I've been away at a conference for Jewish Educators on the campus of Duke University. I love Duke. It is a wonderfully quirky place even in its architecture. It's campus was designed by a Black architect named Julian Abele. If you're curious about how that came to be you can take a look at this article on the Duke website. It was reprinted from Smitshsonian. I kept a journal while I was there because my wireless connection went south on me so to speak. So this is what I would have posted had I been connected.
Monday August 7, 2006
I once saw a made for TV movie based on the lives of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker. In one scene Jim and Tammy are making a commercial to get more donations for some scheme of theirs. They have to make multiple versions of the same commercial because Jim names a specific city in his spiel. It went something like “We need the people of Tampa to come forward and help with God’s work.” Tammy had one line: “Jim and Tammy really needya!” It was to be delivered with her signature grimacing smile and perky diction. After they had done dozens of these, Tammy began to lose it. She was pretty much sobbing through the delivery of the last one. I remember thinking how completely messed up and out of control she must have been when this happened.
Well, I had a Tammy Faye moment today. I am attending a conference for Jewish educators on the campus of Duke University. Duke is a beautiful school. In fact one of the people I came with pointed out that it looks a lot like Hogwarts. We eat in something called the Great Hall which looks like a narrower version of the dining hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. There are 2000 Jewish educators here and only two of us are Black. Everyone else looks “typically” Jewish. Whenever I am in a Jewish context I’m used to people mistaking me for a visitor. I joke that I love to go to temple on the high holidays because all the people who only come once a year run up and welcome me to the building. It’s like always being the bride. Here it’s been a little different. We all have to wear id badges on cords around our necks. They are large badges in plastic protectors. In addition, we have room keys on lanyards around our necks. It’s nice because you quickly spot a conference attendee. Well, at least I can. Apparently some of my colleagues have a problem with it. I should say that the majority of the maintenance and food service personnel here are Black. They, too, are easy to spot as they wear blue polo shirts with their names on them, or chef’s jackets. The plastic aprons on the food service people are also a dead giveaway.
We arrived on Sunday at 3:00 pm after a nine hour drive. By 9:30 this morning (Monday) I had fielded a number of requests to get coffee or clean up toilets along with questions like “Do you work here (in the dining hall) full time?”. It is interesting but not surprising to me that all these comments came from Northerners. Not a single Southerner has yet confused me with the help. The first 3 or 4 times I smiled and said something along the lines of “I’m so sorry, I don’t work here.” giving the person time to really focus on me and take in the street clothes, lime green conference goody bag, badge and keys hanging around my neck, etc. Whenever I come south my accent slowly regresses so that fairly soon this was being delivered with a distinct drawl. By breakfast this morning, I’d had to smile and correct quite a few times. Finally, this woman barreled up to me in the chaos of the dining hall and said in a New York accent “Did you put more coffee out or what?” I said “Sweetie I don’t work here.” At which point she looked extremely embarrassed. That’s when I began to channel Tammy. I made my way to a corner table and began to get really, really shaky. I called my husband to complain for a few minutes which is usually enough to reset my equilibrium when I get upset, then I walked out of the building. This poor little 20 year old boy in a kippah and a name tag saying he was from Chattanooga had the misfortune to ask me a question and I just lost it. I ended up standing in the middle of the student union in tears while the two people I came with tried to get me to a seat. It was horrible. I have no idea how I lost control like that. I now have much more sympathy for Tammy Faye.
I my defense I did not get much sleep over the past few days, and the conference was not turning out to be as useful as I had hoped it would be. Additionally I am in the middle of a job search and really can’t afford to be away for 4 days, but I had paid quite a bit of money for the conference well in advance and had committed to drive down with my colleagues who were counting on me to share gas and driving. So, this was probably not the best time for me to try to exhibit grace under fire. Still, it was not my best moment. As I write this I am hiding out in my dorm room (where the internet connection has failed). I will post all my missives upon my return. My hope is that things will look up soon. They certainly can’t get any worse.
I did call my husband and with his usual wit he googled Black Jews and came up with a website offering buttons and stickers for Jews of color. He offered to get me one that said "I am not the Shabbos Goy". Others were a little more direct as in "If you keep staring at me I'll hit you."
Wednesday August 9, 2006
After giving it our best shot over 3 days my two colleagues and I are throwing in the towel. Last night we decided to leave the conference a day early. We went into Durham and had dinner at a nice little French Bistro. Then we returned to our respective dorm rooms, packed and went to bed. This morning we were scheduled to meet with our religious school principal to choose materials from one of the vendors. We will do that, pick up a souvenir for one the women’s boyfriend and then hit the road. We plan to be home by 10:00 pm. My colleagues were disappointed with the quality of the workshops as was I. There were lots and lots of workshops (15-21 consecutive workshops every hour and a half with very few repeats.) The conference booklet is the size of a large catalog or a small phone book. When I saw it the first thing I thought was “somebody didn’t take their lithium”. The thing is that if you have that many sessions and presenters you cannot have quality control. The first session I attended was so bad that the participants were embarrassed for the presenter. I have never seen an entire room full of educators go completely silent. It was like that scene in The Producers right after they do the “Springtime for Hitler” song. You get a shot of the audience members staring in open-mouthed horror.
Things got a little better Monday but nothing was better than mediocre. Yesterday (Tuesday) I took one really extraordinary workshop with a woman cantor with whom I had studied before. The rest ranged from mildly interesting to mind numbing. This conference was extremely expensive and took several days of my time. I tell my students that no experience is ever wasted, and this was certainly true of this trip. I got to see a really wonderful campus, and I’d love to come back to Durham as a tourist sometime. I got to think about some issues of race and religion in a different way; and that will help me in journey. However I'd like my next learning experience to be just a little less like a spinal tap. Going to get on the road now.
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