I was 15 years old and waiting eagerly in my GCSE history class for my first essay back. I was a hard worker – not always the smartest in the room, but I always took extra time to ensure I got the best grades that I could. I loved to learn and I loved history and couldn’t wait to see what mark I’d been given – I was proud of this work.
I waited with anticipation until the (male) teacher handed me my marked essay. As the paper passed into my hands, he shot me look and a growing knot of anxiety formed in my stomach. I took the papers, and my eyes immediately went to the scrawled red pen in the top right hand corner. A* it read. The anxiety started to dissipate.
But then I continued to read the red lines on the page. Not a “well done” or a “good work” in sight – the comments befitting of a top grade. What I read brought that knot back to my stomach, quickly. My face went red and I felt hot. Too hot. The sting of tears in my eyes pricked the searing heat on my face and I blinked hard to keep them at bay. I couldn’t start to cry in the classroom. I couldn’t let him see this reaction.Why should women stay quiet? Here's a story about why women taking up space is important.Click To Tweet
The comments in worn out red biro were clear and to the point. “This was too close to a perfect answer. It looks like you copied it”.
I was devastated.
This was the first class of the day. The first essay mark of my GCSE’s. And the first time I could remember a man making me feel smaller than I was. As the day wore on, my mind turned red like the pen that had accused me. I was angry, so angry. I’d worked hard and instead of a pat on the back I’d been accused of cheating. Only one other person in the class got an A* and they received a “good work” as one would expect.
He was a boy.
A couple of months later it was parents evening, and because we were GCSE students we were allowed to attend. We had our list of teacher appointments and made our way around the room, the same knot of anxiety building in the pit of my stomach, growing larger and more defined as we reached his table. We sat and listened to his verdict on me – it was critical and unfair. I was well behaved and I had received consistently strong marks in his class.
As the conversation came to a close I heard a small voice start to speak.
It was mine.
And it grew louder and stronger with each syllable that passed my lips.
I withdrew that essay from my bag, now crumpled from all the times I’d studied the red handwriting and chastised myself for not being good enough. I smoothed it out on the table and raised my gaze to his and looked at him, really looked at him until after a split second he broke eye contact. I asked him to explain this comment to my parents and most importantly, to me.
There was a pause. There was a stutter. And then out tumbled excuses and words like “ability” and “surprise”. I pushed again, harder this time and asked him about the boy in my class.
There was silence.
There was silence, and then a soft apology. Not heartfelt, not meaningful. Just three words in sharp, clipped tones: “I am sorry”.
It never happened again.
When I was a 15 year old girl, a young woman with no confidence or experience or smarts or wise advice I had more courage than I do as a 33 year old grown woman. I stood up for myself against a man who made me feel small because I was a woman.
What happened to me?
I’ve grown tired. So tired. When I’m made to feel less than who I am, my face doesn’t flush red and tears don’t fill my eyes. I feel empty when a man describes me as bossy or stroppy. I sit unquestioning when I’m offered half of the pay rise that my promotion deserves.
When I apologise for just being visible, I don’t curse myself. When a man catcalls me in the street and then calls me a cunt when I don’t respond, I’m emotionless.
I feel nothing any more.
But if I am to take up the space in this world that I deserve, that I have earned, I have to start feeling something again.
It’s not enough to be numb. To pretend you don’t notice when your worth is questioned because you were born a woman. Every time I let these small indignities slide, I let a bigger, more terrible indignity befall womankind.
Every time you don’t take up the space you deserve and push – PUSH – into the place that is yours, you send a signal that this is ok.
I knew that as a 15 year old girl. It’s time to honour women taking up space as a 34 year old.