In Public Spaces
We all, at various moments, both give and receive the message that public space is dangerous to different degrees. Access to public space is controlled by fear and through the threat and the reality of assault in public—on transportation, in parks, in commercial spaces, and on the street. This reality activates different modes and levels of vigilance in everyone. For people who have experienced violence, the relationship to this vigilance is distorted, sometimes subtly and sometimes tragically.
Yet the dangers are also real. Public contexts—not only common spaces, but also schools, workplaces, and institutions—present many and varied encounters with violence. Many of us have experienced violence while negotiating these contexts, and the resulting anxieties resonate in complex ways long afterward. These are the anxieties we bring to learning, which is an activity that happens most often in public.
Consider a woman who was followed to work this morning by a stranger. It is the second time she has seen him, though, and it was uncanny the way he knew she would exit the parking garage by that particular door. Few use this exit, but she always does. By the time she gets to her desk, she is full of adrenalin and wobbly, but trying to talk herself out of it, scolding herself for being paranoid.
This morning there is a group training session for a new computer program, about which she is nervous because she has never felt very comfortable around computers and is afraid her younger colleagues will catch on much faster than she. At the training, her boss, who has been making jokes with sexual innuendo to her for the last few months, chooses her station to observe the screens, and is looking over her shoulder, hovering behind her. As the instructor gives a particularly confusing command, her boss brushes against her back, and she jumps, right as the instructor asks her if she needs clarification. She blushes. Everyone asks if she is okay.
Yes, of course, she says. I just can’t learn computers.
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