So, I had plans to write a “back to school” post sharing my feelings (nervous, excited, stressed) leading up to the official University start date. I wanted to share pictures of any cute and fun school supplies I bought to keep me motivated (haven’t purchased anything), or the stacks of books I will be using this semester (still haven’t purchased books yet, eek!).
But something unexpected happened and it is related to my back to school experience. I can’t get this experience out of my mind and so this is a post dedicated to it.
I walked into my first day of class excited and with some jitters because I get nervous talking before a group of strangers. As I entered the classroom my classmates had already moved their desks into a circle and were introducing themselves.
My mind couldn’t focus on anything other than the desks. As I walked towards the group I had a flashback to my first year as an undergraduate.
It was my second semester at the University and I was in my last trimester of pregnancy. I walked into my anthropology class which only had desks. You know, very old style desks that have a mini writing surface permanently attached to a chair (the kind of mini table that doesn’t rotate). This is a type of desk one may have used in primary or secondary school. This is the type of desk in this classroom. I found a desk and tried to sit down in it. I tried to squeeze myself into the desk but I couldn’t. My pregnant belly protruded outward that I couldn’t fit within the space between the back of the chair and the writing surface. I tried to sit sideways with my belly poking out on the side and my bottom sitting on a sliver of the chair. I tried to sit this way while the professor lectured but it was uncomfortable. I left class never wanting to return.
Now, that was some 10+ years ago. Today, as I was walked towards my classmates seated in a circle I quickly scanned the room looking for a free standing chair all while the memory of my pregnant self flashed through my mind. Well, I’m not pregnant now but I have gained weight since that incident in my anthropology class, so I knew right away and became concerned about the desk not meeting my needs. There were no other chairs available in the room. I found a desk near the circle and I tried to sit in it to join the group. While I was able to sit half-assed in the desk it was extremely uncomfortable and I couldn’t stay focused. My thoughts kept diverting to the uncomfortableness of the desk and I began to feel as though everybody was staring me (if they were, it was not overt).
While being concerned about fitting in tight spaces is not a new experience to me, it was different in that, it was a situation where there were no other seating options available. In most restaurants I avoid booths and instead request a table with a free standing chair or a bench. I avoid movie theaters that have theatre-style seating (besides recliner style seats are much more comfortable). I try to avoid traveling in airplanes. I am aware of the width of bathroom stalls (although these are less avoidable). I am conscious of how much space is available where I can and cannot fit.
This summer at our family reunion we visited an ice cave that required crawling through a small space to enter the cave. At first I declined to even try especially since strangers who walked by told me it was a tight crawl space. I’ve learned how to be accept these situations (though my feelings may feel hurt) and how to find ways out of situations where space may be an issue (e.g. politely decline lunch with colleagues if I know the restaurant has a space issue). I have learned how to inform my husband of my concerns with space and he has been understanding and supportive. For example at the ice cave after he made it through he came out of the cave to tell me that he could help guide me through the crawl space and that I could make it. But discussing my space with others (e.g. pointing it out to a professor) is something that I have simply avoided because I used to feel awkward about it.
But those are situations where I have options and some control over the places I choose to exist in. In this classroom, I was brought back to that moment when I was a young pregnant student who felt ashamed that I couldn’t quite literally “fit in.”
I have no idea if other people are as conscious with the space around them as I am. Recently, I read a journal article titled Sitting Pretty: Fat Bodies, Classroom Desks, and Academic Excess (Hetrick, A., & Attig, D., 2009) in which the authors describe desks in the academic setting as a container that indoctrinates students as to what the ideal body should be, to “fit in” both symbolically and quite literally.
Being much older than the pregnant teen in my flashback I’ve gained some confidence over the years that helped me address the current seating issue with the University. A resolution was found but it took being bounced to three different departments, being told I had to qualify for disability services in order to obtain a classroom accommodation (which requires medical documentation for service eligibility, which I do not have), and generally feeling that my request for a free standing chair was absurd since the process took time to work out. While to some this space issue may seem silly but it could potentially be something that breaks a student. Hedrick and Attig state, “Some fat students are unable or unwilling to subject their bodies to the disciplinary powers of desks and must sit elsewhere” (p. 199) but the authors leave out that possibility that some students may even withdraw from classes in full either because of the sheer physical pain that sitting in the desk may cause or because of the overt shaming (e.g. Jokes, snickering, bullying) and invisible shaming (e.g. being singled out by having to sit on the ground or standing, sitting in a “reserved” seat accommodation). And even still, some students may endure the space issue because they don’t know that they should have access to an adequate learning environment, perhaps because they’ve never “fit in” before so why should college be any different, or that there is a way to request a classroom accommodation even if you don’t have a documentable physical disability.
Being in this type of situation may never be easy and it may make me feel emotional, but I have learned that I can choose where I want to exist and I am a person who can initiate any change to a situation so I can have an equal learning experience as my colleagues, even if the initial approach to discuss the space issue with a stranger may be uncomfortable. I’m also aware that it is not “my issue” with space, that I don’t have to change to receive a comfortable workstation in my academic space, but rather it is just a space issue that can and should be resolved by the University. Besides, why is a school still using such old desks for adults? I’m certain the University student body is diverse in many ways (e.g. body size, age, height of students, physical abilities) and the University should also adapt to meet the needs of their student body without having people jump through hoops just to obtain a chair.
Edited to add:
I did end up working through the University’s Disability Resource Center to get a permanent table for use in my classroom (at least for this semester). Here are some pictures of the table and the reserved sign on the table that were placed in the room for me.
Hedrick, A., & Attig, D. (2009). Sitting pretty: Fat bodies, classroom desks, and academic excess. In E. Rothblum, S. Solovay, & M. Wann, Fat studies reader (197-) New York: NYU Press.