28 March 2011

next to normal

Have you ever gotten to a point in your life where you wonder whether or not you are actually crazy?

What happened to me today certainly was not quite that dramatic, but it did force me to question my ability to determine what is socially acceptable.

It happened in my cultural studies seminar. The girl that sits next to me is an acquaintance of mine, so I thought on some level she understood my neuroses. Especially considering that she lived pretty close to me my freshman year, so she has seen me in action when she visited my room.

She had forgotten to bring the reading for today’s session, so she asked to look on with me. I said yes, of course. There have been times when I forgot to print out the reading, but being too shy to inconvenience anyone else, would pretend that it was in my binder, or even pretend that I had taken copious amounts of reading notes and was editing them in class. I didn’t want someone else to suffer like that.

I moved my papers between the two of us (but still slightly closer to me, just to establish boundaries) and we both leaned in to follow along as the professor pointed out a particular passage. I should also note at this time that I print these documents with multiple pages on one printed page so that they end up looking like this:

I always feel horrible printing out fiftyish-page readings, and adjusting the images and printing double-sided helps alleviate that guilt, even though it's at the expense of my already rapidly deteriorating eyesight.

This particular reading was confusing, so my copy was mainly marked up with underlines and question marks in the margins so that I would remember to bring things up in class. Other pages were blank, simply because I wasn’t sure what exactly I should take away from those passages.

As we were following along, she turned to the next page. I already thought that was crossing the boundaries I had established, but I let it go. Mostly because I am aware of my personal space issues and I know that they are weird. But she kept turning the pages to look, superficially, at all of the pages. She then turned to me and said, “(snort of derision) Nice notes.”

In a defensive panic, I tapped my notebook and made writing gestures with my index finger, indicating that I had taken reading notes (which I had, except that they were mostly quotes of text followed by phrases of confusion). She looked unconvinced, so I put my head down and feigned being incredibly interested in the reading before me. But all I could see was the reason for my shame.

As I sat there half-listening, I started to think about the interaction. She was inconveniencing me, yet had the audacity to judge me. I mean, she didn’t even have her reading. I would never judge someone based on how annotated their readings are, and even if I were to judge someone, I certainly wouldn’t vocalize the judgment. And I have seen people write stupid stuff in the margins of their books. I bought a used book for a class in which, unbeknownst to me or I would not have bought it, someone had written “metaphor” next to every single metaphor in the novel. It drove me nuts.

Besides, I judge myself more than enough. I do not need help from other people.

But what struck me was how quickly I went into defensive mode, deciding in that split second that I had to prove myself to her. In addition, I automatically assumed a submissive position, even though I should have been in a position of power. I, after all, had the reading. Somehow, I had absorbed all the blame for what had just happened, even though I understood that she was being rude to me.

The problem, therefore was not with me at all, but lay with her. More specifically, it lay with her failure to recognize that she was being inconsiderate.

Later on during the seminar, the professor referenced an additional reading that he had assigned for extra credit. I had done it, but neglected to print it out, or even save it on my laptop. Yes, I had taken reading notes. Luckily, I had my laptop in my bag, so I took it out so I wouldn’t be lost when he mentioned specific instances.

But, to access that specific version of the reading, I had to open the email to which he had attached the document. While searching for his email, I noticed that I had an unread message in my inbox. Being easily distracted, I opened it. Then I felt that familiar discomfort. She was reading my email. I turned to her, but she was still staring intently at my screen. I tried to make eye contact, but I could see her pupils moving as she read the words that were intended for me. I said, “You’re reading my email.” She nodded. Then she said, “It’s not like it was anything private.”

I quickly closed the message, found the document I needed, then tried to make sense of what had just happened.

True, the email wasn’t necessarily private. One of my professors sent out a list of awards for which her students could apply. My classmate may have even been on the list of recipients. But I still felt violated that my classmate was so open in her disregard for my privacy, nor did she see any problem with her actions.

Now that I am removed from the situation, I can’t help but wonder whether my perception is so skewed that I interpreted everything completely wrong. The more I think about it, the more concerned I am that I have the problem. Was all the discomfort only in my head? Was the way in which she was behaving normal, but because I was the one on the receiving end, they appeared especially strange? Or, was her behavior really as appalling as I perceived it? Who is the weird one here: her or me?


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