Circle of Uniqueness

The end does not actually justify the means; the means create the end.
- Gloria Steinem

If there isn’t trouble the day after a feminist speaks, they haven’t done their job. So noted Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, early on in her speech given at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as part of their Public Policy Lecture Series. As I thumbed a paraphrase of her words into my phone, I thought, “Well, perhaps it’s my job to help ensure there’s trouble.” And indeed, Ms. Steinem referred on multiple occasions to the accumulated power in the room, never mind the other auditorium where overflow was watching and listening via a video feed.

Her listed topic was, “Feminism: Where are we going?” It would appear that where we are going (as a gender activist, I strongly sympathize with and work alongside feminists) is both exciting and dangerous. Most social justice movements, she said, go through three distinct stages: raising consciousness, organizing, effecting transformation. The phase of consciousness-raising most pertinent to modern feminism may have reached its peak with the groups of the 1970’s I remember so well in my home town and at my college. Ms. Steinem would note later on, in response to a question, that if done right and through face-to-face communication, consciousness-raising groups can permit an easy, smooth, and seamless shift to organizing – part of the work is already done.

So at this point in time, Ms. Steinem argued, the organizing phase is also largely done. Attitudes have sharply shifted, and there are signs that the process of transformation has started. As Ms. Steinem put it, “Hierarchy is based on patriarchy and patriarchy isn’t based on anything any more.” However, to completely break free of gender boxes and open up the full range of human potential, it’s going to take a whole lot more transformation including men developing their full humanity as well. She also noted, both in response to a question about intersectionality and elsewhere in her talk, the intimate relationship of of feminism and anti-racism, affirming that “It’s not possible to be a feminist without being anti-racist.”

To break free of gender and other restricting boxes, we can think in terms of a circle of human qualities rather than a hierarchy. To further challenge and put an end to hierarchy, we can also work to understand individuals on their own terms rather than by identifying them as part of a group. This does not mean denying connections; quite the contrary. Ms. Steinem noted that “We are linked, we are not ranked,” and affirmed that hierarchies are a self-perpetuating lie that we increasingly disbelieve. Ultimately, the goal would be to ensure that “We are each completing our own circle of uniqueness.”

Ms. Steinem also talked about domestic violence, pointing out that countries with the highest rates of domestic violence also tend to have the highest rates of other kinds of violence. Normalizing violence in the home normalizes violence in the world. Furthermore, domestic violence is about control, and the most dangerous time for a potential victim of domestic violence is immediately before or after they escape that control.

As we work to free humanity from the control of patriarchy, the metaphor of escaping from domestic violence holds true. One questioner from the audience noted the strength of the backlash in the form of both various proposed pieces of legislation and rhetoric, expressing the fear that things were actually getting worse rather than better. Ms. Steinem acknowledged the strength and force of the backlash, noting that legislators, especially in state legislatures which fly somewhat more under the radar than Congress, disproportionately represent a minority view that seeks to restrict the rights of women, LGBT people, and people of colour. She pointed out that the majority, even when they are right, does not always win.

Among audience members asking questions were a student who had come down from Burlington, VT, a worker with a group fighting domestic violence in Cambridge, MA, and an alumna of MCLA who had heard Gloria Steinem before but had driven six hours from Philadelphia with a friend so the friend could see her as well. A number of questions were preceded with sometimes tearful statements that, “You are one of my heroes,” “You kept me sane,” and “You have no idea what you meant to me.” The speakers seemed to be expressing not only a longing for connection but also a longing for affirmation for their true selves in a world that does not always value them. Ms. Steinem noted the fundamental importance and power of networking, of creating spaces where people can talk about what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking, and of knowing wherever you go, you can find such a space. Such groups work best face to face; “A revolution doesn’t happen by pressing ‘Send’.”

I hope and pray that this school is one such space, and I know I work nonstop in the hope that it may be. I also work nonstop to spread the notion that people of all genders need to be freed of the roles and boxes and rankings that have hobbled them for hundreds of years. But, as Ms. Steinem noted, the period of human history dominated by patriarchy has been relatively short. We are in fact the majority. And if we want to go forth and cause a little trouble, so to speak, we are not alone. Therein lies hope. That circle of uniqueness need not just be each individual person; it can also be also all of us together. And all of us together are a force. All of us together can win.

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#NAISAC14, Day One

The National Association of Independent Schools is holding its annual conference right now, and as I have in some past years, I’ve resolved to try and read up on at least a portion of the many wonderful things happening there and reflect on them here. This installment follows the first full day.

Bo Adams caught my attention early by tweeting, “Now that would make a great course! ‘Our relationship with water.’” I wrote back to say that’s exactly a topic we in the middle school have been brainstorming about for a possible month-long interdisciplinary project one day. He sent an encouraging note asking me to keep him informed, and I linked him to our blog.

Bo also asked one of the most provocative questions I ran across today, “If school is supposed to prepare students for real life, then why doesn’t it look more like real life?” (I highly recommend you read his entire article!) As I think on this question, my mind jumps to my Humanities 7 classroom, where students right now are finishing up the scripts they will produce and stage in the Theatre 7 class this spring. They set “breaking stereotypes” as a common theme to tie the three different plays together, and agreed as a class that they wanted each play to be a modern take on a well-known story or fairy tale. Working in groups of five, they have set characters, developed plotlines, and worked daily to create each script line by painstaking line. Essentially, they are doing what teams of writers do for TV shows, except on a different scale and for the stage.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the students said, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” and this is certainly not the first year I’ve heard someone say that. Each student is brimful of wonderful, creative ideas, and is passionate about her vision. Yet, unlike during class discussions of literature and various issues, there is no agreeing to disagree here. In the end, choices must be made all along the way, and at any given point in time, only one specific word may be written. The challenge becomes how to genuinely value each member of the group and her contributions yet maintain a unified and logical vision for the play. They all desperately want to be included, and desperately want to be inclusive. Each group has hit the wall at least once. Each group has eventually found a way to work through their differences, sometimes on their own, sometimes with my assistance. If that’s not real life, I don’t know what is!

And I’m happy to add that, along whatever the students may be learning about collaboration, they are creating solid and enjoyable scripts and I know the community will love the spring production when it goes up on May 30.

Later on in the morning, as a teacher in a girls school, I was delighted to hear from Online School for Girls Executive Director Brad Rathgeber that John Chubb, the President of NAIS, had said some kind things about great innovations in girls schools. The NAISAC14 Community Daily expanded on that general theme by including a link to the President’s blog originally shared by the National Coalition for Girls Schools. In the blog, Dr. Chubb describes a visit to Roland Park Country School, a school in Maryland that has a coed pre-school and is all girls for grades K-12. When he writes “I was also struck by the strength of leadership among the students, the high level of engagement in the arts and athletics, and the sheer joy in the school culture,” I saw our own school, as I’m sure many girls school teachers did as well.

Roland Park is currently working on starting up a charter middle school for girls. Dr. Chubb notes, “In the end, Roland Park believes it understands how to do something very well — educate girls and young women — and wants to see if it can extend its service, and learn new lessons in the process.” I wish them all the best; in my mind, anything good girls schools can do to promote girl-positive environments for all students everywhere can only benefit all of us. Similarly, Dr. Chubb writes, “What I have found… is that the schools that see themselves as part of the larger community of schools and are willing to learn from ‘the competition’ tend to gain strength from the experience.” Those goals echo those of the recently formed #PubPriBridge group to which I belong.

In the end, I believe deeply, we need for all students at all schools, public and private, to benefit from the best possible education, and toward that end, we need for us all to pull together and learn from each other.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School


Every Wednesday, the middle school holds “Morning Meeting,” which is a flexible time set aside for us all to be able to come together as a whole community. Possible activities run the gamut from bonding games to announcements to game days to make-up MOCA meetings to… whatever is needed! Today, we began by going over next week’s schedule and taking questions, going over check-out procedures for spring break and taking questions, going over remaining community service for the term and taking questions, and looking at and applauding the winning t-shirt design for our 10-year anniversary celebration. And taking questions. At that point, we still had just over five minutes left, and so I asked everyone to stand up and form a circle.

[insert groans and cries of “but I’m so comfortable!” here]

When the circle was formed, I pointed out that we were almost exactly two-thirds of the way through the year and that we had just over three months left until graduation. Several of them said, “Whose graduation?” and I laughed and answered, “The Seniors. You all have a few more years to go.” I said that we had done a lot, grown a lot, and already had much to be proud of, and that the remaining three months still gave us a lot more time together. I asked them to quietly think of hopes they had for the rest of the year, either for the community or for themselves. Clara, to my right, whispered, “Can I go last?” “Sure,” I whispered back.

After a bit, I checked in to see if everyone was ready to go, and they were. Jewels, to my left, whispered, “Can we go around that way?,” pointing to Clara. “Sorry, she asked first,” I whispered back.

I started by saying, “I hope we all continue to learn how each one of us is special, and we are able to celebrate that.” Jewels’s eyes widened as we all turned to her, and she said, “Sleep. Lots of rest for all of us.” and we continued on around. As always happens on these occasions, themes began to form, weaving through and underneath different people’s thoughts. Friendship, connectedness, and permanence were among the most commonly mentioned – having fun with friends, making new friends, making sure the seventh and eighth graders had time together, getting to know other people, ensuring we all had contact information for the summer and beyond, staying in touch. Many students mentioned getting along well and growing closer. They mentioned learning, too, of course, and Andrea, one of the math/science teachers, said, “I hope you all come to see yourselves as mathematicians.” And they mentioned specific personal goals ranging from “improving my English” to “trying New England seafood.”

When the circle came around to finish up with Clara’s words, she said, “I hope that when we all see each other in 50 years, we all recognize each other.”

As the students started to break for G period, I called out, “Before you go, one question. Who makes this happen?” They yelled back, “Us! We do!”

I love these kids.

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Filed under Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Torn Apart

I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Usually, at the end of a show, especially on Opening Night, the cast either cheers and wanders off stage after the bows or simply wanders off stage. But as Meg Reilly, the music director, and Josh Carnes, the drummer, went into the exit music, these kids clearly did not want to leave, and it only took a few moments for the first one to turn to the girl standing next to her and wrap her in a long, warm hug which spread like, well, AIDS in the early 1990s, to choose a show-appropriate metaphor. Only, of course, on a much, much more positive note.

Before the show, Kim Mancuso, the stage director of the play, had gathered us all together on stage for an Opening Night ritual that marked and acknowledged the importance of each and every possible relationship among us in pulling off this incredibly complex and powerful show. When Tom Geha, the lighting technician, and I returned to the tech table, he said, “You know, you probably don’t even think about it because you see them every day, but I was looking around and it really hits you how young they are.” Rent is an ambitious show for people of any age, but it is an exceptional challenge for teenagers and pre-teens (three cast members were seventh graders) to immerse themselves for three months in the world of New York City’s East Village in the early 1990s, when many of the starving young artists were HIV-positive and/or had come down with full-blown AIDS. In that context, it was perhaps even more of a challenge for these kids to put themselves out there on stage for all to see.

Yet, every single audience member I talked to said the same thing, that part of what made this show exceptional was the absolutely universal commitment to the show and to each other that was clear from the first entrance to the last onstage hug before they finally wandered off stage.

The other part of what made this show exceptional is the show itself. The script is raw and intense, fueled by the tension that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing which one of your friends might be the next to die, of trying to find happiness and live day by day as best we can. With the funeral of one of the most beloved of the main characters as the centerpiece of the second act, and the subsequent destruction or near-destruction of a number of the relationships, the second act is harrowing. I turned to Tom after the Saturday night performance, and commented, “That second act just destroys me every time, and more and more each time I see it.” I could see in his eyes even before he answered that he felt the same way.

Near the end of the show, the character Tom Collins sings, “I can’t believe you’re going / I can’t believe this family must die / Angel helped us believe in love / I can’t believe you disagree.” One of my seventh grade Humanities students wrote an independent writing piece after the final show that essentially echoed this sentiment. I wrote her in response, “This is beautiful – raw and honest and in the moment. It’s not polished, and quite honestly it probably shouldn’t be. / I will share this with you in reaction, something I sent out on Twitter a few hours after the show: ‘Hard to mix the 2nd act of #Rent with tears flooding my eyes but I did my best. @sbschoolorg kids did an awesome job with a powerful show.’ I think this one will stick with many, perhaps most, of us for a lifetime.”

“Rent,” of course, not only refers to the money the characters in this musical state in the title song that they are not going to pay – not last year’s, not this year’s, not next year’s. “Rent” also refers to the concept of being, literally, torn apart. In this case, fortunately, though perhaps emotionally shredded, the cast and crew of this musical were not torn apart.

This family, at least, will never die.

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Filed under Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Other People’s Kids

Last fall, when one of my advisees was given the chance to write about what she liked about this school, she focused on growing up with a bunch of annoying brothers and how great it was to be in the dorm and feeling sisterhood. When shared with other people, the line always draws a laugh, but it can also cause a moment of introspection.

This isn’t to say my advisee doesn’t love her brothers deeply, of course. When her mom came for Family Weekend, even in occasional moments of exasperation at their unquenchable energy, she was clearly proud of them, and when she came back from winter break, she spent a while in my office showing me pictures and telling me about all they did together.

She and her family have been on my mind nonstop lately, ever since the moment I first heard that the jury in the trial of Michael Dunn had somehow, inexplicably, found him guilty of attempted murder but had been unable to reach a verdict on the actual charge of murder. Now, I’m smart enough to know the difference between what seems obvious and what is provable beyond reasonable doubt in a courtroom. But I still don’t get the logic here. He tried to kill people, and should go to jail for that. Moreover, he actually killed someone. But the jury couldn’t agree whether or not he should go to jail for that.

Some people say the Florida prosecutor overcharged; even there, my understanding is the jury could have found him guilty of a lesser charge. But they didn’t. Jordan Davis is dead, Michael Dunn killed him after initiating the confrontation, the only real justification offered is he became scared, and that is somehow enough to get him off on the charge of murder. In Florida, someone who commits an act of crime on a black person is three times as likely to be acquitted as they would be if the victim was white. And you can’t blame just Florida, either – the general principle behind those statistics holds up nationwide.

My advisee, her mom, and her brothers are all black, as of course are others of my students. And the notion that the same thing could happen to their families one day sickens and terrifies me and leaves me feeling helpless. Yet, being white, in the immediate aftermath of the learning the news, I found myself at a loss for what to say and do. Experience told me that some people in my timeline would want white people to shut up and listen while others would be calling on us to speak out. You want to be a good ally, you don’t see your way clear to what to do, and it just adds to the feeling of being overwhelmed and sad.

Well, poor, poor, me. José Vilson put it perfectly when he said, “The temporary sadness of understanding white privilege as a white person is nothing compared to the existential melancholy of understanding racial oppression as a person of color.”

Often, people who write on situations like this (and they do seem to recur, don’t they?) refer to the notion of “other people’s kids.” The implication is that non-black people feel some sort of distance from the victim because, well, they’re not black. Far, far too often, that is the case. But when it’s true, it’s because people focus in on them being “other”. They don’t focus on the “people” or, God save us, on the “kids.” That’s got to change. It’s only in understanding our common humanity that we can hope to rebuild our society.

Embracing our common humanity doesn’t mean pretending we’re all the same, of course. Differences exist, some surface, some deeper down. Embracing our common humanity also means acknowledging, understanding, and embracing those differences. That requires looking honestly not just at our culture but also at ourselves. And furthermore, as Mike Thayer noted in last night’s #PubPriBridge Twitter chat, it “[requires] seeing the other in yourself.”

And in so doing, finally be able to embrace not only the “people” and the “kids” in “other people’s kids” but also the “other.”

P.S. While she is not quoted directly, I need to acknowledge and express my thanks for the caring and thoughtful conversations @teachermrw has been holding with me. Her thoughts are deeply infused into this blog.

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Building the Future

To enter the toy section of virtually any major store these days, you’d almost think boys and girls were two different species, one of which apparently falls head-over-heels in love with anything pink. Or possibly purple. Yet, whatever sex-based differences may be present at birth and whatever gender-based differences may be acquired from birth on, such extreme gender segregation of toys is a relatively recent phenomenon. In fact, this iconic 1981 Lego ad makes it clear that 33 years ago, girls were perfectly happy to build with traditional Legos, and Lego was willing to advertise that fact.

To be fair, as was noted in an article in the Huffington Post, Judy Lotas, the creative director in charge of Lego’s ad campaign, had to fight to have Rachel Giordano (then age four) included. The mother of two daughters, she knew better when others argued that only boys like to build, and successfully stood her ground (further proof, by the way, that we need more women involved in advertising!). Ms. Giordano and other child models were given about an hour to play with Lego sets, and were then photographed holding their own creations. As it happens, those are also her own clothes (blue jeans and blue t-shirt) she wore in off the street. Maybe it’s that genuine quality that has helped this ad endure.

In her own article on the original ad and follow-ups, Lori Day references an article by Michele Yulo comparing Lego’s update of the 1981 ad to her own reworking. In Lego’s update, the girl is wearing blue and holding a Lego model and the caption is “It’s as one-of-a-kind as she is.” But the text for this ad, for the Lego Friends series, refers only to girls, whereas the original 1981 ad simply refers to children. The issues here go beyond how Lego envisions girls’ toys – they are also implicitly excluding boys who might otherwise enjoy Lego Friends. As Ms. Yulo notes, “When we separate girls and boys in this way, we are telling both sexes that girls can’t be interested in things like science unless they are color-coded or include things like puppies and cupcakes.”

In Ms. Day’s article, Ms. Giordano gives her own take on the issue: “Gender segmenting toys interferes with a child’s own creative expression. I know that how I played as a girl shaped who I am today. It contributed to me becoming a physician and inspired me to want to help others achieve health and wellness. I co-own two medical centers in Seattle. Doctor kits used to be for all children, but now they are on the boys’ aisle. I simply believe that they should be marketed to all children again, and the same with LEGOs and other toys.”

This week, our school is celebrating National Engineering Week. As part of the celebration, on Thursday, we are cancelling classes to hold an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” event. You can bet we are not colour-coding the projects each grade will be carrying out, and you can bet we will do our best to let their own creativity and ideas rise to the surface.

“Gender-segmented toys may double corporate profits, but always seem to result in for-girls versions that are somehow just a little bit less.” (Day) As a girls school, we refuse to settle for a little bit less. Indeed, we are doing what we can to undo what has been done to them so far, and to help those who would always have been scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, embrace and pursue that aspect of their own best selves.

P.S. Interested in girl-positive and gender neutral toys and clothing? Entrepreneur Inês Almeida’s website Toward the Stars can help.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, The Girls School Advantage

No Makeup Policy

As I pulled into the parking lot of Target in attempt to find a yellow T-shirt for our Spirit Week Colour Wars skit, my phone beeped to tell me I had a text. It was Jeff Conlon, our Athletic Director, asking me if I was watching the Olympics and quoting one of the announcers. It turned out they were talking about the women’s downhill race and the tough course, and focusing on how strong and skilled and athletic the racers were…

Just kidding. The actual quote Jeff texted me was “Maybe a bit of makeup” and it turned out the announcers were, surprise of surprises, focusing on how the women looked and what they were wearing. I couldn’t disagree with his comment, “horrible,” even if I had wanted to. Which I didn’t. As he added later in our text-conversation, “Talk about taking the focus off the amazing athletic accomplishments and making them into ‘girls.’”

Though I was certainly angry to hear of this blatant discrimination, I wasn’t particularly surprised. Indeed, shortly after my texting chat with Jeff, my Twitter feed brought up a tweet stating an official complaint was being lodged with the BBC about their treatment of silver medalist Torah Bright, as they had commented that she is “nice looking,” “feminine,” and “the full package.” (quoted by Diedrichs) In addition, on the day the Olympics were beginning, NBC posted this image on Facebook.
I originally took the figure skater’s costume to be an evening gown, but in my defense, while the three men look serious and confident, she is smiling and is standing in a somewhat sexualized posture. Plus, as my mother-in-law pointed out, she presumably also owns a winter jacket.

Earlier in the day, I had come across an article entitled “Medals Aren’t Enough: Female Olympians Still Have to Sell Sexiness.” “Have to?” I thought to myself. And clicked on the link.

With a sense of inevitability, I read, “For male athletes, it’s primarily about their performance. And for female athletes it’s definitely as much about their looks as it is about their performance.” (Adler, quoted in Dockterman) I was saddened to learn that the WNBA offers makeup seminars to rookies, and that “women who compete in sports that require helmets are spending 30 minutes in front of the mirror putting on makeup before competition preparing for their HD close-up when that helmet comes off at the finish line.” (Dockterman) And of course, whatever their sport and uniform, female athletes far too often end up posing in bikinis or other revealing clothing. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, Ashley Wagner was accused of having only made the figure skating team because of her looks. Women, it seems, have to hit a fairly precise target in terms of appearance, a task that almost makes biathlon look easy.

As Jeff said near the end of our chat, “The system is skewed.” I am well aware, of course, that this isn’t just the sports world – indeed, as I was writing this blog, the New York Times tweeted a link to a desperately important article on a major issue of our time, “A new kind of cleavage ideal on display at the awards shows.” But that doesn’t excuse sports announcers and reporters, nor does it excuse advertisers. It really shouldn’t be that hard to focus on female athletes’ accomplishments.

Because they’re good. Better than good. They’re quite literally world class. They deserve to be treated as such. And my students who love sports and are perpetually frustrated as they repeatedly bump up against the reality that, outside of the Olympics, only 4% of sports programming is devoted to female athletes, they deserve more as well.

The #NotBuyingIt campaign has proved remarkably successful in causing Super Bowl advertisers to cut back sharply on the level of sexism in their ads in just the past two years. They have shown that grassroots activism can be incredibly powerful. Perhaps we need a similar effort to reshape TV programmers’ thinking. Perhaps, too, it would help to get more women involved in advertising (where only 3% of creative directors are women) and journalism (where only 6% of sports editors are women).

Ideally, sooner rather than later.


Filed under Current Events, Gender, Uncategorized, Women in media