My freshman year of undergrad, my very first piano teacher was a fiery, passionate Brazilian man who forced the very best out of his students. Every lesson with him felt like going through a wringer, but I improved by leaps and bounds that year. I made more progress than I ever had before– even though I dreaded those lessons where he would scrawl Mozart is rolling over in his grave across the top of my sheet music, or throw me out of his office yelling, “come back when you’ve practiced!”
So, halfway through my second year, when I was re-assigned to another teacher, my first thought was that he’d grown too frustrated with me, or didn’t think that I was learning enough. In conversations over the next few days, though, I made the connection that all of his students had been re-assigned. So, in one of my courageous fits, I marched up to his office on the sixth floor and asked why I’d been re-assigned, and his answer felt incredibly scripted: that I would get more out of lessons with my new teacher. I looked at him cross-ways, realizing that was not really the true answer. He let out one of his exasperated sighs (he knew I wasn’t just going to be dismissed with a non-answer. I’m tenacious like that), and patted the usual spot on his piano bench.
“Please do not tell, but I am leaving the college.”
“I thought maybe that’s why . . . why are you going?”
His answer included a bunch of different reasons: he didn’t agree with the school’s conservative music standards, he felt that their music program was losing credibility, and he thought the college was wasting a music student’s time by forcing them to take too many general education courses. But, his last reason floored me:
“And they do not treat women with respect.” At this point, he grew heated, with Portuguese phrases peppering his speech. “They have incredible faculty, but they do not use them properly, because they are women. Many of the women have more skill and more accomplishments and more ability than any of the men, but still, men get the best jobs. Women are hidden, not allowed to use their talent in church, not given good offices, responsibilities.”
And I sat there, stunned, while he continued. Because I instantaneously knew that he was right. One of my favorite female professors is an incredible conductor, but when the campus church’s old orchestra conductor retired, they replaced the old conductor with a second-rate conductor who barely knew what he was doing. Another woman could turn a gaggle of sopranos, tenors, altos, and basses into a harmonious choir, but when they were looking for a replacement for the church’s choir director, they chose a man who was not as good as her.
My piano teacher’s speech changed everything that I thought about women in positions of leadership. Over the next three years I watched as my female professors were constantly passed over for promotions and greater responsibilities in favor of men– because they were men. My professors would work twice as hard, would be adored by their students, would serve the college with all of their ability, and they were never placed “in charge” of anything because they were women, and for no other reason.
Every time I noticed this happening, all I could think was “Crap on a cracker, Mr. Torres* was right!”
And that’s how I became a feminist.
Because, slowly, I realized that in my Christian environment, I was going to run into that a lot. And I have– over and over again. I’ve even been told, to my face, that I wouldn’t be allowed to do something at my church because I am a woman. I never would have admitted that I was one of those dirty rotten bra-burners until a year ago, but I started considering feminist concerns in my decision-making process, and I started asking hard, uncomfortable questions. I was surprised by the reactions I got to a simple why? after I’d been told no, you can’t do that.
Feminism made me brave and bold before I even realized that’s what I was becoming. Feminism gave me the courage to apply to grad school when my father said no, you’re not supposed to be outside the umbrella of my protection– and later convince him to support me. Feminism gave me the bravery to trot halfway across the country to live completely on my own for two years after I’d had a lifetime of never being more than 45 minutes away from home. Feminism gave me the chutzpah to start chasing my own goals without waiting for Mr. Right to come along first. Feminism taught me that I could do anything, be anything I wanted.
Feminism told me yes, Samantha, you’re a person.