine my breasts they actually needed to be looking at them. But it only took a few gentle jokes to get them laughing, and from that point they basically imprinted on me like ducklings. They were so grateful that I was being kind to them, so thrilled to follow my lead, and so relieved to find that I knew what I was doing and wouldn't let them hurt me. (“No, really, you can use more pressure. Can I adjust your hand? There, just like that. That's my cervix!”)

Most of all, they were innocently delighted by my body, and my willingness to show it to them. The first sight of my cervix was greeted with cheers. And when the first student successfully felt my ovary, I witnessed a phenomenon known to GTAs all around the world: the Ovary Dance. Healthy ovaries, you see, are very subtle and small, and it's hard to be certain you've felt one. But a GTA who knows exactly where her ovaries are can usually get you there, and you can always tell when a student has actually found it by their grin and the shimmy that goes with it.

Alice Monkongllite / BuzzFeed Life

I have always had an extremely detailed, somewhat obsessive desire to know all about bodies, and to teach other people what I know. At the age of 5, I managed to extract an explanation of how babies are made from my mom that was more detailed than what most adults probably understand now (although she refused to draw me a diagram when I was confused by the mechanics). I took my newfound knowledge with me to school the next day, where I taught my kindergarten friends all about sex, condoms (“penis caps”), the fertilization of an egg, and the gestation of a fetus. They say knowledge is power: I didn't want anyone to have more power over my body than me, so clearly I needed to know the most about it.

When I first heard about GTAs in 2011, it seemed like an obvious choice for me. I had been working as a full-spectrum doula in New York City, supporting pregnant people through any and all outcomes of pregnancy, including birth, adoption, fetal loss, stillbirth labor induction, and abortion. I had seen several hundred pelvic exams in a very short period of time, and noticed that younger doctors were performing very different exams than many older doctors, and communicating with patients much more clearly. When I asked other doulas about this, they told me it was because the younger doctors had all been trained by GTAs. Because the world of radical gynecology is small, many of the other doulas already worked as GTAs; one soon hosted a party so we could see her do a self-speculum exam and view her cervix, and I was hooked.

As a medical anthropology nerd, I loved the idea of getting to be the person who shaped how medical students viewed and interacted with the female body. I also found out that GTA'ing pays outrageously well. I liked money, and I loved the idea that work that was so inextricably tied up in vaginas was so highly valued financially. It felt a little (irrationally) like mooning the wage gap. And of course, the anatomy-obsessed 5-year-old inside of me thought it was awesome. I signed up for the next certification course I could find.

The training was arranged around the parts of the exam we were learning to teach: a three-part breast exam, then a three-part pelvic exam. The first time my fellow trainees and I took off our shirts to practice giving each other breast exams was, I admit, a bit strange, but we got used to it fairly quickly. Then we reached the pelvic exam. Our instructor asked for volunteers to practice teaching it during the next class; I raised my hand and offered to go first.

I was very calm in the days between those classes, as I reviewed all the material I was expected to teach while I guided the other students through an exam on my own body. I was even calm about getting my period the same day I was first expected to drop trou in a professional capacity. So be it; we were expected to work with our periods, and I was just going to do it sooner rather than later. I felt fine straight through the morning of the exam, until it was actually time to put on my hospital gown.

Then I freaked out. I went to the bathroom to change, because somehow the idea of a classroom seeing my butt was more terrifying than anything else. What if my butt was ugly, or hairy? Should I have shaved my pubic hair? I hate shaving my pubic hair! What if people think it's gross? What if my vagina is gross? What if I smell bad? What if I bleed on someone??

I was panicking, but I was also awkwardly inching backward toward the exam table. And then I was sitting on the table, and it was time to start teaching. I felt a moment of calm and I realized: I could either freak out about my body, or I could teach. My brain didn't have enough processing power to do both. I chose to teach.

It felt like putting down insanely heavy bags that I'd been carrying for so long I'd forgotten about them. It was actually a physical sensation. I put the bags down, I kicked them over to the side so they weren't in the way, and I began. I remembered all the material I needed to be telling the students, I guided them to the right places on my body, I managed the room and checked to see if they understood me, I adjusted and engaged.

I wasn't thinking about my body, except to show them my anatomy and explain why it was “healthy and normal.” GTAs teach students to use a phrase like that to transition between parts of the exam — “I've finished the pelvic exam; everything appears healthy and normal” — precisely because it's something the patient might never have heard or felt before. The power that simple idea gives patients — and the power it gave me — can be incredible.

It's an amazing thing to be so in control of how your body is perceived. I can go get groceries in New York wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt, and men will still catcall me. I'm trying to run errands, not be decorative, and I definitely don't feel sexy or sexual, but I get no say in that. But when I'm GTA'ing, even though I'm in a position that ought to be so vulnerable, I'm in complete control. I've never felt objectified or sexualized in my work; I've never felt anything but utterly respected. It goes beyond “doing no harm”; it feels healing.


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