Some subjects are too personal to ask a stranger about. Like, what’s it like to be transgender? To be quadriplegic? So, few of us know the answers.
Then there are the impersonal questions you might not have thought to ask. But we did. Such as, what does your plumber hear and see down in your crawlspace? What’s it like being in front of a room full of squirming elementary school kids you want to teach but are constrained by No Child Left Behind’s perpetual testing requirements? What’s it like being a nurse in the operating room?
The Times lifts the veil on these matters, thanks to our anonymous sources who let us ask, as long as we kept their confidences.
My earliest memory of self-awareness that I was a person who was different was 5 years old. I think the earliest thing was me being with my godsisters, and their grandmother buying both of them a Barbie doll. They were so confused as to why I didn’t have a Barbie doll. So I remember them taking them to their grandmother and saying: “Hey, why can’t he have a Barbie doll, too?” The grandmother replied: “Oh, because he’s a boy. Boys don’t play with Barbie dolls.”
Adults made me realize that I was different. I was just doing what felt natural to me. It’s just like you or anybody else who is cisgender — which means your gender at birth and your identifying gender match up. Imagine if you were a man who woke up tomorrow in the body of a woman. That’s our experience, from birth. I always thought I was a girl, honestly.
I’m a heterosexual transgender woman. I told my friend: “You’re a heterosexual cisgender woman, and I’m a heterosexual transgender woman. That’s the difference between us.” A lot of times when people talk to me, they talk to me as if they’re talking to someone who is gay. Or, they’ll refer to a man who may be interested in me as gay. It’s such a complicated thing. People can’t understand that transgender women are women, period. The men who get attracted to us are heterosexual men! It’s just not something that people can grasp. Everybody is used to “male” and “female.” They’re not used to the in-betweens and the ones on the outside, and all the mixtures. People want black and white. People want something easily explained. People want something defined. And you know what? Everything can’t be defined. Everything can’t be explained. And this is one of those things.
When I first started to search for a title as a teenager, the only two options that I could see around me were either “gay” or “drag queen.” I knew I wasn’t a drag queen. So I started to identify as gay, which most transgender people do to begin with. But even “gay” didn’t feel right. Because I thought that I couldn’t do it, I pushed the dream of being a woman aside. I went with “gay” because it was easier. It was the role of least resistance.
I had to play a role. I had to play the role of male. I had to check “male” when they asked my identity. That’s what trapped me, because I couldn’t properly express myself. Everybody expected me to act one way, but I felt another. And when I acted the way I truly felt, I was so ridiculed for it. I was punished. I was outcast. For being myself. I tried to conform for the longest time, until I couldn’t conform any more because it was killing me.
Probably around 17 or 18 is when I first saw another black transgender woman in the media. Her name was Amiyah Scott. She was beautiful, and she was open about being trans. She was this great person who just lived courageously, unafraid of her truth. She forced people to deal with her. That’s when I thought: OK, this is me. This is who I am.
I tried to identify with everything else before I finally accepted my identity as a woman.
I remember telling my mother, and she was very supportive. I just knew that she was going to disown me when I told her. It had just gotten to the point where I was absolutely hating what I saw in the mirror. I was screaming and crying. I was lying on the bathroom floor. I just really wanted to die, but I had to make the decision: to live that day as who I really was. I was 20 years old.
I feel really bad for transgender people who have to depend on their family financially, because they have to take disrespect in order to eat, in order to have a place to stay, in order to have love. I really feel for those who are kicked out, put out, and have nowhere else to go — who have no one to turn to. When you’re a child or a teenager, you need that protection. You need that love. I really wish more people would be understanding. When you put your kid out, they could die on the streets, just because you don’t agree with who they are. A lot of times, a family lets religion or how other people see them get in the way.
Most people don’t realize that there’s friction between gays and transpeople. Transpeople experience transphobia from gay people. We’re basically viewed as the bottom of the bottom. The lowest of the low. Way back when, when gays were trying to get their rights, there were gay groups that had this idea that if they could show how normal they were to the heterosexual mainstream, they would be more accepted. So gays ended up rejecting transgender people, because they felt like we would hold them back from being accepted by mainstream society. It’s still going on today. One of the biggest focuses of the gay rights movement has been marriage equality. For transpeople, that’s not a big deal to us. For us, things like workplace protections and protections against discrimination and violence are more important. We just want to live. Don’t get me wrong. Gays face discrimination, too. But transgender people need food on the table before we think about who we’re going to marry.
People want to know about our genitalia, about our surgeries, about what we’ve done and how we have sex — all these very personal things. People tend to forget that there’s an actual living, breathing person behind all this. It’s almost sexual harassment that people feel they’re justified in doing. Because we’re transgender, because we’re different from normal, people tend to subconsciously view us as less than human. When somebody is less than human, or at least less than you in your mind, you can treat them inhumanely. You can do things and ask them things and commit even violent acts against them because you don’t view them the same as you. It’s a very dangerous thing to be trans. A man is still viewed as justified if he hurts a transgender woman. There have been so many cases of transgender women being killed because men find out they’re transgender, and the dead women face more backlash than the men who killed them. I have never been assaulted because I’m transgender, and I’m so fortunate to say that. But that fear exists. I feel like I can protect myself. But at the same time, I don’t want to be put in that situation where I have to. It’s still not a safe world for transwomen. That’s why we strive to get being transgender viewed as a normal thing.
We all need to learn how to be OK with ambiguity. We need to learn how to let people define themselves. I think that’s one of the things that’s beautiful about the trans movement: We’re pushing toward that. I won’t ever say I was born in the wrong body, because I absolutely love my body. I love everything that it’s becoming, I love everything that has been done to it, and everything that it’s been through. Because that has led to me being the person I am today. I didn’t get a whole new body once I started on my hormones. This is the exact same one.
— as told to David Koon
I wasn’t at all sure I could be a nurse. Partly because there are physical limitations. There’s a lot of running and toting and lifting and being able to move up and down hallways and in and out of rooms efficiently and quickly. And the sight of blood didn’t bother me, but the sight of bedpans upset me for a while. I had to get over that, you get immune to it. It’s still not my favorite thing (we call them Code Browns), but everyone participates and gets it all taken care of quickly.
I’ve worked in Little Rock and very briefly in Austin, Texas. When I was still in school I got a job at a nursing home. There was a lady in one of the rooms who had by all reports been comatose for a number of years. Pretzeled up, mouth open, still breathing. I decided one day after work that I was going to take this lady and just do everything in the world for her: brush her teeth, wash her up, massage her. She was completely curled up and locked in a fetal position, and when I lifted her to turn her, I heard this little voice go, “You’re good to me.” I almost dropped her. It was, “Oh my God, it’s alive.” And it was horrifying to think that she’d been conscious in that position for years, and everyone had her treated like she was comatose. Completely flipped me out.
The first time I ever took a call at the O.R., it was a ruptured spleen. They opened this guy’s belly up and put the suctions in, and the canisters just filled up with blood. I just thought, “Damn, why are they still working on this person? He’s obviously dead.” And I’m standing there thinking they were going to pronounce him. But no, not dead. Because we don’t stop there, we don’t allow people to be dead. We transfuse them and we sew them back together.
It’s very unusual to see people die. They die later. If they die in the O.R. it screws up your statistics horribly, because it’s considered an inter-operative death and nobody wants that. So we keep them alive until they can die three days later in the I.C.U. That’s my cynical view. And really the only people that happens to are people who are so sick that we operate on them as a last-ditch effort, a one-in-a-million chance. I have not seen a real “oops” death. I cannot think of one.
I worked in the O.R. for a while and now I’m in the immediate post-op recovery room. Apparently there are a lot of people who have surgery who don’t expect to have pain afterwards. I shouldn’t let that frustrate me, but it does, especially now that I’ve been doing this for a long time. You get a little jaded, you can’t help it. People wake up and go, “Why does it hurt?” And you just want to say, “Are you serious? Do you know where you are?” I know it’s because they’re surprised, and some of them really believe that they’ll get medicine for the pain and then it won’t hurt. But that’s completely unrealistic. We cannot cut into you without it hurting you. We can’t take a scalpel, cut you open, rearrange your inward parts and sew you back together without you waking up in pain. We’d love to, but we can’t.
You get to where to you can pick out the drug seekers pretty well. Because their metabolism is so altered by their dependence on stuff, it’s almost impossible to control their pain. And they’re frustrated and I’m frustrated, but it’s quite common. They have such a high tolerance that nothing will override it. You have to explain that we can’t medicate them to the point where they’re at risk for respiratory arrest. My big line is always, “Respiration is mandatory, comfort is optional.”
I don’t like doing kids. For one thing, they don’t understand what you’re doing to them. They scream their little lungs out and you can’t tell if they’re frightened or if they’re hurting. Their metabolisms are super fast and they will go down in a second if something goes wrong. And their parents are there and are totally freaked out — and who wouldn’t be? It’s their baby. So then you’ve got two patients, the child and the mother or father. You have to tend to them as well, because they’re coming unglued. Here’s their baby looking like a semi-anaesthetized, shrieking monkey. It’s ugly.
I dread having to deal with red tape. Like the Electronic Medical Record (EMR), which is computerized charting and which has had a lot of unintended consequences. Instead of having a piece of paper, they have a computer there for you to document everything on. I’m sure it was well intended, but the day it went live was the worst day of my career. I think it’s very bad for patients, because everyone is looking at their screens; no one is looking at the patients. These are real live people. You can’t watch the patient and do the computer at the same time.
Dealing with doctors, though, has improved enormously. When I first started in nursing, if a doctor came into the room you got to your feet, stood at attention, gave them your chair and didn’t speak. It’s ever so much better now. They’ll be reprimanded now if they’re verbally abusive, so it’s much more collegial. It’s still not perfect. You have to have a sort of audacity to pick up a knife and cut into another human being and say, “I’m going to make this person better.” What personality type does that? You can’t be a shrinking violet. Different people handle it different ways — I’ve met some very sweet, humble surgeons, and I don’t know how they do it. Because how do you do that job and not have a sort of God complex?
The job isn’t gruesome at least, it’s a very controlled environment. Everything is sterile. And you’re making someone better, you’re not tearing them apart. You’re going to fix something and that’s fascinating. Anatomy and the way the human body works is fascinating. From a cellular level, it’s just perfection. On some level, no matter how messed up they are, the fact that they’re here at all is kind of miraculous if you think about it.
— as told to Will Stephenson
Elementary School Teacher
So you want to know what it is like being an elementary school teacher in the public schools? I’ve been teaching for 27 years, 15 of them in Little Rock. I love it. I’m there for the kids. But.
I’ve been through about five superintendents in the past 15 years. They all added programs and pet projects, and nothing ever got taken away. I fill out forms for a superintendent that was here three superintendents ago. It just goes in a file. You learn to triage, which forms to spend a lot of time on, which will never be looked at. You’ve got to, because there’s never enough time to teach.
We spend too much time testing kids. It’s one thing for kids to know the content and another to be able to regurgitate the information on a bubble sheet. All the tests are in a different form. Students have to learn how to take the test. It’s like basketball. Players may know how to dribble and shoot, but not the rules of the game. We take three to four weeks or more just prepping kids for the rules and formats of the tests. If we’re prepping for the tests, all instruction stops. I feel like I have almost no control now about how I plan for instruction, teach or help students. Everything is planned and laid out for us. Very cookie cutter without regard for what kids need or the style and personality of the teachers. Teaching is an art and a craft. Let us teach! No Child Left Behind has left us in a tailspin. It’s ruined us.
Kids are very verbal these days, and their attention spans are so diminished. The number of students with attention deficit disorder has exploded — I’d never even heard of it when I started teaching. They don’t know how to settle themselves. Recess has been cut drastically. At home they are constantly entertained with computers, TV and video games. That’s tough to compete with! So I make learning as active and positive as I can with small group teaching and with instruction that meets individual differences. Then for a week right after spring break, we sit them in a chair and tell them they have to be still and silent for an hour and a half to three hours three to five days in a row to take a test. Sometimes it feels like child abuse. No matter … the little ones work so hard and they want to please their teachers and their parents, but the tests are too far above their level. Kids who’ve made remarkable progress are still labeled and told they’re not good enough. It breaks my heart.
Why am I, a professional with a master’s degree in my teaching area, required to take 60 hours of professional development every year? That’s twice what doctors are required to have! And why are all those 60 hours taken from instructional time BEFORE the test? Why don’t we do that before school? In summer?
They tell us everything. “I love you.” “Mommy and Daddy had a fight last night and the police came over.” One little girl in class wouldn’t stop crying. She told me, “The police came and took my mom, and I don’t think I’ll see her again.” Neither she nor I got much teaching or learning done that day. I held her in my lap most of the day. They all call me mom at some point. There’s always one who hangs on. There’s always one I just want to take home with me.
There are always kids who are coming in and out of the school, because their parents are having to move out of their houses for unpaid rent or whatever. I keep a seat and school supplies ready for a new student at all times. Once I had a new student show up on Valentine’s Day without valentines for the party. She was crying, but her mom wouldn’t listen. So we got a box of valentines for her and helped her sign them. The little girl hugged my neck at the end of the day and said it was the “bestest” party ever.
The economy and social spending cuts hurt kids so much more than adults. As one example of many, I had a child who always came to school looking neat, her hair in braids, clothes clean and pressed, with a great big smile. She was doing well. Then I noticed that her clothes were a little wrinkled, and she didn’t look as tidy. I asked her if anything was wrong. She asked me, “Do you have any food? I didn’t get to eat last night or this morning.” She didn’t have any running water or electricity at home. Her mom had been getting water from a hose from the next-door neighbor to cook and flush the toilet. She wouldn’t ask for help. Then there are the kids who need glasses, but their family can’t afford them. There are dental issues, too. Kids in pain.
What I am most surprised about is how disrespectful kids are. It’s not a socio-economic thing. In the last 20 years, the level of respect for adults has gone to the bottom. One of my students wrote an essay about the size of my breasts, which he called “boobilicious.” He just handed it to me. He was suspended.
I have only been afraid at school once. One day, the younger brother of a boy who’d been dealing drugs brought a gun to school. Sometimes the older ones give the younger ones guns and drugs to run. A boy in my class asked to see it and brought it to the classroom while we were split up into reading groups. I noticed the boy — basically a good kid — was hunched over. I turned around and heard a click. He had pulled the trigger. I was scared to death. He was scared, too. I didn’t say anything, just held out my hand and he put the gun in it and we walked to the office. Then a special ed kid, seeing how much attention the gun got the student, brought in a toy gun a few days later. He thought it was a big joke. They had to send him home, too.
I’ve seen a lot of changes, but I wouldn’t trade the last 30 years for anything. I put my own kids through LRSD. They are doing very well. It was a good experience.
Some of my parents are so worried all the time. They want me to give their kids extra homework or spelling words. I want to tell them, just hug your kids. Work a puzzle with them at night. Read to them or with them. Let them be kids. Don’t worry so much. I’m a professional. I do my job well, and it’s all going to be OK. Enjoy the time you have.
Like I said, I love it. Every year is a fresh start. Kids come up to me years later and say, “remember me?” I was the first one to make the lightbulb burn in that science lesson you taught us! I want to be a writer because you taught me how. One student came to my room specifically to invite me to his high school graduation because he said I had made him believe he could do anything he wanted if he just worked hard. And he did. First member of his family to graduate! I love seeing old students. It makes the hard stuff worth it.
Sometimes you just say to hell with the system. I’m going to do my job in spite of you.
—as told to Leslie Newell Peacock
The woman we spoke to for the following piece is an Arkansan in her 20s who has been confined to a wheelchair, with limited use of her arms and legs, since she was involved in a serious car accident in 2010.
I don’t remember the wreck. Even the months before are hazy and mixed up.
It was the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was in school studying, and I had to work that evening. I worked as a cocktail waitress, and as a makeup artist at [a local store]. I worked. I worked all the time.
What happened was, my boyfriend at the time was driving, and he ran into the back of a semi that had pulled off the side of the road. I had been leaned back in my seat, asleep. I don’t remember any of this, but my boyfriend said that the entire time in the ambulance, my eyes were just darting around, darting and darting and darting. He said that I just kept repeating, in this kind of creepy, almost inhuman voice: “Help! Help! Help!” over and over again, until they put the oxygen mask on me.
I had a hangman’s fracture of the C2 vertebrae. They call it that because when they hang people, that’s what kills them. My C3 through C5 vertebrae were perched. It took two days of surgery — one 14 hours, one 12 hours — to fix that. I had collapsed both lungs, broken all my ribs, broke my arm, disconnected my voice box from my trachea by two inches and had contusions on my lungs and on my kidneys. I had a severe brain injury. I had a huge subdural hematoma and a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is where you’re actually bleeding into your brain. They said I had minutes left to live, because the swelling was pressing on my brain stem. They took the entire right side of my skull off, and left it off for two months to swell. My brain swelled up so big that my dad said it was like a balloon. They put my hair in a baggie with my clothes, to give to my parents in case I died. I still have that hair and my cut-up clothes to this day, in a big Ziploc bag in my closet. It’s just eerie to look at.
I was in the ICU for a month, and then I went to rehab for eight weeks. They said I would never talk, eat or move anything below my shoulders. They said I would never breathe on my own. I remember asking my mom to kill me. I asked her to kill me. I begged her, begged her, begged her. If I had known I could’ve asked them to take me off the ventilator, I would have in a heartbeat. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong with me. I didn’t know that I was paralyzed. I just knew that something was really wrong. I remember them asking me to wiggle my toes in the ICU, and when I did it, they all clapped. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it for so long.
I started moving my right arm in about two weeks and pushing with my legs in about two weeks, and I had full sensation. But it took me a month and a half to be able to swallow, and a long time to be able to talk. At first, I had to use a head tracker to be able to type so I could talk. It’s like this: My legs are strong. I can feel a fly on my leg. I thought a quadriplegic meant — like most people do — that you couldn’t move or feel anything. But it’s more complicated than that. I get extremely upset when people in the medical community assume I can’t feel anything. I had a blood clot once, and the doctor was like: “Well, you couldn’t feel it.” But I could.
When I try to move my leg muscles, every single other muscle in my body tightens up. My arms clench up. My fists clench up. My abs clench up. I can’t control it. To me, almost everything feels the same, except there’s a tingling all over my body most of the time. My muscles spasm. They’ll tighten up, and my hands will shake. I can feel a pinch. I can feel when someone lightly brushes my leg. But I can’t feel temperature, hot and cold on my feet. My hands are my weakest. My dexterity in my hands is awful, and I typically use a stylus to text with or type with.
I miss my independence. I feel like a child. I lived with my parents for a while, but I moved into an apartment with a caretaker. I had to live with the caretaker, and they dictated when I had to go to bed. It was better living on my own with my caretaker because they were young and allowed me more freedom, but I’m back living with my parents now.
I miss working. I miss being able to dress myself. I miss having a choice of what time I get up, what time I go to bed, how I want to do my makeup. I miss riding a bicycle. I miss driving. Oh, my God! I miss driving, listening to music on the radio, and smoking a cigarette! I miss men’s stares when I walk into a room. I miss the simple things the most: walking to the fridge to get a drink. Stretching when I wake up in the morning. Turning the pages of a real book, feeling the paper against my fingers. Grocery shopping. Handwriting things.
I fantasize about cleaning. That’s one of the things I miss the most. I fantasize about it. I would use old-school Comet to clean my bathroom, and I fantasize about doing that again. Scrubbing. I fantasize about washing dishes, and the way it felt, and the way the soap lathered up. I fantasize about using Clorox wipes to wipe down the toilet. I fantasize about the smells, about doing laundry, about folding sheets, folding clothes. I fantasize about riding bicycles and walking up the stairs. But I can’t remember what it feels like to walk. I can remember what it feels like to walk up the stairs or to ride a bicycle. But I can’t remember what it feels like to walk. I asked my therapist about that, and he said that when you walk, you’re not thinking about it.
I told my therapist once: “I miss having control over my life.” And he said: “Name one person who has control over their life.” I said: “My mom, my sister, my brother. They get to pick out what they want to wear and where they want to go.” He said: “You’re talking about independence. No one has control. You wake up thinking your car will start tomorrow, you wake up thinking you’re going to see your kids, you wake up thinking your wife is not going to be diagnosed with terminal cancer.” That made me think. That’s true.
My boyfriend now is wonderful. The funny thing is, I would not have gone for him before the wreck at all. He’s just not somebody who I would have gone out with. It was a blind date, and when I first saw him, I said: “Hell, no.” He was wearing Dad jeans and a belt, with a tucked-in shirt. But then, we drove around in his car and listened to music and it was just gorgeous.
I’m thankful for my boyfriend. For my family being around. Food. The weather. Music. Literature and art, and especially poetry. Poetry saves me. I can’t explain it any other way.
I cannot say I’m grateful for my accident. But my daddy always told me that ever since I was a little girl, I was very intuitive and introspective, and that I’d see things with a different point of view. I think my wreck has allowed me to see more of the beauty in life and in people. Even in my darkest days in ICU, there was goodness around me. There were people who made me laugh. I can’t say that I’m grateful for my wreck quite yet, but I know that my whole outlook is different now. What I want to do with my life is just different. Now, I just think that life is beautiful.
— as told to David Koon
I’ve been a plumber since I came home from Vietnam in 1970. I hated plumbing since the second week I was in it, but it’s been a good living. You do see some stuff when you are a plumber. In my 20s, on one of my first jobs, I was at a rent house. A guy was abusing his wife while I was working on his commode. I told him he was treating her like a junkyard dog. I hear a lot of abuse from crawlspaces. Anyway, this guy drew a pistol on me and said, “don’t talk to me like that in front of my wife.” I finished the job and left. It was a crappy house, owned by this executive. I quit taking his calls.
I don’t answer every call for work. I don’t work for low-income people or if they sound odd on the phone. Indians and Pakistanis are hard to work with and Chinese don’t want to spend any money. I like my Filipino customers. All up in the Heights — they’re slow pays. One scumbag had his mother make him cupcakes for his office party and he dropped them on the floor and just picked them up and re-iced them. I put in a bathroom for him. He stiffed me about $700. But there are a lot of considerate people, too. I’ve been flown to Georgetown in Washington, D.C., to put in a bathroom for a lady’s son. She said it was cheaper to fly us up there on her frequent flyer miles than hire someone there. That’s where I learned to drink espresso.
I’ve been met at the door by naked women. I’ve seen that at the door in a high-dollar part of Little Rock. A woman in panties and a T-shirt. You know, for years I never went back to that house. Another woman was in bed with her boyfriend when I came over to work on her washing machine. She was drop-dead gorgeous. She was wearing a serape and that’s it. The guy in bed was laughing his ass off. I think it was a dare. It was in Hillcrest. They lean left. I lean my own direction. When I was apprenticing in North Little Rock, a lady wanted to swap out plumbing for, you know. She wanted a new water pipe. I said I didn’t think so. You got to draw a line somewhere. But I have dated some women I met on the job.
I’ve been in danger on the job. I was in the Tie Plant area putting in a sewer line in a trench about five-foot deep when the sides started to ooze. I was laying the last joint when the sides started liquefying. The backhoe operator on the job swung his bucket over to me and I grabbed hold and he pulled me out. I was wearing chest waders, and the mud pulled the boots off of them. I got paid and lived happily ever after.
I’ve pulled all kinds of things out of pipes. Diamond rings, earrings, watches. Years ago, a lady in Rose City called and said she’d been out partying and came home, barfed in the commode and lost her false teeth. What we did was we took a long snake — a cable — sent it down the pipe and up to the manhole outside, wrapped it in old towels and dragged it back up to the commode. Never did find them. The choppers went down the sewer.
Over in North Little Rock people thought they had a gas leak. A cat had crawled up under the house and died and swelled up. I was carrying it out on a wire hoping it didn’t pop. The lady gave me a $10 tip. I don’t work under houses anymore. Once I was working under a house in this long crawlspace, all the way at the end of the house. I was there for a long time and my flashlight was going dim and I was tired and I saw what I thought was a 220 cable going up to the stove. Then it started to move. What it was was a black snake. I was petrified. Scared the daylights out of me.
Once I was paid in cash that smelled like pot. I know what pot smells like. I’m a child of the ’60s. It was a couple of thousand dollars.
I’m not going to be a plumber forever. It gets boring. I might be a gardener.
—as told to Leslie Newell Peacock