A Letter to My Women’s Studies Students

Rosebud Ben-Oni
November 30, 2017
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I probably won’t tell you this is up until after I turn in grades. I probably shouldn’t tell you that the grading system itself is archaic and not a measure of your worth, or anyone’s worth, for that matter. But you know I’m always saying the most un-academic things in the sharp-cornered confines of the classroom where they won’t let us open the windows. And I know the last-minute cram of deadlines, that being a writer is like being a student forever, and I’m a poet at that, one who writes best when deadlines are most pressing and it’s so late I nearly see the sun rise before I give over to sleep.

They keep me up at night, all the issues we’ve discussed in class, from the ill-treatment of incarcerated mothers to the lack of reproductive rights across the global to rampant sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. We’ve poured over the names of newly revealed predators every time we meet. I won’t mention them here. This is not about them.

What follows isn’t advice.

Pedagogy is a two-way street.

(By the way, did you know they offer graduate-level courses in pedagogy? I never took a single one, but you probably figured that out.)

I’m writing this now because I didn’t say what I wanted to say during class before the fall break, that week it finally hit me that my aunt—a Chicana activist who advocated for young women and encouraged me to teach courses just like this one—was gone.

Or rather: she had been further past-tensed.

You see, she’d been alive while being taken from us for over a decade, my aunt who’d been the heart of the family until ten years ago when a surgeon took on a webbing in her brain, a webbing of tumors, and took away her ability to reason, to create, to move freely and easily and powerfully— you see, she’d already been taken from my family, and for ten years we held onto the foolish hope that her powerful brain would simply heal itself, but it didn’t.

But it didn’t.

And then on this All Saint’s Day, November 1st, she died in her sleep, without warning, without, without, without.

I wrote my aunt a tribute. I comforted my mother daily. But I said nothing to you about it until that class before the break, after we watched Girlhood, one of the many films I couldn’t wait to share with you.

As you remember, when the film comes to an end, the lead character V—V for Victory, remember?—finally breaks down. We listened to her weeping off-camera. Because she can’t go home. Because she has nowhere to go. Because she’s lost all her family and friends and even her lover who wanted to marry her—she let them go because all she ever wanted was her own story. A complete and total sense of autonomy.

Even if such a dream will cost her everything.

And just as the camera pans away, suddenly V reemerges clear-faced and determined, in profile. She then strides off, quicker than the camera can catch up with her.

So, when the credits began to roll, I realized that I was going to have to get up and turn on the lights. That the semester was ending, and there’s always another clock ticking that we don’t hear, another timeline to begin, and another to leave behind, sometimes simultaneously.

My head, at that moment, was filled with many things that at that time I could not tell you.

Let me try again…

 

The world is yours, as young women, to inherit. It is your world to inherit. I know there are times, too many times, it proves to be a hostile, unstable world for your empathy as much as your ambition, your energetic joys. Keep these things that are yours sacred. I know this is rarely easy in public spaces. I know that feeling of trying to simply cross the street when you are knee-deep in the street itself.

But when you think the world is against you, know the world itself is not a static, linear, set-in-place, un-moveable block of marble. It is not even singular: the world is an erroneous term. Its true plurality is directly correlated with the plans you have for it. Make it yours. Make it many.

Trust me when I say the most important three words you will ever hear are: Don’t give up.

Continue to read the words of other women after this class ends. Read as much as you can. Read Roxane Gay. Read Natalie Diaz. Read Erika Sanchez, Nomi Stone, Gabby Bellot, Meera Nair, Camille Rankine, Victoria Chang, Randa Jarrar, Sasha Pimentel, Tiana Clark, Lynn Melnick. Many of these women we’ve already read in class, and this is an incomplete list. I can always send you suggestions when you need them, or point you in the right direction to more resources.

Know that not all happiness is blissful or triumphant or sudden. That in the worst of times, there are intense, vivid moments of happiness, and it’s those kinds of happinesses that are most memorable, most cherished.

Build a bridge to those who stood with you during the hard times, and to that former self too, the you that did and will get you through. The bridge will require work, and it will require ongoing mending.

Know that when you can’t seem to move forward, that even in the most unmovable you, there is life and possibility, which might as well be all the possibility in this world(s) itself.

V is for Victory, remember?

Just like the last scene in Girlhood where she stood in profile, looking at an uncertain future— or rather, looking toward something, something real and amazing, that no one could see but her.

That one thing she won’t give up on?

Hold onto yours, no matter what.

 

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