We girls all wore brown pleated pinafores, the kind with a bib and a belt that cinched at the waist with a metal buckle. Beneath it was a crisp golden cotton button-up shirt. It must have been cheap cotton, something poorly woven or starched to hold its structure, because it slightly scratched at my skin below. In the winter we worn brown leotards, and the rest of the year brown knee-high socks. My mom dyed a batch of my underwear to match the colour of my pinafore, completing the uniform and my adherence to it. I wore them over my regular underwear, turning the outer pair into something more akin to tiny pants under my skirt, part of the uniform; so when I hung upside down on the monkey bars with my belt undone and my pinafore falling inside-out over my head toward the ground, I didn’t think I was doing anything improper. I wonder if my mom was required to make that undergarment for me, or if she took the initiative on her own—a small gesture toward ensuring I fit in. Probably.
All for a little private school a few blocks away from where I lived at that time. It was actually a three-storey house, a mansion refitted as a school. This was not a school for the elite. There were no preening parents conscientious about our grooming. No chauffeurs gliding up to the curb; no nannies clasping the little hands of their charges. We were the opposite. We were the children of single parents: those separated and possibly divorced, some probably widowed, and some maybe never having been married at all. It was a time when no one spoke about these things. They were connections we would figure out later, looking back.
When the school day was over, we stayed, supervised as we played in the large yard until we were each picked up by a parent to go home. It was the only school with such a service then. It was a good school. Small classes. Boys and girls comingling on the playground, something unheard of at the time. We had French lessons and made our own butter, slowing churning cream by turning our mason jars each afternoon, end over end, our little hands clutching carefully so the glass wouldn’t slip and break, destroying our alchemy before the magic took hold. After each churning session we set our jars on the windowsills in the autumn chill outside, our names in childish script identifying whose was whose. Through the pane, there was mine, Elizabeth looping across the label, the contents well on its way to becoming solid.
I attended grades one and two at this school, and did very well. I loved school and school loved me back—my marks were good then, and I felt proud of my work. Then came the antonym test: words stacked in one column on the left side of a sheet of paper had to be matched with their antonyms on the right side. It was my job to do the matching. Across from rough, I wrote calm. When my test was returned to me, calm was crossed out in red ink and smooth was inserted in its place. I lost points. All six years of me was incensed. From summers spent with my cousins at their family cottage beside a lake, where all the older kids waterskied and everyone would squint at the water each morning to see if the surface was flat and good for the first spin of the day, I knew for a fact that the opposite of rough was calm. When the water is calm, we waterski; when it’s rough, we don’t. Still too little to ski myself, I was the spotter in the boat. I watched the waterskiers to keep them safe, eyeing the waves for all signs of threat. I knew water and I knew its surface. All us kids did.
Ellen Langer tells a good story, one I wish I’d heard when I was six and I knew that the opposite of rough is calm. Langer is a Harvard social psychologist. Much of her research looks at how our experiences are formed, perceived, received, and understood by the words we attach to them. Langer talks about questioning assumptions, examining common axioms that come to dominate our perceptions and precepts and dictate how we frame knowledge. Make no assumptions, Langer says, or at least be aware of the assumptions with which you operate. Things aren’t always what they seem, nor are they always what we think they are.
Langer gives examples. Good ones. Simple. Clear. Effective. Empowering. Examples like this: if you take one piece of gum, put it in your mouth, and start chewing, and then you take one more piece of gum and add it to the one you’re already chewing, you still have one piece of gum in your mouth. If you have one pile of laundry on the floor and you then add one more pile of laundry to it, you still have one pile of laundry. 1 + 1 = 1. The opposite of rough is calm.
At six years old, I was the victim of epistemic injustice, I know that now. Epistemic injustice is the act of wronging someone in their capacity as a knower. The term was coined by Miranda Fricker, Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Epistemic injustice straddles the fields of philosophy (ethics in particular) and epistemology, looking at the construct that is knowledge. In broad terms, it’s concerned with how social power operates and how it’s attributed to individuals and groups, particularly through the many lenses of the official story: empire and post-colonialism; gender; race; economics—basically looking at anything humans get up to—ultimately, examining who gets to define reality. When applied to the operations of education, epistemic injustice looks at the meta: academe and the cannon; and at the macro, in the classroom, concerned with the power dynamics at play between teacher and learner. Epistemic injustice reminds us to consider who gets to decide what’s the opposite of rough.
I work with high school kids now. I’m not a teacher. I lead a project that takes me into several high schools each year, involving hundreds of students. I tell the kids in each class about my six year old self knowing that calm is the opposite of rough. I share Langer’s examples of gum and laundry. Because I know about epistemic injustice, I make a point of doing so. I want them to know that 1 + 1 can = 1
The last time I did, I noticed a quiet kid at the back of the room. Long and lanky, his body stretched well past what his chair could accommodate. As I was talking, I saw a curl appearing on his lips, his eyes brightening as his eyebrows gradually lifting higher on his forehead; and as he slowly began to speak I saw illumination emanating from all over him. Wow, he said, you’re blowing my mind right now.
Yes, I thought to myself, Blow your mind wide open. And please try to keep it that way.
Oh, one last thing, I said as I was getting ready to leave, life can be rough, so try to take it calm and smooth. All the kids smiled.