“Inaugural” Class with Blanco

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Never file your nails or blow-dry your hair—

go to the barber shop with your grandfather—

          you’re not unisex.

Stay out of the kitchen.  Men don’t cook—

They eat.  Eat anything you want, except:

          deviled eggs

          Blow Pops

          croissants  (Bagels? Maybe.)

          cucumber sandwiches

          petit fours

Don’t watch Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.

Don’t stare at The Six-Million Dollar Man.

 —Richard Blanco from “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother”

We began our class with poetry instead of policies or introductions—“what did you do over winter break” just didn’t seem to cut it today.  I had just finished reading that portion of Book IV of the Aeneid with my Latin III class where a storm comes, “forcing” Aeneas and Dido to seek shelter in the same cave, thus animating the force of “Fama” or “Rumor” (Vergil’s version of Gossip Girl).   With poetry already at work in Room 13 (my classroom, which is actually next to Room 11; Room 12 is tucked a few hundred yards away by the lake), I picked Richard Blanco’s poem “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother,” written in the voice of Blanco’s grandmother, for the first impression of our Queer Literature and Theory course.  First moments of class are like a first date; you’ve got to start strong if you want a second date.

Blanco was the right choice for the class’s inaugural meeting.  We’re here almost exactly a year from the moment he burst onto the national scene by reading “One Today” at President Obama’s second Inauguration.  The buzz surrounding his selection as inaugural poet (only the fifth person every to fulfill this role) centered on his being the youngest person, the first Latino (he’s a Cuban-American), and the first gay person to deliver a poem that captures the nation’s imagination and aspirations.  If you recall the President’s speech that day, you’ll remember that he drew a connection between the extension of freedoms to various groups overtime, opting for an alliterative thread to stitch Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall together.  The poem (the poet, too) and the speech dovetailed memorably. 

Besides the perfect title, the moments of humor, and the fun cultural references, the poem offered us, as a class, a perfect introduction to one of our ongoing concerns for the class: how deeply entrenched gender expectations are. Because the rush of a first day of class is so amazing, I had to really resist the urge to immediately jump in and wax eloquent about the poem after we read it together.  I’m sure I get twice as many words in on a first day as I do on other days due to adrenaline, nerves, and too many trips to the communal Keurig machine.  I asked the class, “What’s the underlying assumption that makes this poem work?”  A half-rest later, a student sitting directly across the table from me piped up: “That there are girl things and boy things.”  And another added, “That everything is gendered.”  And I added, “Yes, something along the lines of pink-blue binary.”  I love these moments when students immediately see clearly what fuels a particular text.

They realized very quickly the oppositional pull between the grandmother’s staunch reinforcement of the pink-blue binary and Blanco’s queer rejection of falling into the norm.  The recognition of the binary and the fact that there are those who exist outside its constraints provided us a good starting point.  Tomorrow, we’ll discuss Peggy McIntosh’s “Male Privilege and White Privilege” wherein she shows how structural binaries breed hierarchies; hierarchies breed oppression.  It’s going to be interesting to talk with a group of teenagers at a well-to-do boarding school about “knapsacks of privilege.”  It’s important to feel uncomfortable; that discomfort can catalyze good discussion. 

To introduce the McIntosh article after we had finished up with Blanco’s poem, I tried to connect with my students on the level of gaming culture.  I told them about articles that were trending a few years ago that said, essentially, that living life as a straight white male was the lowest “difficulty setting” possible due to long-entrenched, structural privileges.  We’ll see what they think tomorrow.

I should note that, while I anticipated 13 students, we are 12 (plus me).  One student apparently dropped today right before class; I think that my reading list stunned a few of the students.  They’re second-semester seniors, and that usually translates to a general loathing of anything deemed strenuous.  I’m choosing to ignore that.  They don’t get to quit. They are the 12—tribes of Israel? Months in a year?  Disciples of Jesus? Doughnuts in a dozen? Days of Christmas? Labors of Hercules? They’re QTITs (Queer Theorists in Training)—maybe.

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