Thursday, May 12, 2011

Role Models: Lizard Lady sends me to college

In this series of posts, I'll be posting about people who've given me good advice and set me on the track to where I am now. I'll be using pseudonyms and pictures that describe them, but it'll be pretty much anonymous. You'll know who you are!

My senior year, I was pretty busy with drama club, journalism and songwriting, but otherwise I was a ne'er-do-well, padding my semesters with lots of "teacher's aide" hours that served as excuses for me to escape campus for lunch and guitar store hangouts.  My Fall semester, I got pulled out of my anatomy class* by my English teacher.  She and said anatomy teacher wanted to nominate me for the Earthwatch Student Challenge Awards. This was ostensibly a program to convince artsy kids that science wasn't scary, and involved a trip to some nature-y place to work with a scientist.  I was flattered that they picked me, but waited til the last minute to write an essay.  A few weeks later I learned I'd gotten in, and would be flown to Arizona for three weeks.  It would be the summer after graduation, so I'd already be getting ready to spend major time away from my family.   I was excited about traveling, but still not sold on science**.

But it was fucking sweet.  I was in a group of 8 teenagers, living in cabins on a small research station in the middle of nowhere Arizona.  We got up at 6am every day, piled into a van and drove into the desert to build holding pens for lizards, catch lizards***, and record their behaviors in excruciating detail.  Later, we'd get to work in a lab with mapping equipment, which was a little tedious but felt very science-y.

It was a pro-lady summer.  We were warned to not form any relationships with our fellow students, lest our focus shift. I had a boyfriend of sorts, so I was mostly safe (the host of tanned, gorgeous older staff dudes did present a temptation).  For the first time in my adolescence, I forced myself to focus on things other than boys and bad poetry.  I felt somewhat responsible for the younger ladies, being the oldest (a few years seems to make such a difference at that age) and started a friendship with a college student there for summer research.

Lizard Lady was a few years older than me, studying biology for her undergrad. Of course, as a few years make a difference, she was like a holy elder, and I hung on her every strange word.  I was chosen to help her in a separate lab one day, counting how many times a lizard would flick her tongue before going after an ant we'd placed in her cage-- tedious, but kind of mesmerizing.  LL played really weird music I'd never heard before, and all of it was by women.  She gave me a mix tape, and warned me that I probably shouldn't play it around everyone, because it not everyone would understand.  I still have that mix tape, with Liz Phair, Indigo Girls, Bikini Kill, the 6ths, Erin McKeown, and it changed my life.   I had to stop playing it because it started to disintegrate from heavy use.

She didn't directly talk about feminism, but it was in the air.  I was one of the "I'm not a feminism because I think men and women should be equal" people, because no one had ever been that kind of role model for me.  LL gave me advice, and one memorable small lecture about how when I went off to college, not to compromise myself for guys, because that was stupid.  No one, not even my mom, had ever given me straight up advice about love and sex.  Did I follow the advice? Not to the letter, but it was always in my mind that there was a better way.

I left Arizona in mid July, and started to get ready for college.  Though I didn't follow her advice, it was a little light inside me that would always be there.  I would always remember I'd met a woman who knew shit was going on, and alerted me to it and woke me up.  She gave me music and opened me up to a world where female performers weren't an aberration.

She was really good about writing, me not so much, but we kept up as penpals, sending the occasional package, for 9 years.  Now, a decade.  Last spring, I got a chance to visit with her for almost a week while J had a conference in Portland.  I was so nervous-- we hadn't even talked on the phone in all that time.  Would she still like me? Would I like her?  Would she really want to hang out?

My fears were unfounded.  All that time we'd kept close, we continued that thread of understanding.  She was just as awesome as she'd been when I met her as a teenager, and more so.  She listened to me talk about my worries re: trailing, and with a furrowed brow seemed disapproving and concerned in a way that almost made me cry.  It was like we stepped back to 2001 in a muggy laboratory, when she was trying to lay down some knowledge that could help me avoid mistakes she'd already been through.  And I hadn't avoided them, she could see.

LL saw me through growing up like no one else I can think of.  It was just letters, but her outspoken-ness about inequality and making sure I did what I really wanted/needed to do was a strident voice I so needed.  I can't imagine what my life would have been like if she'd been with me the whole time.

That time in Portland was one of the happiest weeks of my life.  We went on bike rides, I met her friends, and felt like I was in the right place.  She got to meet J and size him up, which I loved. I hope I get to see her again some day, and I really don't doubt I will.  The woman who opened me up to feminism, to badassery that didn't require boys clubs, to science and letter-writing will always be one of my favorite people in the world.

*Mostly coloring diagrams, but I had a super crush on my teacher, so I was so fucking diligent with those crayons.
**We skipped the chapter on evolution in 10th grade.  Most classes were taught by coaches.
***Desert grassland whiptail lizards (cnemidophorous uniparens) famous for being all ladies


  1. Love this post, and I look forward to reading the rest of these when blogger cooperates. Such a good idea, and really fun to read.

  2. I hope it doesn't embarrass her.

  3. I just got a letter from her after she saw the blog post. Looks like I didn't embarrass her too much.


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