I played kickball in a t-shirt and ballcap while girls stayed inside doing crafts as a kid. In middle school I tried out for the football team. I worked to become one of the top female weightlifters in my high school. It never occurred to me that my gender should define who I am or what I’m capable of doing because I spent kindergarten through senior year all on Wells Road in Wesley Chapel, FL.
So when I considered community college as a high school student, I thought duel enrollment would come easier than expected. A few thoughts of doubt and a little fear of the unknown clouded my mind preparing for my first real day of community college, but I felt ready. I left high school in the rear-view mirror and set foot in the real world.
After sitting in my car, easing the butterflies, I finally started heading to my class. And there were so many people. The campus even dedicated an entire floor to free drinks and snacks.
I walked into the classroom and saw “Welcome” written in red marker on the whiteboard as well as the class title and number. I sat down with nothing but excitement as I pulled out my notebook and labeled it “History 1”. The second the clock struck 9:30 the professor stood up and introduced himself. Every late night spent studying, every panic attack, every test seemed worth it because they brought me to this moment. I couldn’t wait to soak up all the new knowledge this professor would to share with me.
That optimism and excitement didn’t last long.
It all started innocently enough. He did the usual speech: his name, the class, if this isn’t your class move along. And then he asked us a question: Why are we taking this class? No one raised their hand. I think we were all too scared honestly.
He took our lack of participation as an opportunity to share his own thoughts. I wish he hadn’t.
He began, “The men in this class are here to get an education, to find a good job so that they can support the woman they chose.” That threw me off a little, no guy I know would be here for that reason. But who was I to question my professor?
He then followed with this, “The women are only here so that they can feel independent because the more independent they feel the longer they can put off their decision of finding a man.”
So many thoughts circled in my head. Did those words really come out of his mouth? Was this a joke? Maybe I was being Punk’d. Maybe he said it wrong, or I didn’t interpret it correctly. As these thoughts swirled in my mind I notice out of a class of 34 students, I am one of three women.
Was this his way of trying to get a reaction out of us? Maybe he wanted to get a conversation started about women’s rights and relate it to history. Surely he had a legitimate, reasonable motive behind the statement.
But it didn’t feel that way; what he said felt very real and very sincere when he said it. I’ve always been the type to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe in, but this left me speechless. I had no response.
Before I truly grasped the words that came out of his mouth he moved on to his next topic. And I let it happen.
Is this what the world is? My perceptions on who I was, where I was, and what I was doing with my life shattered. My happy little bubble of Wells Road suddenly popped. I never experienced anything like this; I wasn’t bullied as a kid. I was a happy-go-lucky optimist.
By the time I got home and it all sunk in, and I felt infuriated. Not with just the words that came out of his mouth, but the new image I had about the world and everything I saw on the news. All of the sexist videos I scrolled past on my Twitter feed all became a reality. I could no longer pretend those people didn’t really exist, but they really do exist and one of them now became a part of my world and education.
I came into each following class with an open mind. Maybe I took it the wrong way, right? To my disgust, he continued to make little sexist comments throughout the entire semester. Sometimes he gave the guys in the room a little smirk and chuckle every time one of the women in the class offered an opinion or an answer.
But now I am at the University of Florida, immersed with a different cultures, sexualities and backgrounds. I wish this was a happy-go-lucky experience where I could say I am now at a place where hatred was eliminated, a place where everyone is treated equally to one another.
When I got to UF I met an assortment of different people, but with this came a variety of stories filled with the specific kind of hatred that derived primarily from the characteristic of another person, whatever made them different: how they looked, spoke, loved or identified. They each shared their own story about how they’d been treated poorly in the past. Stories that made what my professor said seem like virtually nothing.
These experiences gave me a greater appreciation for my life on Wells Road. Today,in the melting pot I call UF, my roommate is from Nigeria. My workout partner is from India. I have multiple friends who are Muslim. I just did a group project with a man from China, a woman who is transgender and a man who is gay. My coworker is from Venezuela.
And I am a woman.
I respect all of them equally, but more than that, I learned to surround myself with people who respect me. I also learned to not be a people pleaser. Not everyone will accept me for what makes me unique. But I don’t need anyone’s approval but my own.