• ruthannelphillips

Shall we Dance

It happened again. Usually by someone attempting to use their superior intellect to covertly inform me, without openly insulting me, that I shouldn't be here. It is a dance that I am confronted with quite often. Usually it is brought about because of my gender, sometimes it is because of my age.

I often think it would be more refreshing to have someone just flat out say what it is they find so offensive about my presence in the fire service. But that's not true either. You can go into thousands of on-line fire department forums, read countless essays on minorities in the fire service, and the hatred and vitriol in the comment sections will take your breath away.


So, maybe, the dance is better.


With the exception of making it through the hiring process, generally folks don't ask me for my background or qualifications. My detractors look at me and see an old lady and they are appalled, I assume, because my presence takes something away from them. It takes away the "firefighter mystique." I am not a big burly white guy, so I cannot possibly do the job, or rather, "If she can do the job, maybe I am not that special."


Should I carry my resume with me and hand them out? But truthfully, I know that whatever skills or knowledge I possess, it will never be good enough. Quite simply put, I will always be "quota" in their eyes.


If I defend myself or list my accomplishments, I am instantly labeled arrogant, or a braggart. If I write about it, I am a trouble maker or I am ungrateful. If other women have not had similar experiences; I am a liar or I am weak. Regardless of what I do, I am always wrong.


Let the dance begin. As I take my partner, a young, strapping male, by the hands, he guides me onto the floor and with his soft manly voice, he attempts to woo me by whispering in my ear.

"There is no such thing as equality only equal opportunity."


This is usually how the first part of the dance goes.


"We're not all equal, right? Someone may be good at sports, or dancing, or someone may be good at singing. I'm not a good singer, but I have other skills." His voice is deep and sensuous. I am being lulled by the music and he pulls me closer, "Can't we agree, we are not all the same?"


We are doing a simple waltz, he converses easily, and with a self-deprecating tone he says, "Someone may be a really great teacher because they are good with kids. I'm not good with kids, so I shouldn't be a teacher."


The cadence changes and he becomes more forceful. He pulls me close and my hand starts to ache. "We are not equal, but we should have equal opportunity. You should have the right to apply to a job, any jo, Like me. And that job should have certain standards that everyone should meet. If you can't meet the standards, then you shouldn't be hired. The standards shouldn't be changed just because certain people can't meet them."


Yes, I have been called out. The challenge has been issued. How can I possibly argue with such intelligence and logic! I should not be here. We are not equal and the fact that I am here, means that standards have been lowered.


The orchestra pauses, there is silence in the room as I respond accordingly, "Why sir, whomever do you mean?" I giggle and flush. "I think perhaps I am in need of some refreshment. Alas, I may have developed the vapors to think you deem me unqualified or that standards have been overlooked. Quickly! I am in need of the smelling salts! Please catch me in your manly arms!"


The collective lets out a sigh of relief. Catastrophe averted. She didn't get the inference. She missed the innuendo. I'm not in on the joke. The music resumes.


Confidently, he tries again. Emboldened by my ignorance. "Don't you believe there is a certain place...a certain necessity...for agitation?" (How is that for an utterly brilliant way to redefine hazing and harassment? It is now called agitation! Brilliant!) He dips me low. I raise an eyebrow, he dips me lower. "The military has done it for years. They do it to unify their...men. It builds camaraderie and teamwork."


He skillfully twirls me across the floor before I can respond.


"It's harmless agitation, not the bad stuff they used to do years ago. The more harmless kind. It helps weed out the weak. It lets your partners know if you can handle the stress; how you will respond in dire situations. We need to know if you can be in a burning building without panicking. Agitation will help us know what you respond to."


I am breathless. "Yes, when you leave your poop in the toilet without flushing - that makes me strong when I find it. It would be ever so instructive to get a text picture of it as well."

With a deep gravelly laugh, he counters, "No. That is just immature. I am talking about 'real agitation."


"Vinegar in the water bottle?" I query.


"Uh, no."


"Radiator fluid under my car?"


"Hmmm. Not quite."


"Lowering my seat in the ambulance and raising the heat on a very hot day?" I counter.


I see the consternation on his face as I misunderstand his point. In frustration, he forcefully states, "I mean REAL agitation!" He is annoyed, convinced I am an idiot.


Apparently, the type of successful agitation he is looking for is the kind that makes you stronger. The kind that offers your coworkers insight into the operation and content of your very soul. It is the kind that defines your character. Whether you will be able to pull your partner out of a burning building or if you will just cry. That is the type of agitation he is looking for.


Coyly, I smile. He has just encountered some of my own brand of agitation. I am disappointed he did not pass my test. Maybe he won't be able to pull me out of a burning building. Or maybe he can, but he will be crying while doing so.


But let's move on. Let's do the Tango.


"Some people just don't understand the 'culture' of the fire service. All of the law suits, and those lowering of standards have hurt and hindered the institution." He looks at me as though he wants to eat me. "Don't you agree?"


I would respond, but there is a rose stuck between my teeth. We do a turn. I gasp.


"Some people aren't mentally prepared to deal with the death of a child. I have seen women completely break down when that happens on a call." He nibbles my ear lobe. "It's in their genetic make-up to be too bonded. Too compassionate. Which is fine, as long as it doesn't put my life at risk."


Wait. Did I just hear someone turn compassion and bonding into a negative? This guy is good! And I want to hear more about all of those compassionate woman who are putting his life at risk, but once again, he changes direction.


"There is a point when we hit a certain age, I'm not saying what that age is, where we can't do the same things we did when we were younger. But it's important we can be honest with ourselves when that time comes."


Yeah, I get it. You're saying I'm old. I deliberately hunch over and in my best Wicked Witch of the West impersonation, I cackle. And with that he lifts me up and twirls me in the air. He spins me round and round. I am dizzy. He tosses my rag doll form to the ground and with his foot on my body, he rages. There is no more subterfuge. He is no longer playing nice. He has given up trying to convince me that I am useless. He screams over my lifeless form, "You shouldn't be here because you don't have the upper body strength! You can't pull me out of a burning building! And I am very ANGRY that you are here!"


When he is through, I slowly sit up and politely ask him to remove his boot. He seems surprised I am not broken or dead. I wait for him to regain his composure.


"I'm fine," I assure him, "I'm strong." I do a few push-ups to ease his mind about the upper body thing. I even let him touch one of my biceps. I make an innocent joke. He laughs uncertainly. I pat him on the back. Everything is going to be okay. He looks at me intently, then slowly nods his head.


The tones go off and for now there is a truce - until the next shift when the dance begins again.

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