Being Nobody, or How I Was Radicalized by Emily Dickinson
M. Jamie Zuckerman
October 12, 2021
Being Nobody, Or How I Was Radicalized by Emily Dickinson
The slim, mass-market paperback collection of poems was from one of those traveling book fairs that used to move around the rural public schools with their big, folding silver shelves and bored salesmen. I probably chose it for the cover—a watercolor and pen landscape whose painting style I would eventually appropriate—and it was my first book of poems. When my 7th grade English teacher assigned us to memorize a poem—any poem—like the sensible girl I was, I chose a short, rhyming one: Emily Dickinson’s 260th, also known by its first line, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Maybe I thought the poem was humorous or cute, like A. A. Milne’s innocent rhymes, the image of frogs croaking their own names.
The cruelty of girls began in 7th grade. It was the 90s, and many states hadn’t yet provided a clear definition of bullying or passed laws holding schools liable. The other girls hit puberty and got some electric signal to start dressing the same, wearing their hair the same (one small braid on the side of the face), listening to the same bad pop songs, going to regional school dances that were always the same dark gym, and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was always the last song, which they swayed to even when it stopped being a slow song. I was taken off guard by the sudden, unspoken agreement among everybody-but-me to stop playing tag and start spending recess babbling to each other about nothing. I somehow missed the puberty memo and saw absolutely no appeal in any of it.
I was tortured by constant laughter about my breasts, my hair, my clothes. A lot of it was sexual and humiliating. I was excluded from everything outside of school, and in school everything I did, every movement or word, was fodder for a joke. At one school-wide event hosted by the local ski area, they made a game of running away from me, so I stood alone on a deck overlooking the snow-less slopes and looked up at the stars. I had no idea why I was selected for such systemic, psychological abuse.
I looked different—I had brown curly hair and big, fully-developed breasts, which came from being daughter of the only Jew in town, but I don’t think the girls were motivated by religion to hate me. I wore boy’s clothes, I liked fantasy novels, and I listened to my parents’ music—Cat Stevens and The Traveling Wilburys—instead of whatever was popular on the radio. (One secret exception: Alanis Morrisette, especially the utter disdain in her voice when she growled, “Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?”) We lived in a small town—there were only twelve other students in my entire grade, and I had nowhere else to turn and no way to hide whatever made me different and worthy of victimhood.
In our math class, they all sat at one particular cluster of desks, talked and fucked around during class, and I sat alone at my own cluster of desks, in the back, trying to figure out algebra. What teacher would allow that arrangement to continue for two straight years? When my mom complained to the principal, he gave her a pamphlet comparing pubescent kids to frogs, the illuminating message being that we all go through an ugly transformation. Whether the pamphlet was a suggestion to have sympathy for my froggy classmates or a promise that I, too, would become a frog was unclear. Regardless, I disagreed with its premise. One mother bought matching t-shirts for every girl in the class except for me. Another set of parents held a birthday party at the dumpy private club on the lake and invited every kid except for me. I was deeply lonely and could never get over my sheer surprise at my classmates’ transformation, so it didn’t even occur to me that adults—parents, teachers, the school principal (adults who were supposed to be good and know to do the right thing)—were complicit. Now it seems so obvious: kids learn their behavior from adults.
I was different and punished harshly for it. There was immense pressure to “just be normal,” as one of the kinder boys put it—as if, if I could do that, it would all go away. But it all seemed so superficial and shallow. I wrote bad poetry in my journal where swans were a metaphor for the cold, assumed façade my classmates had created. When I looked at what they wanted me to fit into…I simply could not.
Dickinson’s poem gave me the words and sarcasm that I badly needed. When I read Emily’s poem, it made sense to me: the other kids were the “somebody’s,” the frogs, who needed to feel important and popular, and so they spent all day announcing their coolness and grown-up-ness to each other. The bog was society, the adult world, which was nothing but shallow, materialistic, and mean—not worth rushing toward. This is, admittedly, a very tidy translation of the metaphors, but I was thirteen, and this was the first poem that had helped me to really see my world. Here was Emily, happily refusing to join the dominant paradigm or “just be normal.” I badly needed to know there was an alternative, that I wasn’t alone. I had Emily.
Instead of buckling to the pressure and trying to fit in, Emily helped me be defiant. I’d have nothing to do with being popular if this is what being popular looked like. I’d content myself with being a Nobody, which meant being myself, with my overalls and fantasy books in the grassy corner at recess. In those eight rhyming lines, I found the words to articulate my growing understanding of how people work and who I wanted to be.
When I memorized the poem and recited it to class, I whispered the first lines because I was a theatrical kid. But, when I recited it to myself, I still whispered because Emily spoke directly to me, conspiratorially, “There’s a pair of us. Don’t tell!” I was alone, and she understood that loneliness. She and I were outlaw sisters, surviving middle school.
Starting that year, I decided to work hard in school—it was my only way out of that small town. My classmates were the descendants of the founders of the town, and my teachers remembered having their parents in class. I saw what it meant to just stay in one place. My parents came “from away” and had used art school to escape their own claustrophobic origins in the suburbs, so I had a map to follow. I did my best and put all my hope into private school. I was accepted as a day student to a blue-blazer boarding school, where I really didn’t belong or fit in. There, I kept working and got into a prestigious college, and I never looked back.
I didn’t read the poem again after 8th grade, didn’t even think of it. Maybe because my need for it had diminished—I found my place in being a student. Even if I didn’t feel like I belonged in either of those elite institutions, I didn’t not belong there, either.
Education had been my escape, yes. But it was also an astounding gift my artist parents couldn’t have afforded on their own. The books and ideas I’d encountered in school made me who I am, helped me understand how to see the world, much like Emily’s 260th poem had. I stopped listening to my parent’s music and found my own in Bowie and punk. I read Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf, in whose books the women are all a little disappointed in the reality of the world. Instead of in my peers, it was in my education and the art it exposed me to that I found a mirror with which to see and define myself. When I graduated from college, the only thing I wanted to be was a teacher.
A decade after I memorized Emily’s poem, I found myself teaching English at an all-girls’ middle school in Dorchester, one of Boston’s low-income, immigrant neighborhoods. I had sworn I would never return to middle school, the most miserable time of my life, but there I was. However, those middle school girls were different—the girls fought over four-square and insulted each other, sure, but those girls had no boys around, nobody to perform (like frogs) for. Just as often, they comforted each other when they were sad, did each other’s hair, and found any excuse for an impromptu skit. I was proud to be their teacher and thought their singing Adele and Lion King at recess was the loudest, most joyous ruckus I’d encountered.
I loved teaching those girls. But working in an urban school is exhausting—staff and faculty are perpetually spread thin, the chairs and laptops are always broken, and there’s an astonishing amount of incompetence and money-wasting in top administrators.
The girls in this little school in Dorchester believed, like I had, that if they worked really hard in school, they, too, would “get out.” Their escape, with the added weight of race and urban poverty, was much more ambitious and challenging than mine ever was. I loved them for their determined hope, and I completely believed anything was possible for them. They were bright, powerful, and aware of their world in ways I definitely wasn’t when I was their age. Their optimism and silliness relaxed my cynicism and made me believe the world wasn’t so cruel. As their teacher, I learned more than I ever did as a student.
As an all girls’ school with all women teachers, in the classroom, we often talked about the patriarchy and systemic racism as realities we were in the business of subverting. In my time with these girls, the feminism I picked up in college evolved from feel-good female-empowerment to understanding womanhood as woven in the fabric of a history of gender and racial inequity.
When we read poetry in class, I sat in a circle with my girls, lights turned off, and we took turns reading the poems again and again to hear different voices and ways of being. We talked about how they made us feel, what they made us think.
It was in this setting that I once again reread Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” Surprisingly, I still had it (mostly) memorized. This time, my students read the poem out loud to me, and they changed its meaning. I gave them a little background about Emily (which I hadn’t known when I first encountered the poem), and they easily understood something I hadn’t at their age—it seems so obvious now. They pointed out the real way to read the poem was as a woman’s voice.
Of course! Emily’s voice is a universal feminine, sarcastically pissed about her status as a secondary citizen. Emily never had voting rights and, as an unmarried woman unable to own property, had no identity as far as America was concerned. My girls recognized marginalization in a way my privilege had made me oblivious to. “Maybe she was mad because nobody listened to her,” one girl offered. The members of the patriarchy croaked their importance to each other and silenced her voice, assigned her “Nobody” status. Women, particularly the bright women of color that were my students, had been collectively overlooked by society. It’s not uncommon for my students’ perspectives to change how I understand and relate to a piece of writing I’ve read many times before—it might be what I loved so much about teaching. I found myself in teaching my girls, and it seemed that maybe we all saw ourselves in Emily.
I started to see the whispered address to the reader as female fellowship—the kind of necessary sisterhood that helps us get through this unfair fucking world. Emily was still my rebel outsider challenging this dominant paradigm, but now this poem seemed to be about a collective womanhood demanding a voice, rather than one individual striving for personal freedom. My gaggle of brilliant 7th graders made me see the poem anew with an awareness I didn’t have the first time.
I kept teaching. Several years passed. I left the school in Dorchester with a sense of guilt and regret. The administration had changed, led by an older white man who told his success story (without anyone asking) with a cavalier tone and a shrug for his “lucky breaks.” When I met with him, I’d explain that some crucial element of the school was dangerously under-resourced, and he’d encourage me about the future by saying, “You never know what will come your way.” Even though it seemed like there was never enough money—not enough money for a nurse or a psychologist, not enough money for books or art supplies, not enough money for laptops—he found money and spent it. Within two years, the school’s savings were gone, and I have no idea where the money went, but it didn’t go to books. I left each day exhausted on every level.
After the urban school, I just wanted something easy. I landed in another all-girls’ middle school, this one a well-endowed private institution in Concord. Concord is a town of historic mansions with expansive lawns interspersed by corn fields. Although Concord is the town where the American Revolution sparked, where Thoreau wrote Walden and refused to pay his taxes, and where the utopia movement set its roots, the town’s radical thinking is now nominal and largely symbolic. Don’t get me wrong, Concord residents still pride themselves on their liberalism. There are countless Black Lives Matter signs but no Black people. My students had anything they could possibly want for their healthy and happy development—figure skating, full-time nannies, violins. Unlike my Dorchester students who took public transportation home by age eleven, these girls’ mothers picked them up from school in sleek SUVs still in their tennis whites or equestrian gear. I left for Christmas vacation with (many) boxes of homemade peppermint bark, cards, and thoughtful gifts. At first, it was cultural whiplash, and it hurt to know this school was less than 30 miles from Dorchester and still a world away. But everything was just so easy and nice—the girls untroubled, the art supplies plentiful, the support staff talented—and it’s hard not to want that, not to quickly get used to that ease.
Besides, I loved teaching. These girls were smart and joyful. I laughed at them, too. I took advantage of the unlimited butcher paper and paint for making murals of Mesopotamia and asked my students to write feminist versions of The Odyssey on the working laptops. It was easy to be the teacher I always strove to be. My students could construct an entire Egyptology exhibit in the auditorium, and their mothers (who did not work or could afford to take a day off) would all show up in the middle of the day to see their daughter’s success (and compare their kids’ project with the others). I’d been assigned 6th grade humanities, ancient civilizations, and given carte blanche to be as creative as I wanted with the curriculum. That curriculum was my opus as a teacher—interdisciplinary and project-based in a way that left my classroom festooned in “good words,” clay models of Greek art and architecture, and credos on kindness. With my newfound freedom and resources, I cultivated the kind of critical and creative thinking that’s impossible in the regimented framework of state standards and the militarism of the charter movement’s teaching style.
I knew, working at that school, that I was participating in an unfair System, but I made excuses: education was an element of economic and social inequality everywhere; the youth I taught would grow up and use their resources to make change; why couldn’t I have it easy for once? I was creatively challenged and fulfilled. My students and their parents loved my class, and the administration noticed.
In my second year, a passing moment in the classroom offended some parents. It was one of those times when you’re juggling a dozen things while teaching and don’t have time to think fully. A few girls came late to class, and I put a check on their hands so I could remember to talk to them afterward instead of interrupting the lesson and embarrassing them. I remember my tone: joking, smiling. The kids smiled. I didn’t think anything of it until the next day when one parent emailed with concerns, comparing the checks to Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter. I realized my error and felt horrible that I’d upset the girls. I apologized to each student in person and sent an apology email to each parent, but someone read my apology at a wine mixer that happened to fall that night (of all nights) with all the other mothers in attendance, who then started remembering other possible offenses in which their daughters could have been traumatized. One mother, whose daughter wasn’t even in school that day, said marks on the hand were offensive because it was reminiscent of the Holocaust (there were few Jews in that school, and I was one of them). Another mother got her husband to write her distress on his law firm’s letterhead. (Incidentally, Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, is a direct descendant of one of the judges who presided in the Salem witch trials). I kept wishing I’d have a chance to explain myself. I could patiently clarify that The Scarlet Letter is a book about a woman persecuted by a rigid, judgmental, and hypocritical society that condemned her for what made her most human: her passions. Hawthorne even lived and wrote the book in their very town. Once they understood the book, they’d see the situational irony; they’d see the parallels and feel ashamed of how they’d wielded their privilege; and they’d let me go back to teaching. I never got the chance. The principal was worried about her big fundraising push and the upcoming school accreditation happening that week (of all weeks). By Monday, I was on paid leave for the year.
All of these details I learned slowly in separate conversations in the two-week period between when it happened and when I knew I wasn’t going back; and, in the following months, from an awkward dinner with my former colleague and from twelve-year-old girls whose parents hired me out of pity as a tutor so their kids wouldn’t lose their relationships with me. Only six months after I’d been gone did I piece together the whole story. It seemed like I was always the last person to understand what had happened.
I was back in middle school, alone in the back of the math room. Astonished by the cruelty of these women. Their carelessness about who they hurt. Their inability to see me. Or really, my own invisibility to them.
As in middle school, more than angry or hurt, I felt confused. What was it about me that I didn’t deserve basic kindness? Why me? Why can’t I belong?
I realized with real sadness the kids watching these adults, practicing small cruelties on each other in middle school, would grow up to be assholes like their parents. Those raised in bogs become frogs. This is how you learn self-importance.
That year, it was an unusually cold winter. David Bowie died. His music had been the soundtrack for my education and growth, and losing him not only felt personal, but also like an omen for the disintegration of culture. Ziggy Stardust knew something, and we should have listened. It was primary season for the 2016 election, and Trump’s grating voice croaked from the TV. My confusion turned to grief. I grieved the end of my career, the job I loved and that gave me purpose. I grieved the loss of my identity as Ms. Z. I listened to the Pixies and the Replacements too much, and I’ll never hear a song from Surfer Rosa again without thinking of that endless winter. I dubbed Boston winter “Our Lady of Perpetual Misery.” I walked around alone, singing Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” (the only song I had completely memorized) just to hear a voice and because that was the level of pathetic grief I’d dug down to. I wore that song out before remembering I also had one poem memorized.
At night, I walked down the middle of the empty streets where all the rich houses are in my neighborhood of Boston and repeated Emily’s 260th to myself. The poem kept me company when I couldn’t stand to be around other people. Its rhythms kept cadence with my steps, sleet fell in cones of light from the street lamps, a dog barked, and, somehow, I started to feel less alone. Or, more accurately, I started to feel that I could be my own company.
I hung out in the cemetery and smoked weed and wrote and read and cried (not too different from middle school when I wrote and cried in my special tree). Much like my girl Emily, I found myself unemployable and writing poetry.
The poems I chose to write were all addressed to Herman Melville because the societal and spiritual alienation in “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Moby Dick resonated with me. The fact that he could never quite fit into the New England gentility he’d married into made me feel like he’d really get me if he were alive. (A side note: Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne whose romantic rejection caused him great heartbreak. Really, fuck Nathaniel Hawthorne.) I decided to apply to an MFA program with no plan for what I’d do after.
I knew my spirit for teaching was broken. I was disillusioned with the whole damn system of education and administrators who, over and over again, put their own self-interests before the quality of education or nurturing children and teachers. And I saw how schools were just part of a bigger System of capitalism. Regardless of the fervent idealism of a teacher or the optimism of children, they were all part of a System built on the basic ideal of competition for money, whether it was a poor school in Dorchester or a rich school in Concord. In Dorchester, the whole school seemed to revolve around fundraising, and the students’ art projects were sold in a silent auction at a big gala at the end of the year where the kids sang and danced for Boston brahmin. The school in Concord was breaking ground on a big, glassy new entryway to make the hippy-ish 60’s architecture more modern. It was always money, money, money. And people who have money may not admit it to themselves, but their money and their narrative prop up the System that gave them that money. They put their money and privilege before the wellbeing of other human beings.
Before I left that cushy school in Concord, I’d started to want to have a child and a house with a yard—a vision of happiness and normality that is bought with money. I’d even imagined living in one of the historic houses near the beautiful fields I drove past to get to school. I couldn’t believe I’d started wanting to belong to that world. After all I went through, I’d started to want to—try to—be normal. I’d betrayed the lonely thirteen-year-old girl who recited Emily’s poem in a tree.
In the first year of my MFA program, I was starting to feel a reckless freedom from it all when Trump was elected. Trump’s presidency made visible vast unfairnesses to those who’d historically looked away and benefitted. When Trump became president, white liberals seemed to suddenly notice America’s long history of racism and sexism. Neo-liberals seemed horrified by the toad in the White House who was a direct consequence of centuries of their tacit acceptance of the System. I see a direct parallel between the parents who made excuses for their children’s cruelty or who justified their own self-important behavior and the U.S. citizens who accept power structures at the expense of others—private prisons and mandatory sentencing laws, corporate campaign finance, oil pipelines on native land… the list is very, very long. Well-intentioned (maybe oblivious) Americans have spent a lot of their history accepting or perpetuating an economics built on dehumanizing, unfair practices with a shrug: “That’s just how it is.” I now knew how alluring “just being normal” could be and how easily we accept a status quo. Middle school girls growing up in a bog only know a bog; they can’t even imagine meadows or mountains.
Though many are just now realizing they’re ankle-deep in muddy water, the bog has been all around us this whole time. I don’t really see Trump, with his obvious greed, corruption, human rights offenses, and sexual abuse as what’s sick and swampy in society, but he does provide a loud, clear example of it. I can’t look at his face without seeing a croaking frog.
Now when I read Emily’s poem, I don’t think she’s speaking just to me, and I don’t think she’s speaking only to and for women living in a patriarchy. The poem has expanded for me. Or else I’ve expanded myself enough to see the bigness of her small poem.
Emily’s speaking to all of us, quietly suggesting we don’t have to participate in the bog. There’s another option! And that is persistently and with your whole being rejecting the environment we’ve been raised in and grown accustomed to. It’s more than middle schoolers rejecting the standard of popularity or women rejecting patriarchal standards—it’s all of us rejecting this fucking System. This poem is so seemingly quaint and childlike, with its rhyme and whimsical punctuation, but it’s radical in what it says we can do.
Emily shows us we can question the status quo. Question schools with broken chairs and schools with high-tech and trendy “maker spaces.” Question society’s power structures of gender and race and economics. Question capitalist definitions of success and happiness. Question rape culture, gun lobbies, party politics, tax reform that benefits only the rich, the whole damn lot of it. Trump promised to drain the swamp, and liberals might mock his blatantly swampish use of nepotism and corporate purchasing of privilege, but that only allows us to believe we are not part of the System that makes the bog.
Now when I read Emily’s poem, I read it as a dare: Are you part of the System, or Nobody? Do I have the courage to question the whole fucking System? The poem asks one quiet question, “Who are you?” And you have to answer and be able to live by that answer.
Dickinson, Emily. “‘I Am Nobody! Who Are You?” (260).” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 12 May 2014, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/im-nobody-who-are-you-260.