This blog entry is an excerpt from BELONGING: A RELATED TEXT COMPANION to 'IN AND OUT OF STEP', on sale through Amazon.
Focus: the protagonist - Cassie SleightTechniques: third person narration, characterization, context (place and situation), metaphor, dialogue, flashback scenes, plot action, choice of language
From the first page of the novel, the author signals, through third person narration, that the protagonist is in the role of observer (page 3) and distanced from the world and people around her. The reader sees what Cassie observes and shares her perspective of the worlds that she is entering: the high school setting, the Madison House community, and the wider township. This discussion will focus on Cassie's quest to belong in the school setting.
From the outset of the school plot, it is clear that the protagonist, Cassie Sleight, a championship dancer, does not see herself as a high school teacher and feels that she does not belong to the teaching profession.
As a coping strategy (a strategic process) to help her overcome her feeling of being an outsider, she chose to reframe her view of the world she was entering by likening her finding a place in that world to the dance floor and a 'form of dance' - metaphoric thinking. That coping strategy gave her confidence in dealing with a new environment because it focused on similarities rather than differences in her old and new world. In addition, she also saw the means to inclusion as a matter of wearing the right costume and knowing the steps of the dance. The author uses the extended metaphor of dance to represent Cassie's coping strategies.
After locking the car door, she looked down at her clothing: a simple white shirt, a flowing denim skirt, and her favourite black shoes. She looked the part. All she had to do was be it.Teaching is another form of dance, she thought, a simple matter of learning the steps and getting in time to the rhythm of school life. I can do this. (page 4)
Cassie's sense of being an outsider is exacerbated by the attitudes and values of the community that she seeks to join. On the first day of the school year, male students reinforce that she does not belong in the male world of the English faculty to which she is headed.
The stairs leading into the English block were congested with students.
‘Excuse me, would you mind moving so I can get through?’
‘You in the right place, Miss? This is the English block entrance. The Home Economics stairs are over there and the Music and Art are near the main office.’
‘I know. Now, would you mind moving?’
Legs moved and an aisle appeared amidst the sea of bodies.
Halfway up the stairs, she heard snatches of adolescent conversation.
‘Geez! Tail bait in English, again!’
‘Fun and games ahead, boys.’
‘How long do you reckon this one will last?’
A sinister note is established through dialogue when the boys make reference to 'fun and games ahead' and 'How long will this one last?' The question emphasizes the outsider status of women teachers in the English faculty.
Cassie's outsider status is further reinforced by the behaviour of the men of the English faculty when they arrive that day.
The men, when they arrived, were noisy. They acknowledged Cassie’s shy greeting but then ignored her. Camped in clusters around the centre table, their conversations interlaced and centred on cars, women, and the coming year’s football team. Feeling overwhelmed, Cassie withdrew to the window again. She found being ignored comforting. It gave her time to learn about the men as they were, without the show some people assumed with strangers. (page 25-26)
While the men's behaviour reinforced Cassie's outsider status, narration emphasized her role as observer of the action. This scene also shows that exclusion is not always a negative experience. Feeling overwhelmed by the new experience, Cassie found 'being ignored comforting'. It gave her the opportunity 'to observe the men as they were, without the show some people assumed with strangers.'
Cassie's first term experience in the school shows that belonging is not a matter of having a desk within a staffroom (a physical place) or a class allocation (a role within the community).
A sense of belonging requires shared values, behaviours, and culture - behavioural notions (an insight). A number of behaviours within the adult workplace contributed to Cassie's feelings of exclusion. Disrespect for her personal space made her feel physically uncomfortable in the staffroom.
Focusing now on her workspace, Cassie saw the discard of crates and some of her things on the floor and under the table. Gesturing at her things on the floor Cassie said, ‘Didn’t anyone notice this or did you all just step over it? I don’t care what this table used to be, it’s my work station now!’ The denial of her ownership of her faculty working space by her male colleagues emphasized their view that she did not belong there. (pages 74-75)
Failure of the adult community in which she worked to share corporate knowledge and to provide collegiate support exacerbated the problems she experienced in the classroom and heightened her feeling that she did not belong (insights). A person's emotional response to the behaviours in the world in which she/he lives and or works is another factor that shapes whether of not a person feels alienated or belongs.
Added to this, it appeared that there was an underlying agenda within management to force Cassie and the other women to leave. Management's failure to provide adequate professional orientation put her at a distinct disadvantage within the faculty and the classroom. She did not understand how the discipline process, the marking process, or the established codes of interaction worked. She also didn't know the etiquette of dealing with management or the interaction necessary to get things done. This set her up for conflict and confrontation with management. The insight is that if the community doesn't accept you, then you cannot belong. If you don't understand the codes of interaction or 'the rules of operation' then you cannot be accepted.
Therefore, knowledge of a place as well as knowledge of the social and cultural forces operating within a place play an important part in a person’s struggle to belong especially when there are conflicting values and attitudes.Lack of knowledge and lack of understanding also shape how an outsider views the community and, at times, accepts isolation as a means (strategy) to deal with it.
‘You need to surface for air a lot more than you do. Bonds in the staff room are as important as control in your classes.’
‘I’m not comfortable in here.’
‘And you never will be unless you make the effort, Cassie.’ (page 55)
In the classroom, Cassie's outsider status is empathized by the non-compliant behaviour of her students. That behaviour denied her her role as teacher, the person in charge. She was made to feel an outsider.(page 41) This made her feel defeated and excluded. The author's:
• description of her reaction 'Slumped against the classroom wall' symbolizes her temporary defeat
• use of metaphor 'feeling like dust on a shelf' symbolizes her feeling of irrelevancy and being out of place
• inclusion of Cassie's subtext shows the coping strategy that she used to deal with her sense of alienation and emphasized Cassie's sense of alienation within the classroom.
Summing up, Cassie found herself confronted by a range of unexpected issues in her new workplace. Tacit resistance to the inclusion of the women teachers in what had been one of the last bastions of male supremacy at Keimera High was a major barrier to her finding acceptance and her place within the faculty team and in the classroom. The cramped physical conditions in the staffroom (setting), the hostile behaviours of her male colleagues (characterisation), the related withdrawal of collegiate support and corporate knowledge about workplace practice (aspects of characterisation), rioting students in her classes (setting), evidenced her alienation and exclusion.
The author shows that the barriers to Cassie's acceptance in the workplace and the related adversities that she faced were fundamental to her role change from observer of life to participant in it (insight).
So, what did Cassie do to overcome those barriers?
Overwhelmed by the foreignness of the setting, the lack of acceptance in the workplace, and without the option of returning home, she persevered at working for change despite feeling isolated and, at times, sickened by her situation. At work, she prioritised the obstacles before her, with survival in the classroom as the foremost obstacle to overcome. She then adopted a trial and error approach to problem solving in the classroom. She shelved everything else for the 'too hard basket' and avoided contact with the men at the heart of other issues. Solutions to her classroom predicament were not found readily.
During this challenging time, Cassie found relief from the compounding trauma of her workplace predicament through the familiar ritual of everyday life outside the workplace and the developing connections with the people in her personal and social worlds as well as in the weekly phone contact with her parents. This sustained her in her struggle.
She saw little of her male colleagues beyond the blur of the rush (to and from class). Samantha (another teacher) shared a wry comment whenever they passed, usually eliciting an unexpected laugh. Rajes, serene in her progress, always took time for encouragement. (p45)
In the tradition of generations before them, George and Minna Madison (her landlords) had afternoon tea on the front verandah in the summer months. For Cassie, it was a period of respite from her workday stresses. (page 47)
Cassie made progress in her quest to belong only after she stopped being an observer of her workplace and when she sought to overcome the difficulties she faced there. As a result of dealing with the challenges confronting her, Cassie changed her way of thinking about and seeing the opposition to and exclusion of her. When she recast her students as individuals rather than as a wall of resistance (metaphor) or as a group of people who outnumbered her, she made headway in gaining control and claiming her place as a teacher. The author used wall here as it represents an impassable barrier. In the case of her classes, Cassie's mindset had been one of the barriers to her making satisfactory connections with her students.
Similarly, Cassie's mindset was a barrier to her 'fitting into' the faculty team. It was only when Cassie recast her male colleagues' persistent encroachment on her workspace as random acts of thoughtlessness that she found the strength to be assertive and stake her claim. By rejecting a paradigm where the men were cast as powerful aggressors in her world, she also stopped seeing herself as a victim and as powerless. Gaining inclusion within the faculty team did not solve the complications and challenges in Cassie's life: work, social and personal, but it did provide a sense of security and empowerment.Those changes in mindset caused a change in Cassie's super objective (the motivating force behind her actions). At the start of the novel, Cassie's super objective was the need to find 'a safe harbour' (page 162). That super objective had led to her emotional shutdown after a significant trauma in her mid teens and was revealed through flashback scenes. Her 'safe harbour' objective led to her becoming a shadow of her former self.
As the plot action progresses and as she dealt with the issues and people in her new world, Cassie's understanding of herself developed. She realised that she had previously withdrawn from life and had assumed the role of observer and become a wallflower.In rejecting the roles of observer and wallflower, Cassie re-engaged with life. The re-engagement is reflected by:
• her search for ways in which to gain control of her rioting classes,
• her standing up to Coachman (her boss),
• her standing up the men of the faculty who denied her claim to a staff room workspace,
• her direct rejection the sexually harassing behaviours of some of the men in the faculty and demand that she be treated appropriately,
• her lobbying of Coachman and demand that he deal with student accusations of sexual harassment by Talbut,
• her insistence that Van der Huffen cease being an outsider during his friend's crisis and provide the support that Selton needed during the latter's personal crisis and loss (Chapter 25, pages 253-260),
• her return to the dance floor and later to dance competition, and
• her attempts to provide support Samantha Smith after the rape and re-engage her in life (Chapter 41).
The author used the wallflower metaphor to represent Cassie's growth in self-knowledge. Cassie realised she would only find her 'safe harbour' if she put aside her fears and participated in life and the varied forms of relationship to which she could belong rather than withdrawing from life and accepting isolation or alienation - a significant insight into herself and life. It was through re-engaging with life as demonstrated by assertiveness that she ultimately found a place where she belonged. (insight)
At the same time, the other women teachers' predicament, which mirrored Cassie's experiences in the workplace, triggered a change in the behaviour of the men. It became evident to some of the men that the covert strategy to deny acceptance of the women was unfair and could not continue. A grudging respect for the women evolved and some collegiate support followed culminating in some of the men saying 'this is not on'. (Chapter 19 starting page 187) Familiarity and respect that comes from perseverance are factors in gaining acceptance and inclusion.
Insight: It was only when Cassie rejected the role of outsider, stopped being a passive observer, and actively participated in the world around her that she found her place and achieved her sense of belonging.
Note: The author used parallel and contrasting subplots that dealt with Cassie's and other characters' experiences at Madison House and the school to explore further aspects of belonging and to extend on insights into her themes, including the concept of belonging.
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