If life is a journey, and some believe it to be so, then that makes each of us a captain of the vehicle(s) we use along the way. Here are a few pages from my log book, star date: my personal history.
It was a professional development opportunity, one of those two-day workshops that seemed important back when I wanted to learn what it took to be a good manager.
The facilitator was one of those pert, bouncy “I love working with people” types who often facilitate these sorts of things.
She — Sandy — stood up promptly at 8:30 a.m. with a cheery, too-loud “Good morning everyone!” and then launched into the requisite, “Thanks for coming today, hope you all enjoy it” followed by a review of the learning objectives and a reminder of the housekeeping items: bathrooms this way; what to do in case of a medical emergency, reminders about breaks and lunch and emergency exits.
Then she said, “I want you all to come to the centre of the room.”
We were sheep. We all went to the centre of the room. I silently ordered my eyebrow down from its “you’ve got to be kidding me” high-horse arch and willed the look on my face into something that could be construed as interest or at least a willingness to learn something new.
“We’re going to spend some time getting to know each other,” she said. “We have an intensive two days ahead of us so we’ll dive right in; get up close and personal and get to know who you are.”
Did she mean to say intense instead of intensive? And what does up close and personal and get to know you mean? Cue walls. Place mask.
More directions from Sandy. “I want you all to pair up: find a partner.”
I didn’t really care what she wanted. My first thought was along the lines of “Oh, nuts” but I didn’t have time to take that thought train further because the woman standing next to me touched my arm and as I turned to her, she asked, “want to partner?”
I smiled. It was brave of her to ask so I said yes.
“I want you to find a spot and sit facing your partner,” Sandy said.
I still didn’t care what she wanted. I wanted OUT and now. Some people sat on the floor, others found chairs. Good thing the clothing was business casual. My partner and I sat on the floor, cross-legged, facing each other.
Sandy continued: “Here’s what you’re going to do. You are going to ask each other a question. First one person then the other. Four minutes each person. You will ask just ONE question. I want you to ask it different ways. Ask the question, get an answer, ask it again with different emphasis. I’ll call TIME when it’s time to switch. The question you will ask each other is: Who are you? I’ll demonstrate.”
She walked over to a guy standing near her, slightly inside his personal space and tilted her head ever so slightly and demonstrated:
“Who are you?” she asked evenly and paused.
Then, “WHO are you? . . . the force of the first word hitting hard. She paused and continued.
Who ARE you? . . . Who are YOU? . . . WHO ARE YOU!? who…are…you.”
She stopped. People were holding their breath. There wasn’t any air in the room.
She turned away from her victim and toward the rest of us, her eyes scanning the room. Suddenly she didn’t seem perky at all.
“Ask the question in as many ways as you can. For the people answering: keep it short; just a few words and different answers each time. And two more things to keep in mind:
- Maintain eye contact at all times.
- Pay attention to HOW the question makes you feel.
When we’re done, I’ll ask you to introduce your partner to the group and say a few words about what you’ve learned. Is everyone clear?” she asked.
Many heads nodded.
My partner sort of smiled. I sort of crinkled my eyes back at her.
“I know who you are,” she said.
I blinked slowly, a thing I do when I need to quiet the visual noise, to allow my mind to focus 1,000 per cent on what is happening in the moment.
“You do?” I asked, searching her face for something I might recognize.
She smiled more. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
I shook my head. “Sorry, I don’t.”
The facilitator cued us: “Okay everyone, start….NOW.”
My mind wasn’t racing: it was heli-skiing backwards with an unimaginable velocity. I didn’t give into it.
Instead I said, “how about if I try to figure it out as we go along? I’ll ask you the question first.”
She nodded and smiled.
“Who are you?” I asked, looking directly into her eyes, modulating my voice and my breath, focused as much as possible on her, while my brain ransacked my memory. I rarely forget a face. Ever. Who was she?
“I’m a woman,” she said.
I furrowed my brows. I was drawing blanks. My gaydar wasn’t registering a thing either which I found oddly comforting.
“Who ARE you?” I asked, leaning in a bit closer, looking into her face more intently. Her high cheekbones looked familiar, but nothing else. She did not move and I felt clearly that I was in a space not for me: I wanted to move back immediately. It was too close. But I stayed.
“I’m an account manager,” she said, which told me nothing. I didn’t know any account managers.
“WHO are you?” I asked, with great emphasis on the word WHO. I cheated and glanced quickly around the room and opened my ears to the sounds around me. It was full of tension and curiosity triggered by this Q+A game. I refocused on her.
She looked at me, tilted her head ever-so-slightly. I sensed internal movement in her. She leaned closer. Our faces were about 40 cm from each other. She looked at me for a moment, saying nothing. I stilled my mind and let go just then. I knew I would not remember her without help.
“I’m Juanita,” she said quietly, looking at me, questioning whether I’d remember.
Internal files flipping, flipping … FOUND HER!!!!!
I have known just one Juanita in my life. High school. We were in the same class in grades 9 and 11.
“SWITCH!!!” called out the facilitator.
I laughed. “Fancy meeting you here.”
She smiled. I remembered then her dark hair, her smile and that her mother had an obsession for all things Mexican which is how she came to be called Juanita.
“Who are you?” she asked me. I moved when I laughed to put more space between us.
I took a deep breath. I was so not looking forward to this.
“I’m a woman,” I answered, using her words, her pattern. Looking at her I realized I’d never have recognized her, everything about her looked different and so salesperson like. And she was blonde. In high school, she was in with the cool, edgy, underground kids, the beautiful and interesting-looking girls and good-looking guys that weren’t anything other than who they were, mixed in with some adolescent angst and dashes of worldly and artistic stuff. Because we were in the same class for two grades, we did some group work together and had talked a few times about life in the way that seems important when you’re between 14 and 17.
She smiled and leaned in closer. My walls held. I was not comfortable with this sustained looking at me and happy for my mask, my walls, holding against the probing.
She lowered her voice. “Who are YOU?” she asked.
“I’m a program manager,” I answered.
She blinked and asked again, “Who ARE you?” she asked.
My eardrums felt warm all of a sudden and I could hear the hard thump thump thump of my heartbeat through my body as I felt a breach of an internal wall, a switch to another mask. I leaned in breathed deeply, let it out slowly and lowered my voice.
Professionally, to that moment, I lived a Canadian version of the don’t ask don’t tell.
“I’m a lesbian,” I said. She sat straight up.
To this day I do not know why I told her. Maybe to shock her. Maybe to surprise her: I doubt that anyone would have identified me as someone “Most Likely to Become A Lesbian After High School.” Whatever the reason, it bubbled up as only a truth that demands to be heard can bubble. And I let it out.
I kept my eyes locked on hers hoping that nothing betrayed my inner turmoil, and that the hard pounding beat of my heart was neither audible nor visible. It occurred to me then that WHO I am is many things and one defining WHO I AM is a lesbian and in that moment it was important to say so.
“Who are YOU?” she asked.
Sandy interrupted: “OKAY everyone, wrap up,” she called out. “And head back to your seats.”
We all headed back to our seats. Sandy looked around the room. The buzz and tension dissipated leaving thoughtfulness in the air.
“Does anyone want to talk about what that few minutes was like for them?” she asked.
Silence. She looked around the room making eye contact with people. Definitely not one iota of perk left in her.
Finally the guy who was her earlier victim spoke up: “It was challenging. The first time was easy and maybe the second but as it went on I was getting uncomfortable. And when it was asked in a certain way, I didn’t want to answer. Having someone I don’t know looking directly at me and asking the question I found really uncomfortable.”
Many people nodded as he spoke, including Sandy. Another participant said, “I found that the sitting, facing each other and focusing on keeping eye contact for those four minutes was really hard. I wanted to look away.”
Sandy nodded and as other people started to jump into the conversation, I looked over to Juanita. She smiled and mouthed the word “Lunch?”
“Okay, let’s take a few minutes and go around the room. Say who your partner was, what you learned about WHO they are and what you learned from looking.
I listened. And wondered. Would she tell the group about me? Why was I worried that being a lesbian was something to tell?
Juanita’s turn. I watched her as she lifted her head. Our eyes met.
She first introduced me by name and then said, “she’s someone who I went to high school with, who didn’t immediately remember me, who is a program manager and who is a musician.”
She didn’t take her eyes from me.
I blinked hard. She used information I hadn’t shared, and, didn’t share all that I had told her. I’d also totally forgotten that we had a shared interest in music in high school and a little curious how she remembered that I played some instruments. I was relieved and surprised.
“What I learned from looking,” continued Juanita, “is that you can’t know someone from looking even if you think you know them.”
I broke eye contact. I wanted to leave.
I went to this workshop wanting to solidify my ability to deal with people as The Manager and not include the other parts of me: the woman, the lesbian, the cheeky, reserved older sister. And I didn’t want to deal with the other parts of my staff and colleagues and bosses either.
I might have wanted to leave all my other parts at home when I went to the office as much as I wanted other people to leave all of their other parts at home but, quelle suprise! It just doesn’t work that way in the real world. Those two days showed me that hiving off parts of me wouldn’t work in my favour if I wanted to be true to myself, even in corporate Canada.
At the time, I didn’t want people to know anything about me or want to get to know me. The thing is, that’s what people do. We wonder about other people, we want to know about them. We’re hard wired that way. And people are ever curious about their bosses.
So in time, people in my professional life came to know that part of who I am is a lesbian. Not in a broadcast way but in a way of sharing who I am.
Lunch with Juanita was a bit awkward but we got through it. She didn’t come back for the second day, and I never saw her again.