Sunday, May 30, 2010

Big Scary Man Syndrome

He was three hundred pounds if he was an ounce, and every inch of him radiated mean. I call it Big Scary Man Syndrome. You’ve met these guys: so afraid that people will reject them based on their looks that they take special pains to be preemptively jerky so they can reject you first.

I consider those guys a challenge.

But this guy was really pissing me off. I had assigned my twenty-five freshman composition students an in-class essay, and no sooner had they found their pens and settled down to write than this bullhorn parked his frame in front of my classroom door and began screaming into his cell phone.

“Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?”

Dirty looks had no effect. Some of the kids started laughing instead of writing. I stepped into the hall, all five feet and one hundred pounds of me.

“What did you say?” he screamed. “Now can you hear me?” He hadn’t moved an inch.

“Excuse me.” I favored him with the winning smile that had melted so many Big Scary Men before him. “You get better reception in the stairwell, or outside.”

“I get fine reception right here,” he shouted and turned away, still shouting. “Sorry, I can’t hear you.”

With two steps, I stood in front of him again. “It sounds like you’re not getting fine reception. And this is a classroom building. And you’re screaming in front of an open door.”

He pushed his chest into my face. “I’ll scream if I want to.”

“I’m asking you politely to take your call somewhere else. You’re disrupting my class.”

“I’m taking my call here.” He was breathing on top of my head now, his face red.

“I’m sorry, sir,” I said, resisting the urge to raise my voice. “This is a classroom building, not a phone booth. Professors are trying to teach. Students are trying to learn. You are interfering with the education process. This is not an appropriate place for you to stand and scream.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he spat, the ironic emphasis he dropped into the word “ma’am” indicative of anything but respect. “I’m sorry my call is interfering with your learning process.” Then he reattached his mouth to the phone. “Listen, are you listening to me?” he screamed.

Now I had twenty-five pairs of eyes on me as every kid in the room watched to gauge the force of my authority, an authority this guy hadn’t bothered to evaluate. He thought he could dismiss me based on size, but being short has taught me assertiveness. Plus, it’s the rare three-hundred-pound male bully who actually takes his aggression out on a small woman in public.

“I’m asking you nicely to take your call elsewhere, because this space is for learning, and you do not have the right to interrupt my class. I can call campus security if you need help finding an appropriate location for this behavior.”

At last he looked me in the eyes, and while I remained five feet tall, clad in jeans and sandals, he gave a nervous shake of his head, finally realizing to whom he was mouthing off: a professor. “Oh, uh, yeah, sorry,” he said, and dashed away like a shamed puppy.

I turned back to the room, aware now of the rapid thunk of my heartbeat in my chest.

Some of my students had already gone back to their essays, but a few smiled and nodded approval, grateful that I could stand up to a bully, or take their education seriously, or provide a good show. I don’t know which. And, in the back row, my two biggest slackers, bad boys who wrote about smoking pot and missed class to go skateboarding or raving or whatever the heck it was that eighteen-year-old boys did, watched with wide-eyed amazement as I made my triumphant return after a confrontation from which they would have run. I had their attention for the rest of the semester.

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