Monthly Archives: May 2014


Last Monday, my Humanities 7 class seemed tired. Many of them had gone on the Boston Harbor cruise the night before at the invitation of Cardigan Mountain School, and had gotten back late. Others seemed to be having a post-weekend drop in energy (to be fair, it was 8:00 in the morning). Others, I’m sure, were fine, but (ironically) they were quieter about it than those who were tired.

So, we spent extra time on Morning Announcements, taking all their questions about the upcoming three weeks and the many special events, ensuring they felt they had as good a sense as possible of what was coming up. We moved on to Morning Reading, with Olivia reading Julia’s short story for her and Emily reading her own poems. I had earlier decided to extend Morning Reading if need be by including an installment from Wonder, the book the students had chosen for their unit on “judging” and in which we had just read the climax. The next section of the book involved preparations for fifth and sixth grade graduation, and the resonance in the room with what these students were thinking and feeling was strong.

There was a point when Auggie, the protagonist in the book, was asked if he wanted to press charges following a certain event; he didn’t. Elizabeth’s hand shot up to protest his decision, arguing it was the only way for the bullies to learn a lesson and that what they’d done was extremely serious. Olivia responded that it’s Auggie’s right to decide what he wants to do about it, and Jewels made a noise of agreement. I pointed out it all depended on what principles you used to make your decision, that by the way we were naturally shifting gears toward our next unit on ethics, and that at any rate each person did in the end have every right to make their own decision based on the the values they had every right to hold. Everyone nodded and a few other students added further thoughts.

During this discussion, I secretly flipped through to the end of the book, so when I got to a natural stopping point in the story – the night before the graduation – I told the class there was about 15 minutes’ worth of reading until the end, and asked them to vote on whether they would like to finish the story right then or wait until tomorrow. By a vote of 7-4 with two abstentions, they voted to continue, and settled back into their beanbags.

Soon, I was reading a speech by Mr. Tushman, the Middle School Director, on the importance of kindness: “… but what I want you, my students, to take away from your middle school experience… is the sure knowledge that, in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person here in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place.” (Palacio) One of the students raised her hand. “That sounds like something you would say,” she said. “It does,” I agreed, “only… I promise to be much more brief than Mr. Tushman in the Eighth Grade Moving Up Ceremony.” “Oh, good,” said at least half the students, laughing.

As I read the final words of the book, thinking partly of the emotions the characters were feeling, partly of the emotions my students were feeling, and partly of myself speaking to this particular middle school community for the last time less than three weeks from now, I choked up (again) a little: “You really are a wonder, Auggie. You are a wonder.” and several of the students said, “Oh, Bill, you’re crying a little.” I smiled. “Yes. I am. Get used to it. Because I guarantee it will happen in Moving Up.” They smiled back, and one of them commented on my past writings about the end of the year in this school and whether there is “enough tissue in the world.” The room fell silent for a moment. I raised my voice and called out, “Okay, choice time, and meditation in my office is a choice.” The students stood and stretched and moved on.

But not away. Not yet, anyway.

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Filed under In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective

The more things change…

The other day, I was walking through downtown Amherst and picked up a book of feminist writing I thought might be thought-provoking. I opened to a random page, and read about a steadily increasing gender wage gap. I opened to another random page, and read about those moments when women have had to deal with the assumption that they will have children and how this must inevitably affect their career. I opened to a third random page, and read an account about what it feels like to be sitting at a conference – yet again – listening to the people in a position of privilege and power talking about working for equity.

I was reading Sisterhood is Powerful, an iconic collection of feminist essays published in… 1970. Nearly half a century ago.

As one of my college friends commented on Jill Abramson’s firing, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I know, I know. Things have changed. Things are better. We have progress to make, but see how far we’ve come! And the optimist in me really wants to celebrate and focus on all the genuine progress that has been made.

Only, the realist in me can’t completely set aside how much genuine progress is yet to be made.

So often, progress toward equity is seen as taking away power from the historically privileged and giving it to the historically oppressed. And that view, not without reason, is hard to rally around.

But for many if not most feminists, feminism (and by extension most strands of gender activism, including my own) is actually not about privileging women over men but rather about dismantling a system of patriarchy that privileges the (traditionally) masculine over the (traditionally) feminine, thus allowing each individual authentic self to emerge, in order to achieve equity.

For her CAS project (Creativity-Action-Service, one of the requirements for the IB diploma and now an option for all students in IB schools) Mary Pura ‘13 created a feminist film festival. Her efforts, and the discussions that followed each showing both immediately and some time afterward, have resulted in what appears to be a deep cultural shift in this school to more openly reflect our feminist roots. It is cool to identify as feminist, both intersectionality and gender and sexuality diversity are increasingly being discussed, and even students who prefer not to identify as feminist tend to believe in the feminist ideal of working toward gender equity and the ability of all people to express their true authentic selves.

One of the films Mary showed that had the most profound impact on the school was the documentary Miss Representation, a well-researched and hard-hitting look at how the media in particular and society in general consciously and unconsciously reinforce patriarchy through their depictions of and commentary on women. The team that produced the movie has been hard at work on a new film, The Mask You Live In, which further explores restrictive gender norms, examining their effect on boys and men. Feminism, Gloria Steinem and many others have said, is ultimately about the liberation not just of women but also of all human beings, and we may hope that this new documentary will help drive that point home and help move our society forward.

My fervent hope for my students and for my son is that, should they stumble across a copy of Sisterhood is Powerful 45 years from now (nearly a century after its original publication), they will view it simply as a historical document depicting times long past. It will not happen by itself. But we are capable of making it happen.

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In real time, it’s hard to be sure what’s sexism and what’s you.
– Ann Friedman

As you may have heard, Jill Abramson, the first-ever female executive editor of The New York Times has been fired. There’s no speculation on that point – the paper has been clear, and she has made no effort that I know of to deny it. What’s much harder to figure out is why, even with excellent analyses like “Jill Abramson Will Never Know Why She Got Fired” (Ann Friedman in New York magazine) and “Why Jill Abramson Got Fired” (Ken Auletta in The New Yorker).

If you haven’t already, please note in passing the extreme contrast between those two titles, and ask yourself to what extent the genders (as perceived by their names, anyway) of the authors may be a factor. Not because of who those actual people are. Because of patriarchy.

In his article, Mr. Auletta notes that Ms. Abramson recently found out that her pay and pension benefits were significantly less than her predecessor, who was male. “‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was ‘pushy,’ a characterization that, for many, has an inescapably gendered aspect.” (Auletta) (For the record, you may count me in that “for many” group.) Differences of opinion over editorial policy and personnel decisions may also have been contributing factors. Mr. Auletta concludes, “Even though she thought she was politely asking about the pay discrepancy and about the role of the business side, and that she had a green light from management to hire a deputy to Baquet, the decision to terminate her was made.” Emerging from the objective tone of Mr. Auletta’s article, that analysis points to the likelihood of the kind of gut-level decision which is exactly at the center of Ms. Friedman’s piece.

Ms. Friedman notes that not “all women necessarily have a deep personal need to be liked by their colleagues” but that nonetheless “those colleagues’ gut-level opinions matter greatly when it comes to evaluating a woman’s job performance.” And early in the piece, she writes, “A muddled combination of complicated interpersonal stuff, not a single action or failure or incident, isn’t just an explanation for Abramson’s exit. It’s a reality for women in almost any workplace.” As she notes, while the confidence gap between men and women may not actually be all that great, the degree to and manner in which men and women are “allowed” by our culture to express that confidence does in fact vary widely. However hard one works to remain objective and free of restrictive gender norms, they exist and may be applied to us at a moment’s notice. Ms. Abramson, notes Ms. Friedman, recognized there may have been some legitimacy to various complaints aired earlier in her tenure. She also recognized a double standard may have been applied. And she also cried.

“But for most women, and anyone else who faces scrutiny as the ‘only one’ in the room, not caring is not an option.” (Friedman) Note that one doesn’t have to literally be the only one in the room for this to be true. And note also that that spotlight might be due to any number of factors including the full range of gender, sexuality, class, abledness, age, religion/spirituality, or other factors. The commonality is difference from what is commonly (whether consciously or not) considered the norm, along with the real and perceived pressures that result.

Because of patriarchy, institutionalized racism, and privilege in general, the only way to solve the problem is ultimately to dismantle the societal constructs that inevitably lead to it. Along the way, those of us with different kinds of intersecting privileges can scrutinize our own actions to see how they are affecting others, listen to historically oppressed groups, understand it is inevitable we will feel discomfort, and in general work to make sure “not caring is not an option” for us as well.

It takes a village, the saying goes.

Sign me up.

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Security Blanket

Founders’ Day is a middle school tradition originated by the 10 founding students of the program. In late spring of that first year, they proposed that beginning in the following year, the middle school have an annual holiday from classes in May, with all activities completely planned by students. Their goals were to honor the middle school, to have fun, and to remember the Founders. The seventh grade Founders, of course, were also able to participate in the first annual Founders’ Day as eighth graders, and so they helped set up a number of traditions including breakfast brought in from Dunkin’ Donuts.
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This year, then, was the 9th annual Founders’ Day. The students began with an overnight in the middle school building. Their first activity was tie-dying, followed by laser tag and other games and then by a movie (they voted for the Lindsay Lohan version of The Parent Trap). Sleep came… when sleep came.

The next morning, they all returned to the corridor to shower and change for the day – which turned out to be perfect, nice and warm and sunny. The wonderful and kind people at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Federal Street had labelled every drink and every bag of food, so it was incredibly easy for each student to find her own breakfast items. After eating, we all headed to the fields for a great game of kickball (another activity that dates to the first Founders’ Day). Next up, we returned to the middle school so that the students could sign each others’ t-shirts, freshly rinsed, laundered, and dried. They ended up spending nearly two hours on this activity, and the room filled with calls to “Sign my shirt?” amidst students gripping Sharpies and looking up thoughtfully at images unseen to anyone else but themselves before bending down and beginning to write. Ashley Chung, a six-year Senior, wandered in at this point, and awash in a swirl of emotions and nostalgia of her own, joined in the signing.

Lunch at Bonnie’s House, class and all-middle school pictures, and Capture the Flag continued nine years worth of traditions, at which point we attacked the special cake Mike Phelps had ordered for us and the watermelon. After snack, some students wanted to stay outside, and participated in three-legged and wheelbarrow races before organizing another game of kickball. Others chose to go inside, where they made their own fun.

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One day later, I was driving to service at the Food Bank with Sophie, an eighth grader, and we were talking about the day. She remarked on its importance as a marker that the year is starting to wind down, and how it can be tough to look ahead to the end of this year’s community. We talked about what her class is like, how last year they were really skilled at finding and learning about multiple perspectives without being judgmental, and how they were able to keep that going this year as they incorporated new eighth graders into their group and also welcomed the new seventh graders. She went on to reflect about what two years in the middle school had meant to them and how they were going to miss it. “It’s like a security blanket,” she said, “where you know everyone knows you and cares for you.” A few moments later she added, “But that allows us to develop our confidence. And we are confident. We’re wondering what exactly next year we’ll be like, but we can handle it.” I told her that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here, and how much it meant to know we had succeeded.

Not long after that, we pulled into the Food Bank parking lot for one last day of service – in this case, bagging apples that would go to their mobile distribution program. Inevitably, inexorably, the clock moved toward 2:30. We took one last look at the approximately 200 pounds of apples we had bagged and boxed. I shook Jared’s hand and said I was looking forward to next year, he smiled and said he was too, and Sophie and I turned and headed for the car and drove away together.

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


written on May 3, 2014, the day of Northampton’s annual Pride celebration

A year ago today, I decided to stop at McCusker’s and grab a coffee and vegan raspberry bar for the road. I ran into one of my old coaching friends, and while we were talking, I noticed that one of the people in the store was looking me up and down, disgust on her face. It didn’t exactly put me in the mood to continue on down to attend the Northampton Pride March as I was planning, but I had promised the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society I would walk with them, and I didn’t want to let them down. I also realized, deep down, that she didn’t care one bit where I was going, and I should not let her spoil my day.

Still, when I got to the parking lot, I stayed in the car a long while, checking my phone repeatedly, circling through Twitter, Facebook, and email over and over. When a car pulled in near me, and four members of the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus jumped out, wearing their t-shirts, and took off toward town, I had to admit I was probably being overly paranoid. I unplugged my phone, pulled on a skirt over my shorts, and followed after them. It was far from the last moment I would feel unsure of myself on the day, but it was the last time I would let it get to me.

This morning felt completely different. I didn’t just stop through McCusker’s, I sat down and had a bagel there (while working on narrative comments for the progress reports which were due in two days). Several people smiled at me. While I did check email and Twitter when I got to the Pride parking lot, I didn’t linger. I even went and hung out at the Haymarket coffee shop in Northampton before meeting up with Dakin at the staging area.

One of the Leverett staff members came up and hugged me, and another introduced me to her daughter. I met the cat in a stroller, Honeybun. I talked to the guy with a beautiful handmade stuffed armadillo. A volunteer from Springfield I recognized from last year showed up, and we chatted until it was finally Dakin’s turn. I held my sign, a picture of my cat with the slogan “My cat is open and accepting,” and stepped out.

Turning the corner onto Main Street, I saw one of my student’s moms and her little brother. I smiled and waved as the mom waved back and we both tried, with some success, to ease the clear sense of concern and worry off the baby’s face. About halfway down the parade route, a teenager sitting in a wheelchair finished petting one of the dogs, and she looked up, face glowing, and said, “Thanks,” with a tone that brought tears to my eyes. One of the other Dakin marchers leaned toward me and quietly said, “This march gives me goosebumps every year.” “That was an amazing moment,” I said.

It’s easy on days like this to get caught up in the excitement of all the smiles and rainbows and cheers. And of course, that’s part of the point of Pride celebrations in the first place. Yet, as one person noted to me almost in passing – you don’t want to dwell on such things on days that are meant to be fun – what brings you those smiles and good wishes during Pride can get you verbally attacked, beat up, even killed in other contexts. And even at Pride itself, I ran into an old friend who strode toward me beaming, shook my hand, and then took a second glance and recoiled and turned away. Reacting instinctively, I turned and walked away without looking back. I may never know whether or not he turned back to me.

Still and all, despite such moments, it’s true we as a culture seem to be steadily headed, however slowly, toward increased awareness and acceptance of the full diversity of sexualities and genders. I was talking to a colleague the other day, and we agreed that kids are light years ahead of many adults. At SBS, according to students to whom I’ve talked, the climate in general is more positive, welcoming, and supportive than what I hear about many schools. That’s not to say we can’t improve, and indeed the administrative team is following up on ideas that emerged from last March’s inservice training. Toward that end, Ellen, the School Counselor, and I are about to attend an AISNE conference on “Understanding Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: What every pre-K-12 Educator Needs to Know in 2014.”

As the Dakin contingent who were marching today turned the final corner into the fairgrounds, another teenager leaned forward urgently, trying to catch my attention, and motioned to her friend’s t-shirt, which said, “Smash patriarchy.” I gave the two of them a thumbs up and, as the second girl looked momentarily startled, the first girl looked like all was right with the world.

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The Politics of Nail Polish

“Can I ask why you’re wearing black nail polish?” I turned to see one of my advisees, a member of the Middle School Rock Band, walking toward me as we prepared for dress rehearsal for a show. “Sure, I said, “In order to make people think about why I’m doing it.” She burst into laughter, and said, “You’re the only person I know who would answer that question in that way.”

There are other reasons too, of course, several of which I’ve written about here before. Solidarity with my students in showing that I value the feminine. Breaking gender stereotypes and supporting other people who do the same. Ensuring my nail polish does not clash with my skin tone (granted, that’s mostly about the colour). And, as I have noted to those of my students who share a love of black nail polish, because I just like the way it looks on me. It took me quite a while to realize that, as I had to break a few internal gender stereotypes of my own. But I do.

I remember five years ago, sitting with a group of students and female faculty members having a “Day of Awareness” discussion on a gender-related issue, when one of the women turned to me and said, “Well, Bill’s here. Bill, what is the male perspective on that?” After a moment, I said, with maybe just a slight wavering of my voice, “I have no idea what ‘the male perspective’ is, but I can tell you what I think.” In so doing, I anticipated my current Humanities 7 students’ personal definitions in response to the question “What is a girl?” Ultimately, the majority (if not all!) of them felt that anyone who identifies as a girl gets to decide for herself what that means for her. My own sense of self was similarly unique to who I am and had (and still has) nothing to do with how anyone else identifies.

Six or seven years back, when my hair began thinning on the back of my head, my stepfather remarked on it and asked me if I’d have to cut off my ponytail one day and, if so, if I’d have to change my personality. The question struck me as both odd and insightful, and took me back several years before then when I’d told a colleague I had made an appointment to get a haircut. She said, genuinely alarmed, “But you’re not cutting off your ponytail!” No, I told her, just a trim, wondering why she’d care that much. I can only guess that, for both my stepfather and my colleague, there was something about my long hair that symbolized my way of being. Many of my virtual friends have told me that my online persona seems feminine to them. I’ve even had people tell me face to face, “Sometimes, I forget you’re a man.” And I can happily live with that, with people looking beyond gender to who other people really are deep down. In fact, my own search for identity has been largely shaped by my continual efforts to look past gender to my true authentic self, and my gender expression has reflected that ongoing search in the context of a heavily gendered culture.

To me, then, the whole concept of gender is ambiguous, individual, and personal. For some, a fixed, binary vision works perfectly well, and more power to them. For others, not so much, and more power to them as well. So what if we all were granted the sole power to determine our own gender identity, and other people simply respected that? It’s crazy, but it just might work.

If my own personality is a blend of what society currently calls feminine and masculine, along with other traits that don’t necessarily fall specifically into either gender box, so be it. And if my appearance – hair, nail polish, and the occasional skirt included – reflects that blurring of traditional concepts of gender, so be it. I am not female, though I am (conventionally) feminine in many ways. So I’m not (conventionally) masculine either. Except when I am. Which makes me… just… me. Husband, father, son, brother, son-in-law, brother-in-law, uncle, nephew. Cousin, friend. Teacher, adviser, colleague. Person.

Those who see me around but don’t know me may nonetheless find their conceptions about gender stretched, and as a gender activist, I’m all over that. And those who do know me may take the combination of my appearance and my way of being as a means of reflecting on not just what gender means in our society and what they think about that but also on how we each ultimately determine our own gender identities and gender expressions. And I’m all over that as well.

How we conceive of the idea of gender identity was one of the questions Ms. Durrett’s sophomore English class wanted to discuss with my Humanities 7 students when we met near the end of Fall Term. While we didn’t quite get to it, not directly anyway, having gotten deeply involved in the topics of feminism, girls schools, and sports culture, both classes wanted to get back together for more discussion. When we do, I’ll be fascinated to see what they have to say.

And maybe, as my own contribution to the discussion… I’ll wear black nail polish.

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