Saturday, January 08, 2005

Weekend Update #1: 4th Grade Activists

I asked around and found out what was up with the 4th grade feminist activists at my school, according to the front-desk receptionist and one of the teachers involved:

It's a big class, so there are two gym teachers. Teacher M (a man), took one group, which was mostly--but not entirely--boys. Teacher W (a woman) took the other group, which was entirely girls. The groups were self-selected (this is important). Teacher M started his group out right away playing basketball with dribbling, stealing, etc. Teacher W made her group start out with a modified version for a few minutes-- no stealing, she said when I asked, and possibly no dribbling either. The girls in Teacher W's group saw what teacher M's group was doing and demanded to do the same right away; she said no, they had to wait a few minutes; they got fired up and left the class ready to protest, and that's when I saw them.

So it wasn't exactly the way they told it to me: teacher W made no appearance in their version, nor did the fact that there were two self-selected groups or that the "no dribbling" rule was only for a few minutes.

After they left the library, they stormed into the front office with their picket signs, demanding to see the principal. The front-desk receptionist, knowing that the principal hates groups of people (kids, parents, or whoever) storming into his office all at once, asked them to choose a representative to talk with him and for the others to wait outside.

The receptionist said that at first the principal seemed agitated, shooing away the other girls who were gathered at the window outside his office (his office has a glass wall so you can see whoever's in there). After he'd spoken seriously with the representative, though, she said she could see him sort of smiling when the student couldn't see. From what I know of him, I think he was probably pleased (as I was) by their passion and initiative.

The principal sent them back to talk with the gym teachers about it. Teacher W said they did, and that they were originally pretty upset. After she explained her reasoning (which was...? I'm not sure, and didn't get a chance to ask, but since she's a former professional basketball player herself I doubt there was conscious sexism involved), they apologized-- not in a grovelling way, just, "Oh, now I get it, sorry." Teacher W emphasized how polite and respectful they were, even as they were presenting their complaints.

I wanted to talk with some of the students again too, but didn't get a chance because of how the schedule worked this week. So I don't know if they really feel satisfied with what happened, but it sounded as if it ended with everyone on good terms.

The general sense among the adults was sort of along the lines of "Aw, those crazy kids-- they were just looking for something to get worked up about." And I think there was some of that. But the fact that they were precipitous and at least partly mistaken in their protest doesn't change how great the way they did it was. (Hmm... I think I just wrote the most tortured sentence in the history of blogging. Oh, well, forging boldly ahead--)

They were self-possessed and passionate and focused: they went right to it and took action. And they stuck together and spoke truth--well, truth as they saw it-- to power. And when they realized they'd misunderstood what was going on, they were gracious. Not the worst way to start out a life of making change in the world.

One thing I didn't mention in my last post: when the other girls were agitating and making their signs last Wednesday, there was one 4th-grader in the library, a very timid girl, new to the school, who wasn't participating, just sitting by herself drawing a picture. After the others had left, I asked her casually, "you're not involved with any of this?"

"Oh, no," she said. "Because I think that they're going to get in trouble. And I don't want to get in trouble."

I just nodded and moved on, but I felt like giving her a big hug and saying, "Oh, sweetie. You don't know this place. They won't get in trouble. You don't have to be so scared."

That's how I was at her age: I didn't want to get in trouble. Ever. Didn't want anyone mad at me. I'm still like that, more than I'd like to be. I still admire people who act boldly, even at the risk of being wrong and getting egg on their faces, and worry that they think I'm a wuss.

I remember our own 4th grade protest, back before Title IX, when the gym teacher wouldn't let the girls play football and said it was because we were wearing dresses, and the next gym day we all came in our jeans and stood there until he let us play. Even though I don't even like football, and never liked gym, it felt so great.

I hope that scared 4th grader gets to feel like that someday, about something.


Blogger Jo said...

It's such a great story, that one. I think you should copy it into word and see if it works as a stand-alone story, and then submit it to Brain, Child or somewhere. Perhaps the newspaper? I'm talking out my butt because I don't know how to do it, but still, you could...

8:47 AM  
Blogger Udge said...

Excellent story, and a wonderful real-life-as-it-might-and-should-be experience for the girls, including the very important "how to back down gracefully" moment.

IMHO you should have given her that hug & talking to. She may still get to that point by herself, but the interaction would have given both of you some karma points.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

I wish you'd given her the hug and talk too, and that she does feel that passionate, fearless way about something. Or that her feeling of rightness overcomes her fears; that's the most important part.

6:35 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

I sort of wish I had, too. I didn't want her to feel like I was judging her for not participating, though, or like she should have done something she didn't want to, so I let the moment go. I'm still thinking about what I could've said to her that wouldn't have felt like lecturing or putting her on the spot.

Also--I have different boundaries with students than I would with, say, a friend's kid, and tend to keep my personal opinions to myself more, cause I'm not just me, I'm The Adult, representing The School. Not always the most comfortable place to be, and sometimes too easy to hide behind.

11:33 PM  

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