WITS Voices: Your First Assignment is to Judge Me

By Anastacia Tolbert, WITS Writer-in-Residence

*I’m wearing faded blue jeans spotted with white paint, a long, un-tucked NASA t-shirt, a burgundy hooded sweater, a pageboy hat, stripped socks and black flats. 

The teacher has already told them a “professional writer” from WITS is coming. They haven’t Googled me but have formed ideas on what a “professional writer” looks like. I wear glasses. I’m _____________ tall, I’m _____________ age, my hair is ________________, and I probably have to write to classical piano. I have more than one copy of Dead Poets Society and refer to it often.

I’m not a fan of lengthy, longwinded introductions about writing without students getting to know who I am. (According to my teenage son, teenagers sometimes have short attention spans, and even shorter ones for adult strangers). For this reason, I engineer it so that we play the Judge Me game. I ask the students to inside-brain-judge-me while I walk around, stopping to sit in chairs, take off a hat, throw a scarf on the ground, and even wave at students in silence.

The rules: they have to judge me based on more than surface observations and go for layered judgment (class, race, sexuality, art, writing, home life, activism, eating habits, etc.). At first, when I ask the students to judge me, they sit in disbelief, some even saying, “Is she serious?” or “Oh, I have some judgments; this is going to be fun,” or my favorite so far, “But we don’t know anything about her! How can we do that?”(This is the kid I will pass on the activist baton to in twenty years).

Here is how the students judge me:

  1. Between the ages of 30-35
  2. No kids
  3. One little baby
  4. Married (hiding ring)
  5. Not married
  6. Queer
  7. Not straight
  8. Has a serious boyfriend
  9. Has a serious girlfriend
  10. Doesn’t care about fashion
  11. Doesn’t care what anyone thinks
  12. Extrovert
  13. Arrogant
  14. Confident
  15. Lives in a studio apartment and doesn’t like technology
  16. Loves to teach
  17. Loves art
  18. Is into “weird” art
  19. Only likes old school hip hop
  20. Vegan
  21. Vegetarian
  22. Raised in the South
  23. Raised in San Francisco
  24. Raised in New York City
  25. Is a dog lover
  26. Only likes cats
  27. Never wears dresses
  28. Not religious
  29. Spiritual
  30. No siblings
  31. The baby of siblings
  32. Thinks everyone is cool & that you shouldn’t judge anyone by the way they look, smell, dress or talk.
  33. Is a professional judger

 

After the judging is done, I stand bravely with my hands behind my back and listen to their judgments. I tell them that my only response will be a poker-faced mmmm-hmmm. This breaks the ice, and they like this response—a non-judgmental I-hear-you. After I gather all the judgments, I tell all the truths, I answer every judgment. A brief hush and sigh fill the air, like a mix between test-taking energy and shopping mall buzz. And then the magic happens: I say, “So, lets talk about your judgments and my truths. Are there any questions?”

The room becomes a place of question and delight. Back-chair, clock-watching kids ask me to explain what I mean when I say I appear confident, but it wasn’t always like that. That conversation morphs into systemic stereotypes, gender bias, and the difference between presentation versus actual culture or heritage. Soon, there is laughter, and I begin to learn about the group of students I will have the pleasure of teaching for the next 14 days. The conversation shifts to a community conversation.

My biggest and greatest lesson taught to me by students is that when I deepen my heels in authenticity and allow them to be human, to ask and seek out true answers, to push boundaries and to sit in discomfort, I am not a vehicle for learning, but a conduit for an even exchange of learning and teaching. In the judgment game, we writers prompt ourselves; no writer’s prompt is better than another’s.

Yes, really.

Anastacia Renee Tolbert is a queer super-shero of color moonlighting as a writer, performance artist and creative writing workshop facilitator. She has received awards and fellowships from Cave Canem, Hedgebrook and VONA. She is the 2015-16 poet-in-residence at Richard Hugo House. Her chapbook 26 was published by Dancing Girl Press, and she is a 2015 Pushcart nominee. 

Photography by Natasha Marin.

 

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