“Your eyes are sparkling very nicely”, he told me. This comment caught me totally unaware and as a result I was speechless for a few seconds. Would you like hearing something like that from a stranger?
Wait. Before you say yes or no, let me explain a bit more. We were standing in the middle of a classroom. Not as equals. Rather with me as teacher and him as student. My disadvantage here was obviously age. It was my first year of teaching and I was actually still a MSc student, although teaching “only” first year BSc students. Which means that I was 22 at the time and probably younger than most of my pupils.
I decided I had to stay in control of the situation and thus replied that my eyes are not a matter of discussion. Instead, I would like to continue with the lesson. He obviously didn’t get it and started a reply with “But the make-up…”. At this point, I was a bit non-plussed what to do. I was prepared for all kind of problems, most of them related to language. I was in Germany for about half a year when I started teaching and had anticipated complaints about my less than average German. Obviously, I wasn’t expecting comments on my looks.
I tried to make a joke of it. I told him that because he’s so persistent, we might discuss this some time, just to reward his perseverance. In a pub. Should we ever meet there by chance. After he’s finished his biochem course and I’m not his teacher anymore. And then, still friendly, I added that it still isn’t an option to discuss this in the classroom and that I will throw him out, should he decide to not respect that. The other students were mostly still working on their experiments until this point, but my threatening to remove him from the class caught attention.
Before I could turn around to instruct the rest of the class about their work, I heard him say something about “glitter”. I wasn’t sure whether he was testing how far he can go and was still addressing me, or whether he expected it’s OK to discuss my make-up with the student next to him instead of me. Either case, I thought it was very rude and not acceptable.
Just imagine the panic of the moment. What should I do? Do I really want to be the bitchy teacher who overreacts to a silly comment? Do I want to be the idiot who accepts everything and as a result loses her grasp of the situation and the class? By now, they are all looking at me quite expectantly.
“OK, that’s it, off you go”. He looked amused at first, as if he’s happy that he got me angry, or maybe he’s simply looking forward to spending the afternoon outside in the sun. This is enough to make me pretty angry indeed. Maybe I shouldn’t have added the following, but I did. “You know, attendance to this course is compulsory for your biochem module and without it, you’ll have to redo the entire first year. There’s the door.” Gone was his smile, while satisfaction was my main intuitive reaction. (they actually have to attend 90% of the practical sessions to be able to pass, so he could still make it through the year)
In the monologue that follows, he first tries to explain that is was only a little fun. Then he threatens to go to my professor to complain about me. When his arguments start to repeat, I tell him I have heard enough, will not discuss the matter right here right now and start addressing the other students again. He leaves.
I spend the rest of the afternoon with a remarkably quiet class while worrying what the consequences of this’ll be. As I quickly find out after getting back to the lab, he indeed went to my boss. Some of my male colleagues tell me I obviously overreacted, that I cannot kick someone out for something marginal as enquiring about my make-up. Luckily, my boss fully supports me and explains to the others that such remarks are not acceptable in any professional encounter. His reaction strengthened my belief that my reaction to the situation was the only right response.
After getting my supervisor’s support and feeling I did the right thing, I didn’t think of the incident much more. By now, my German is much better and I am older than the majority of the students. Nothing similar has happened while teaching anymore. But when reading the recent Tweets and blog posts about harassment by a not so well known biology-online editor or prominent blog editor, this event crossed my mind again. I’m going to actively participate in the prevention of this kind of behavior by not ignoring even simple comments like this one, but by raising our students to be respectful. And by also explaining this to the colleagues who think this is acceptable. I, for one, will start by leading them to this blog post by MarkCC, that describes pretty well how easy it is to behave well. I agree. Just read the signs.