Courage: Stories about standing up for yourself

This week, we’re presenting stories about the courage to be who you were meant to be.

Part 1: The lessons that Margaret Rubega learns from her dad about fighting back are put to the test when he becomes the one she must stand up to.

Margaret Rubega is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. She has spent her career studying a diverse array of birds, with a consistent interest in answering the questions: How Does That Work? and How Does it Matter? She started her career getting crapped on in a tern colony, then studied a bird that's famous for going in circles. Those formative experiences probably explain a lot about her subsequent career. She's always been especially interested in feeding in birds --- the way they're built, the mechanics, the food -- because a bird that isn't fed is a bird that's dead. As the Connecticut State Ornithologist, she's had to counsel a lot of homeowners about whether woodpeckers are eating their houses (they aren't), and talk to a lot of journalists. Hoping to get better at it, via the log-in-your-own-eye method, she has taught science communication and writing classes along with biology classes for the last 10 years. She  currently leads an National Science Foundation-funded research group studying methods of training graduate science students to talk and write for non-scientists. You can find her on Twitter @profrubega chatting about birds with students and others in her #birdclass.

Part 2: In following her dream of studying chemistry, Charlotte Istance-Tamblin sees how to break the toxic patterns in her relationships.

Charlotte Istance-Tamblin, Charley to her friends, is a 2nd year undergrad student at The University of Manchester working towards an MChem. She hopes to develop a deeper understanding of radiochemistry before moving into teaching at the academic level. Outside of university she enjoys roller derby and travelling with her wife where ever they are able to.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Margaret Rubega

I am standing with my back against a tree and I'm surrounded by this circle of kids who have taken my book from me.  They’re laughing and tossing it hand to hand just outside of my reach.  

I'm five years old.  My knees are bigger around than my thighs are.  There’s a little drop of sweat inching down under the bangs that my mom cut too short, and my little round plastic rainbow glasses have slid halfway down my nose.  I really, really want these kids to leave me alone and I really, really need my book back.

Finally, somebody shifts sideways and there’s a break in the circle and I bolt for the house, because my dad’s in there.  My dad’s going to help me get this book back.

My dad is the classic up-from-nothing success story kind of a guy.  Italian immigrant parents, his mom died when he was two from tuberculosis, and after he got out of the Navy post-World War II, he put himself through college on the GI Bill.  Then got a full-time job and, while accumulating eight kids, got himself a PhD in Acoustics.

Now, at this point, I don’t actually know what a PhD is but I'm pretty sure he is the smartest guy in the world.  When he comes home at the end of the day, he walks in, he kisses my mom, and then he goes, “Where’s my little angel?”

He kept the Blackstone, Massachusetts accent all the way through all that education.  

I run in, he picks me up, we sit down together, he puts me on his lap and we read the newspaper mainly so that he can tell my mom, again, how I finished the front page before he did.  So I know he understands why I need this book back.  He’s going to help me get the book back.

I run up to him and I go, “Dad, Daddy, these kids, they took my book.  They’re laughing and teasing me and they won't give it back and I need my book.”

He looks down at me and he shakes his head and he says, “That’s not nice.  That’s not nice at all.”  Then he says to me, “You know what I want you to do?”  He puts out his hand, palm up, puts out his other finger like he’s pointing at the sky and like he’s chopping wood with the finger and the hand, he says to me, “I want you to go out there and tell them who you are.”

I just looked at him.  I don’t get it.  

He leans over a little more and he does it again.  “I want you to go out there and tell them who you are.”

I look up at him and I blink, and I blink, and I try to swallow.  He’s not going to help me?  He’s not going to help me get the book back.

Margaret Rubega shares her story at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT in October 2018. Photo by Nick Caito.

Margaret Rubega shares her story at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT in October 2018. Photo by Nick Caito.

“Tell them who you are.”

So I turn around and I go back outside.  I bend down and I pick up a rock.  The kid who took my book in the first place is out in the middle of the lawn, prancing around, flapping my book up and down and I walk up to him.  My knuckles already hurt but I squeeze the rock a little bit tighter and I say to him, “Give me my book back or I'm going to hit you with this.”

He stops prancing and he looks me up and down and he smiles.  I stare at him right in the eyes and very slowly, his smile fades.  Then he holds the book out and says, “Jeez, I was just kidding.”

I take it from him and, because I'm not sure that my knees are going to hold me anymore, I sit right down on the lawn with it.  After that I don’t get less scared, but whether he says it out loud to me or I just hear it in my head every time, it’s, “Take this hand and this finger and tell them who you are.”

When we move mid-year, mid-school year, I get the sixth grade teacher, the six-foot tall guy, the only male teacher I’ve ever had, the one who whips the chalkboard eraser at boys who are fooling around.  Every time he shouts, I flinch.  One day, he asks me to go up to the board and do a long division problem.

So I get up there.  And I hate the way a chalk feels in my sweaty hand but I squeak it out very slowly, carefully, meticulously, one step at a time just like Sister Agnes showed us back in October.  

I turn around and he looks at the board and he says, “Jesus, that’s not new math.  You couldn’t make that problem any longer.”

The bell rings and I pick up my stuff and I walk out.

The next morning I inform my parents that I am not going back to school until I can be in somebody else’s class.  I got through two whole books while they were talking to the principal.  Then they stuck me in an empty classroom with the teacher.  

And he said to me, “I wasn’t making fun of you.  I was just pointing out to the other students how complete your problem was, how completely you had worked it out.”

I just stared at him, looked him in the eyes, blue, a little bloodshot, and he cocked his head to one side and he looked at me and he said, “You’re tougher than you look.”

And I said, “Only when I have to be.”

By the time I get to college, I have figured out why I like reading books while sitting up in trees and I'm taking every Biology class I can get into.  I'm thrilled, just thrilled when I get a work-study job skinning birds for study specimens for the school collection.

Now, this is the first thing I have ever done in my life, the first physical thing that I seem to be able to do instinctively, effortlessly, better than other people.  My hands just seem to know how to get it done, to separate the skin from the bones and the muscle underneath and what’s inside is complex and fascinating and beautiful.

So I'm sitting hunched over a bird on the bench and the professor who I work for comes up behind me and puts his hands on my shoulders, a little low.  He’s a guy with a really bushy moustache.  He leans over and he says to me, “How’s it going here?”

And I swear to God, I can feel the moustache brushing the hair on the top of my head.  

I just hunch over the bird and I go, “Fine.  Everything’s fine.”

When I go to leave, he goes to pat me on the back but he puts his hand down the back of my neck and he leaves it there until I step away with my arms prickling.  I go back to the dorm and have a really long shower and start thinking about applying for a work-study job at the dining hall.  But I'm halfway through an owl.  I can't just leave an owl.

So I go back the next day and I'm just sewing the bird up, it’s the last step, and he comes up behind me again, puts his hands back on my shoulders.  I can feel his belt buckle in the small of my back.  I straighten my back up so that his hands fall off my shoulders and I raise my hands up out of the bird, still bloody, one palm up, one finger pointing at the ceiling, and I say, “Please don’t touch me.  There’s no reason for you to touch me.”

He backs up and he never touches me again.

Now, by the time I get out of college and do a couple of years of field work, my knees are no longer bigger than my thighs and I’ve learned how to blow dry my hair and I'm dating this really sexy cop.  He’s got these brown curls and this tight muscular body and this cleft in the middle of his chin.  Everybody likes him, and I touch him a lot.

Margaret Rubega shares a laugh with Story Collider producers Erin Barker and Zack Stovall after her story at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT. Photo by Nick Caito.

Margaret Rubega shares a laugh with Story Collider producers Erin Barker and Zack Stovall after her story at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT. Photo by Nick Caito.

We’re sitting in his car outside my parents’ house when I tell him that I’ve decided to apply to Biology graduate schools and that it’s going to mean moving to wherever I can get in, because that’s how a Biology graduate school works.

He says to me, “Well, why don’t you marry me instead?”

And I say, “Why instead?”

And he says, “Well, because I can't follow you around and you can't go on being a biologist after we have kids.”

I take my hand off of him and I say, “I am going to be a biologist and I'm not sure I'm going to have kids.”

When I go in the house, my dad’s the only one up.  He’s sitting at the table in the kitchen.  I sit down and I tell him that me and the sexy cop have broken up and I tell him why.  

He shakes his head and he says, “You can't keep breaking up with men over this Biology business.  Who’s going to take care of you?”

I'm stunned.  Then instantly, I can feel pressure behind my eyeballs and my heartbeat in the palms of my hands, and I think, “Are you fucking kidding me?  All these years, all these screwing up my courage and standing up for myself because you told me to, do you really think that I need somebody to take care of me?”

But I don’t say it.  He must have seen it in my face, though, because when I look back at him finally, his eyes are full of tears.  I watch him, he swallows, and then he swallows, and then he says to me, “I just want you to be safe.”

Just like that, I'm not mad anymore.  See, at this point, I do not know about science, what my dad, the kid of the chicken farmer who has a PhD, knows about science.  And what he knows is that science is a contact sport.  It’s not about feeling smart.  It’s about fielding your ideas and then your teachers and your peers try as hard as they can to knock you on your ass to see if you’ll get up again.

At this point, I have no idea how hard I'm going to fall and how often and how hard it’s going to be to keep getting back up.  But I can see in his face he’s scared for me.  I finally get it.  He has always just been scared for me.

So I take this hand and I take this finger and I say to him, “I’m going to take care of myself.”

Thank you.


Part 2: Charlotte Istance-Tamblin

My story starts I think where everyone’s story starts, when you’re a child.  I think I remember being given a chemistry set by my father.  I don’t think it would pass the Health and Safety requirements of today because I remember very clearly him helping me to make copper sulfate crystals.  I don’t know if there was actually acid in the box that came with it.  

He also showed me a Periodic Table.  I remember very, very clearly my eyes flitting down to Elements 92 and 94.  For those of you who are familiar with the periodic table, I’m just going to leave that one with you.

And I found that inside me there was a bit of a spark.  A bit of a fire started to burn for science.  But as I went through school, I was unfortunately very easily influenced and I didn’t really put a lot of work in because, of course, it’s not cool to work hard.  But also I didn’t want to not work so I managed to find a happy medium of doing as little work as possible.

As I got a bit older, this developed into pure out-and-out laziness.  I’m not proud of it but it is what it is.  I get to my teenage years and I’m very lazy at this point.  I’m not putting much work in.  But as I got to my GCSEs, I did study quite hard for them.  I could have studied more but… I put some work in.

But three weeks before my exams, my parents split up.  My dad was very unhappy living with my mum and he left.  Even so, it was just before my exams and I had to get on with it, so I went and did my exams.

And I got a reasonable result, a little bit above average, double B in Science GCSE, so I did something right.  But the problem is is that now I had to do my A-levels and I had to do my A-levels without the academic because, slowly but surely, I was learning how to hate him.  He wasn’t there and I didn’t want to call him.

So I had my mom.  She’s Polish.  She didn’t really know much about the English education system and she was no scientist.  So I got stuck into three A-Levels: Computing, Chemistry and Physics, and I absolutely failed at Chemistry.  In fact, I quit after the first year with the agreement with my tutor that this was most decidedly not the subject for me.

I dragged myself through Physics and I blew all of my exams.  In fact, when my results came through, three A-levels, three results, they spelled out a word, E-N-D, ‘end’.

So what’s to do?  I went to work and I shut myself into a prison.  Not a prison made of concrete and metal and guards.  No.  It was a prison made of mobile phones, sales targets, conference calls, and altogether hellish things that come with phone-related retail.  That became my life.

I wasn’t happy.  I filled my life up by spending money I didn’t have and making friends with people who contributed nothing to my life, and dating people who didn’t really care about me.  That was my life.

And the fire was really, really going out.  There was virtually nothing left inside.

Then when I found out that a girl I had been dating had been cheating on me repeatedly and I had just accepted her meager explanations instead of calling bullshit on it, something happened inside me.  I decided I want to go travelling.  I had a credit card and a really, really stupid idea.

Armed with a credit card, a passport, and no idea what I was doing, I walked into a travel agent and said, “I’d like a ticket to New York, please.”

No hotel, no nothing.  I figured that out by phoning New York, as you do. 

I went and it was amazing.  It was wonderful.  I felt so alive.  The brightness of the city, that I was crying my eyes out on top of the Empire State Building looking at this wonderful place.  I sat with a storming hangover on Liberty Island and shakily wrote some postcards.  I took a selfie of myself with an old film camera.  I looked so cross.

The one thing that I remember most about New York City is it stinks.  It smells so bad.  But to me, that smell was amazing.  It was the smell of freedom.  Not the American Dream, Star-Spangled-Banner freedom, but a personal freedom.  And the fire burnt brightly.

But all too soon the trip was over.  I didn’t have any money.  This was all on credit card and I couldn’t stay there forever.

Charlotte Istance-Tamblin shares her story at the Pie and Ale during the Manchester Science Festival in October, 2018. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

Charlotte Istance-Tamblin shares her story at the Pie and Ale during the Manchester Science Festival in October, 2018. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

So I came home and went back to the old life of selling phones and just existing, and down went the fire.  

Then shortly after a trip to Spain to see some family, I met somebody and we started a relationship.  In hindsight now this was not a good idea because there were red warning flags all over that from Day 1.  She slowly diminished my relationships with my friends and I ended up just staying at home and facilitating her living her life while I just sort of dragged myself along.

I started to get quite bitter because I was surrounded, I was meeting people in my job selling phones who were off travelling the world and studying and all the other great things, and I hated them for it.  It was a tangible bitterness that existed inside me.  I loathed them.  Then when friends of mine would go and do the same thing, I hated them too because I couldn’t do those things.  

In a last ditch attempt to try and make something of this life, I applied for a job for promotion.  The idea was to get the manager’s job in the town where I lived.  They didn’t give me that.  They offered me a job in a town 40 miles away.  Same job but just miles and miles away.

I was angry because I was really at the bottom of the pile now.  And I had a shouting match with the Head of Recruitment for this phone company in a Regional Manager’s Conference in front of everybody.  In all fairness, he shouted back as well.  It wasn’t just one way.  We both argued.

So after a little while, we both cooled down and I went back and spoke to him again.  That was when I truly gave up because I just slumped my shoulders and said, “Tell me about this job.”  At that moment, I knew there was nothing I could get from this.  This was it.

So I went and I found that not only was there no fire but I was surrounded by darkness, a complete, miserable darkness that if I stretched out my hand, I couldn’t see it anymore.  And if you’re in that kind of darkness with no reference points, there’s a name for that.  You're lost.  

If there’s no way you can turn on a light, you need someone to do it for you.  That someone was quite unexpected because it took the form of a rather scruffy emo girl who walked into the shop and we talked.  She was looking for a job.  I needed a member of staff.  Myself and my assistant manager interviewed her, and she gave a good interview.  Even to this day, she says she blagged it. 

Suddenly, I found myself feeling something inside.  I wasn’t used to it because, as we spent time together and as our little friendship started to develop, I felt happy.  But the happiness was tempered because I couldn’t get out of my prison, and I knew there was no getting out of it.  

Time went on and we, our friendship got a little bit closer.  I can leave how close it got to your imagination.  Then towards the end of a year, I tried to leave the relationship I was in, but I couldn’t.  I ended up going back.  You hear stories about abused partners going back.  And if you’ve never been in that situation, you often think to yourself, “Oh, my goodness, how on earth could you go back?”  

I get it now.  I can't explain how I get it, but I get it.  I understand because I don’t know why I went back, but I did.

Until one night, she found out that me and this girl had been talking.  There was no evidence of any kind of relationship beyond friendship but, even so, she got really angry.  I went to bed that night afraid.  For the first time in my life, I was truly afraid.

So I thought, “I have to escape”.  And ‘escape’ is not too strong a word.  I have to get out of this.

So there, lying there in the middle of the night, hearing her stomping around the house, I made a plan.  The plan was when she dropped me off at the station the next morning and then would go to work, I would get in a taxi and come back to the house because I had some money, which was quite rare at that point.  But it was so hard to get back into that taxi.  It was so hard to miss the train.  It was so hard to get in the cab to go back to the house.  And then it was hard to gather my things together.  It was hard to call my mom and say, “Please, can you bring the car around?  I’ve got to get out of here.”

Somehow, somehow, I managed it.  But I was even afraid of taking things that were mine.  I left with a minimal amount of stuff.  It’s quite a good way of having a clear-out.  

So I was out.  It took a long time to get over what she did to me, and I’m still getting over it.  But that was okay because, now, there was a new life involved.  We, me and this woman who is my friend, we started seeing each other properly.  We made it official because we were still working together so we had to keep it quiet in work.  But we started travelling.

The first trip we took, we went to, we travelled all the way up Poland, sort of half my heritage, and visited Chernobyl as well, which was just amazing.  Then the fire was back in my life.

But something was tempering it.  Something was stopping it from burning.  It was only after we got married and travelled all the way around the world and we’re stopping off in New Zealand and we ticked off so many bucket list entries and had a drink in the Green Dragon in Hobbiton, I got back and I thought, “I know what I have to do.”

So one morning, I woke up and I said to her, I said, “I want to go back to school.”

Charlotte Istance-Tamblin shares a hug with her wife at the Pie and Ale during the Manchester Science Festival in October, 2018. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

Charlotte Istance-Tamblin shares a hug with her wife at the Pie and Ale during the Manchester Science Festival in October, 2018. Photo by Drew Forsyth.

She said, “Why?’

I said, “I want to study Chemistry.”

She’s, “What for?”

I said, “I’d like to teach it.”

She's, “Well, go do it, then,” and rolled over and went back to sleep.

So I thought, well, okay, fine.  I’ll go and do it.

I found an Access course, so I discovered that Access courses exist.  I re-sat my Maths GCSE and, very quickly, I thought, “I’m going to get the best I can get, so I’m going to get an A at my maths and I’m going to get 45 out of 45 distinctions at my Access course.”

And I did, and I got it.  In doing so, we had to look at universities.  It was a visit to Loughborough  University, and I said, “Could I study Radiochemistry as part of my masters?”  

They said, “No.  You’ll need to go to Manchester for that.”

So I text my wife and I said, “They say I’ll need to go to Manchester.”

Four minutes later, a text came back saying, “I’ve booked us on the Open Day.”

So they demanded, of course - it’s Manchester - they demanded the very best grades that I could deliver.  And that’s what I gave them.  We moved to Manchester and I study Chemistry and I’ve never been happier.

Thank you.