Teamwork: Stories about working together

This week we present two stories about what it means to be a part of a team.

Part 1: A power outage on campus leads physics student Zoya Vallari to take a stand against her university's female-only curfew.

Zoya Vallari is a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech where she studies fundamental particles called neutrinos. She received a PhD in particle physics from Stony Brook University in December 2018. She's the winner of Three Minute Thesis competition at her graduate school and was awarded the International fellowship by American Association of University Women. Physics and dance are the two most important ways in which she relates to the world, though books come a close third. She loves mangoes, wine and sunshine. She is proud of her ability to lucid dream.

Part 2: Firefighter Nick Baskerville is eager to prove himself when he arrives on the scene of his first fire.

Nick has had the honor of serving in the United States Air Force for a total of 14 years. He has 19 years of fire service time, with 16 years of that being in a career department in Northern Virginia. Nick is a state certified instructor for the fire service in Virginia where he teaches classes ranging from basic fire fighter skills to Cancer awareness for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN). Nick is also a member of Better Said Than Done, a storytelling organization in Northern VA. His stories have been featured there, The Moth, Storyfest Short Slam, Secretly, Ya’ll and Perfect Liars Club. Nick has started a blog, Story Telling On Purpose (www.stop365.blog), as a way to connect the storytelling community with the rest of the DC, MD, VA area.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Zoya Vallari

On a hot sweltery night in New Delhi, I sat on my desk trying to make sense of all of quantum physics one week before the final exams.  I was a sophomore living in a girls’ hostel on the college campus. I stared at my notes and the notes stared back at me. Suddenly, the bulb went out around 11:00 p.m.  No, that was not a hurricane. It is a fairly common affair during summer nights in Delhi.

I sat in the pitch darkness trying to remember where I had put the candles and the matches, but immediately a bead of sweat started forming along my forehead and I abandoned the idea of lighting a candle and generating some more heat.  I, instead, opened the window. There was a pleasant breeze outside so I decided to step out on the shared balcony of the hostel.

That was the only open space available to us and all the other residents came out and hung out there.  We could not have stepped outside the building even if we wished because, every single night, exactly at 10:00 p.m. we were locked inside the building.  The reason given behind this curfew time, as it was called, was of course to ensure the safety of ladies, us. Thank you very much.

And if you're thinking 10:00 p.m. is bad, in my freshman year, I lived in a private hostel off-campus which had a curfew time of 7:00 p.m.  I had just moved from my small town Allahabad to New Delhi and I enrolled myself in a dance class even before my classes at the college began.  I was as excited to be a part of this famous bollywood choreographers’ dance studio as I was to learn physics.

Zoya Vallari shares her story with The Story Collider at Caveat in NYC in December 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Zoya Vallari shares her story with The Story Collider at Caveat in NYC in December 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

There was a small problem with this dance class, though.  It ran from 6:00 to 7:00 p.m. on Wednesdays. So my mother called the owner of this private hostel and requested that I be allowed ten extra minutes one day in a week.  He agreed.

But every Wednesday after my class when I reached a few minutes late, a security guard would stop me in front of a locked door and ask me to wait while he called the owner.  The owner would take his own sweet time and come out and then question me about my whereabouts. He did let me in but, within a month, the owner called me to his office and said, “Zoya, you're setting a bad example for all the other girls in the hostel.  I cannot allow you any extra time.”

So I did the only other thing possible.  I asked my dance class to let me leave early.  I would be in the middle of a dance routine and then trying to sneak out and then run as fast as I could to try to make it in time.  Invariably, I got late. At this point, the owner refused to talk to me. He would straightaway call my mother and tell her that she did a terrible job raising me because I can’t even follow simple rules.  

My mom would listen to him and then request him to let me in again and again and again.  This was the first time I was living away from home and my mom and I didn’t know how to deal with this matter.  We were bound by a lease and lack of housing options to find another place.

While all this was happening, there was another protest brewing on my college campus.  Women formed 60% of the student population but were only allotted two out of six on-campus residences.  So there were protests, meetings, marches and, after a lot of resistance, the administration agreed to convert one of the boys’ hostel into a girls’ hostel.  

I was thrilled to find out my name on the list which said who will be moving in this new girls’ hostel.  Apart from the very affordable price, now, I could wake up just ten minutes before the class giving me half an hour extra sleep but, much more importantly, now the curfew time had moved from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.  I felt like Cinderella being told, “You have three extra hours every single night.” To be fair, she already had until midnight.

So now we are back on the night of power outage on our balcony.  We are all grumbling about boys being allowed to go outside whenever they want and arguing that since they are the ones who usually cause all the trouble, they should be the one locked in.  My friend and I reasoned we should at least be allowed to go to the rooftop of our own hostel.

After waiting a while but with no signs of power coming back, most girls went back to their room to either study or sleep.  My friend and I, avoiding quantum physics, had other plans. We made our way to the door which led to the staircase but had a lock on it.  I inspected the lock casually. It was made of the same brand as the door on my own room, so I tried my room key. Voila, it opened! It was like I said ‘Alohomora’.  

My friend and I rushed up the rooftop.  A pleasant wind greeted us on it. We looked around.  Our college campus looked beautiful at night with its little chapel, gardens and trees.  We explored the whole rooftop from one end to the other and, after about 15 to 20 minutes, we came back down.  But the key that I had used to open the door could not lock it back.

By this time, the power had come back.  And in our noisy efforts to lock the door, we were spotted near it by some of the residents.  The next morning, the news broke. It went from residents to warden to the dean and to the principal and we were summoned.  

They alleged that we had broken the door to call boys inside.  You know what? They were right. We did call a boy. When we were on the top, my friend and I, we wanted someone to bear witness to this historic moment of our life.  Since only boys were allowed to step outside whenever they wanted, we called a friend and pleaded with him to come out of his room. So he came out, grudgingly, in front of our hostels, waved at us for two minutes, wished us luck and left.  This was mundane to him. It was every day.

So the administration interrogated us and told us we will be expelled.  We were really scared. We did not feel any remorse for our actions whatsoever but we were afraid of losing our on-campus housing and going back to these private houses with 7:00 p.m. curfew time, so we cried and apologized with all our might.  

They called our parents.  They asked them to provide letters vouching for our intentions and characters.  After a few weeks of back and forth, during our final exam time, the principal called us and said, “Since both your parents are from respectable professions and since you both are academically good students, we have shortened the punishment to just one month of expulsion.”  

Zoya Vallari shares her story with The Story Collider at Caveat in NYC in December 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Zoya Vallari shares her story with The Story Collider at Caveat in NYC in December 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Naturally, questions arose.  What if we were bad students?  Or what if our parents were not academics and, hence, respectable professionals?  Would we deserve the expulsion? Aren’t those the reasons to give us on-campus housing since it has a more academic atmosphere?  But at that moment, I controlled my ever-bubbling urge to ask questions and just accepted the watered-down punishment with a lot of relief.  

For a month, I stayed in a private hostel, and many a night those days, I would lie in my bed and think that one day I would become a powerful person with a lot of authority and then I'll come back to all of these hostels and finally let my frustration out.  I would tell them that by hindering our movement they spoiled our educational experience, our access to libraries, social events, parties, midnight food and even air. I would practice this speech over and over in my head until I fell asleep.

Well, I’m happy to tell you that the current generation of women students in New Delhi have taken the matter in their own hands.  They are not waiting for anyone. They organized and built a really powerful movement toward the last couple of years. They call it Pinjra Tod which translates from Hindi to “Break the Cage’.  They are actually breaking down the locks, climbing over chained gates and protesting all night long in front of these hostels.  Their courage is contagious.

As my past gets liberated by the wonderful actions of my younger sisters, my present is inspired.  

As for me, I still harbor a secret love for night skies after midnight.  I went from Delhi to Mumbai and finally came to New York to pursue a PhD in particle physics.  I guess that proves two things. One, at some point I learned quantum physics. It took significantly longer than one week.  Secondly, my mom did a real fine job teaching me to question everything.

For my PhD research, I often visit this tiny little town called Tokai in Northeast Japan to work on a particle accelerator.  After working late at night, I would take a stroll around 2:00 a.m. to a park nearby. The fresh wind in my face would remind me of my time on that rooftop in Delhi.  And as I would lie on the park bench, I would stay awake thinking I do not have to be a powerful person alone. I will always find power in solidarity. Thank you.

 

Part 2: Nick Baskerville

“It’s in a basement,” is what he shouts.  That’s what this guy says. And that’s when things got real.  

That guy, that was my very first fire officer.  The Good Captain is what I call him. And he looks every bit the part of a fire officer from his boots to his helmet and is marred in all of the fire and soot and experience that he has.  I’m pretty sure he has forgotten more things that I’m ever going to learn.

And then you got me.  I’m there wide eyed and bushy haired and my gear is clean, I mean squeaky clean, like I just came off the Clorox Bleach commercial-clean.  That’s how clean it looks. And this, this is my very first fire in my career department.

Nick Baskerville shares his story on the Story Collider stage in Washington DC at Bier Baron Tavern in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipumba.

Nick Baskerville shares his story on the Story Collider stage in Washington DC at Bier Baron Tavern in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipumba.

Now, this is 2003, late summer is what I’m thinking.  It’s not that I've never been to a fire. It’s just, now, I’m asking myself the question, the same one that probably everybody asked in the fire department when they go to their first fire.  Can I do my job? Would I be respected or ridiculed?

Now, I know you guys ask that too when you go to your job, it’s just I’m going into a burning building.  This has a bit more meaning for me.

Now, on that particular day there's three of us on the fire engine.  I’m sitting in the back, up here to my left is the driver, and over here is the officer.  So we pull up to the house and there's this two-story, beautiful mansion of a house. It’s huge.  Then on the right-hand side of it is an oversized garage. From there you can see a driveway and it’s, I don't know, maybe like 200 feet or so as it gets to the street.  

We pull off the street, into the driveway, but there's no smoke.  Well, we still have things to do so the driver gets off and he does driver stuff and I’m not sure what that is yet.  And the officer gets off, he does officer stuff which I’m trying to keep up, but I’m not a hundred percent sure about that either.  

But I know my job so I grab the fire hose.  I got half of it sitting here on my shoulder and the other half I’m dragging along with me.  We walk into the garage, the door is already open. I lay stuff out, I’m getting it ready for water and that’s when he comes back out and says, “It’s in the basement.”  

By then, two other people have come from the other engine company, another seasoned fire captain and then also another firefighter.  She was in my recruit class so I’m happy about that because I know she can do work. So I know I've got a dependable person right here.  

We figure out that we can’t go in the way we’re going to so we come out of the garage, we come all the way around to the front of the building.  We go into the back, we find the basement door and we get ready to go in.

Basement fires are among the most dangerous in the fire service.  There's typically only one way in or out. So when you go in, you get all the heat, all the smoke.  Any kind of danger you're going to get it. In the fire service, sometimes we jokingly talk about ‘slaying the dragon’ when we’re putting the fire out, but as I’m going down this cavern I’m thinking this expression is very, very relevant.  

So I get to the bottom and I’m on the nozzle.  Right behind me is the engine company officer from the other engine.  Behind him is the other firefighter. My chief, my fire captain, The Good Captain, he's standing at the top.  He's feeding us fire hose. And I get down there and this heat is intense. It’s like this gnawing at my ears.  I got everything going but I can still feel it. And it’s like bee stings all over other parts of my body as I’m touching the walls or stairs.  

And it’s pitch black, like you have to close your eyes to understand how dark it is in there.  This deep, dark, dense smoke. That’s all I see but what I don’t see is fire. Where’s the fire?  How do you lose fire? Like fire is in my job title. I can’t lose this. I’m definitely going from respect to ridicule really quick here.  

So, to get rid of the heat, I open up the nozzle and I do different patterns and that doesn’t work.  So now, I’m just trying to… is there maybe another door? Basements are sometimes finished. Maybe there's another room.  So I’m looking for a door knob or door jamb or something. I don't do anything.

While I’m playing hide-and-go-seek with the fire, the two officers are talking and they're starting to feel a little uneasy.  So I got a tap on a shoulder and they said, “Look, we’re going to try another way.”

So we back out up the stairs, out the front door.  We’re going to go around to the back to see if we can get to the fire there.  

As we walk around, we realize that the house is built on a grade.  So in the front you could see two stories, but in the rear it’s actually three stories with a walk-out basement.  So we’re going to go to the basement part there and that’s how we’re going to get to it. But before we get there, on the left-hand side there's a door and it’s open.  And there it is, all the fire. Sneaky, sneaky fire.

So that’s where we go in.  We open it up and I open up and I’m doing it.  I am putting out fire left and right. I feel good about myself.  I feel like the John Shaft of the fire department because I’m a bad mother… some, I don't know.  

So the captain, The Good Captain, he's pointing over here and I’m putting out fires.  He's pointing over here and I’m putting out fires. I am getting it done. I am definitely on the respect road right here.  Then, in the background, I hear air horns.

In the fire service, if you're on the scene and you hear air horns it means get out, something bad is happening.  But we are making progress. But I just got this job. I need to keep this so I’m going to listen to the rules that I got to do.  

Nick Baskerville shares his story on the Story Collider stage in Washington DC at Bier Baron Tavern in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipumba.

Nick Baskerville shares his story on the Story Collider stage in Washington DC at Bier Baron Tavern in August 2018. Photo by Lauren Lipumba.

So I walk out but I’m a little bit a kid about it.  I’m a little salty. I’m sulking.

“Stupid commanders.  What do they know? They're busy being outstanding firefighters.  They're out standing in the yard they don’t know what’s going on. If they could see what I could see, they would see there's an… Oh, my God!”  

The entire second floor and the roof, the roof, the roof is on fire.  

We call for a second alarm.  That gives us twice as many firefighters and then, eventually, the fire goes out.  I do have burns on my ears but that’s okay because I've earned some respect. And for years I thought that was it.  That was the end of the story.

So years later, I went and I got a college degree.  I got a college degree in Fire Science. Don’t laugh at my degree, okay.  Because I know what you're thinking. You're thinking you're putting wet stuff on red stuff.  What’s the science in this?

Well, actually it’s a lot.  Fire is really combustion and combustion is part of the fire tetrahedron.  So you have oxygen, you have fuel, you have heat and then you have a chemical reaction.  So when firefighters put out a fire, what we’re really doing is removing one or more of those parts.  That’s how we do it. Water doesn’t work on everything so you have to understand how that process goes.  

And even though I’m smart enough to have an associate’s degree, I wouldn’t be smart to figure that out.  Researchers and scientists are the ones who figured that out. We are so thankful for them because they find the science behind things and all we do is figure out how do you practically do it.  How do you actually make it happen? It’s because of researchers that we know things that we never would have known before.

We know that one in three firefighters is going to get cancer in their lifetime.  We know that first responders are five times more likely to have depression and PTSD symptoms than the general public.  And what we also know is that smoke can be unburnt fuel. Like if you think back to I was talking about being in the basement and that deep, dark smoke.  That means if you get it hot enough, it will burn. So in that basement I had oxygen, we had the fuel, it just never got hot enough because I guess I never got around to finding that door.  

If I found the door, all that blackness would have been this bright yellow and orange.  It’s called a flashover, and no one ever survives a flashover. But we didn’t have that problem because I never found a door.  

One of the things that I tell students when I teach them stuff in the fire service is that fire service is a team sport.  It takes many, many things, many people to make it all right. So the science of it that was part of our team. The researchers found out that the different things connected, if you remove parts of it, then you'll be safe.  So science was one of the key role players.

Of course you could also say that those two experienced fire captains they were the role players.  They knew something was wrong and we had to get out of there. But I’m on this team too. And I’m feeling like John Shaft, you know.  I got to talk about what I did. And of all the things that I did, what I brought to the table that day, when I couldn’t find that door when I wanted to, I brought the dumb luck.  Thank you.