Several weeks ago, one of my Humanities 7 students approached me, a smile on her face but a furrow in her forehead. “The questions just don’t stop,” she said. “There are too many to answer.” “I know,” I responded. “It’s both fun, because you love the questions and they help you learn, and frustrating, because the more questions you answer, the more questions you have.” We went on to discuss a unit from the 2006-2007 Humanities 7 course, “Is it better to have more questions than answers, or more answers than questions?”
Earlier today, she shared a list of questions with me that she was considering developing into independent writing pieces. Among them:
• Who would I be as a boy?
• What would be the same, what would be different?
• Are the similarities who I really am?
• Was I born me, or do I create me?
• If others weren’t around to influence you would there be less of a separation between characteristics of boys and those of girls?
• Is it possible to change that separation and stereotypes so that it everyone is mixed in every way?
Immersed in her search for identity, as seventh graders tend to be, she has focused in on several fundamentally important issues: how we define gender and how in turn gender defines us, how it relates to our true selves, and what to do about it if gender is indeed limiting who we are allowed to be. She will continue to face those questions in eighth grade, high school, college, and indeed – most likely, however frustrating that thought may be – throughout her life.
For me personally, the most intriguing question is, “Are the similarities who I really am?” It’s not an easy question to answer, for one thing because there are some areas where it is much easier and more widely accepted to blur the binary gender line than others. So by definition, some of the similarities between her girl-self and her boy alter-ego would be facilitated by society’s acceptance of those traits in various genders. Yet… would they exist as similarities if they weren’t part of her to begin with?
Along the same lines, the parts of her that are the most personally important regardless of how they are tagged in a gender-binary world are precisely the parts she will work the hardest to preserve and bring out, perhaps even finding herself emboldened by a world attempting to make her play a part she was not born to play. In that case, of course, the similarities are indeed who she really is.
Where it becomes trickier is trying to figure out what parts of her may have been attenuated or accented, perhaps without her ever knowing it, by a culture that quite literally sees gender first and foremost (“It’s a girl!”), and how that would affect similarities between her girl-self and her boy-self. This is where her question about what would happen if others weren’t around to influence you becomes fundamentally important. While in one sense, we are born ourselves in that our genetic heritage most definitely shapes who we are, and in another sense we create ourselves in that we are defined by our actions, neither of those events happens in a vacuum. Babies, a recent study shows, are sensitive to gender expectations before they even learn to speak. Indeed, gender expectations form around them before they are even born: mothers use different language to describe their baby’s movements in utero depending on whether the child has been identified as a girl or boy, or not identified by gender.
So is it possible to change these expectations? Having spent my entire life chafing against, resisting, and working to expand gender constructs (first within the gender binary, and then beyond), I can only hope it is. For one thing, if this wonderful young person gracing my classroom is to be able to truly be her own best self, we need to be open to the full range of possibilities for what that best self is.
Earlier this week, I read a Facebook posting from “TowardTheStars” that quoted Emma Watson as having said, “You know, I feel like young girls are told that they have to be this kind of princess and be all delicate and fragile, and it’s [crap]. I identified much more with the idea of being a warrior, and being a fighter… I think women are scared of feeling powerful and strong and brave, and I think that’s something they’ve got to embrace.” I can’t help but connect that to my student. Of course, there are different kinds of power, strength, and bravery, and what’s right for her might or might not be right for another. But identifying and developing her unique brand of strength and bravery to be who she truly is will bring her a power like no other. I am sure she will find many kinds of success this year. But if I could guarantee just one venue for success, that is the one I would wish for her. It is one toward which I work every day, not just for her of course, nor even for her class, nor even for the entire middle school. For all of us. Including myself.