Tag Archives: Beautifully different

Dis-empowering the Good Mother myth

To evolve as humans, we must let go of behaviors and attitudes that hold the rest of humanity back. – Christy Turlington Burns, from the Introduction to the good mother myth, edited by Avital Norman Nathman.

“So what are you going to do when you leave?” my son asked me as we stood together in his dorm room with several bags full of clothing, food, and other supplies set out on the floor waiting to be unpacked. I couldn’t help but think that, happy as he was to be back at college, ready to see his friends and throw himself into a new term’s worth of courses, he knew the house would be empty without him there and was wondering how I’d be doing. And in truth, I was mostly, transparently, trying not to think too hard about the Kian-sized hole that awaited me when I eventually – because I was definitely not going to hurry – got back home.

Awash in thought over all the time he’d spent alone over the past two weeks while I was at work, sometimes not getting home until after 8:30 with work still left to do, trying desperately to think as I drove home of something tasty and reasonably different from the previous night that I could cook for him, I asked myself “What kind of parent am I?” – by no means for the first, or hundredth, or I suppose millionth time. It’s not that I haven’t tried to do my best, and it’s not that I have any regrets when I think about who my son is. He is a truly wonderful person – loving, smart, kind, respectful, with a subtle and surprising sense of humour that brings delighted laughter up from deep within you. He loves his school, has great friends, knows the value of hard work. He is independent and values community. Like all of us, he is imperfect; unlike far too many of us, he manages for the most part to keep that awareness without either letting it get him down or letting it become an excuse. Yet, I seem to always feel I could have, should have, somehow done better by him.

And here’s the thing. I’m not even his mother. As a father, I have found the bar is set ridiculously low for society’s expectations of my parenting skills. But expectations for mothers are set to a whole different level. As Christy Turlington Burns wrote in the foreword to the good mother myth, the powerful and important collection of essays edited by Avital Norman Nathman, “[The ideal of the Good Mother is] a myth that is largely predicated on patriarchal constructs, one that creates false standards that sets women up for failure, not success, and for judgment instead of support.” (p. x) Through a series of remarkable essays written by several dozen mothers, this book seeks to break the hold of the Good Mother myth and reveal “the collective consciousness of ever-evolving women who share the experience known as motherhood.” (Turlington Burns, p. xi) It has the potential to do for mothers what Rachel Simmons‘s Curse of the Good Girl did for girls.

From the first sentence of the first essay, “Ichabod’s Ghost” by Abby Sher, I knew I was in unfamiliar – and welcome – territory: “The first time I dropped my daughter Sonya on her head from a great height, she was about eight months old.” (p.21) As we follow the saga of Sonya’s tumbling out of a four-poster bed, sinking underwater as she practiced new-found swimming skills, and losing her balance and falling to the asphalt from her mom’s shoulders, we cringe, gasp, tear up, and smile softly with a somewhat wry relief. When Ms. Sher writes, “By now, the biggest question in my head was who let me be a mom, and is there a way to rethink that decision?” (p.23) and “It took me a week to stop rereading the list of concussion signs that Dr. O mentioned. And another year of talk-therapy to name all the reasons why I thought I should give up on motherhood and run away before I did permanent damage,” (p. 24) she gives us all permission to acknowledge our own fears and doubts. As I read the story, I pulled up a mental image I prefer to keep very deeply buried of one night when my son was about two and I went in to check on him, only to discover he had somehow rolled off the bed and gotten wedged between the guardrail and the mattress, his legs dangling down. No damage done, fortunately, except for my permanent sense of guilt that if something had in fact happened, it would have all been my fault for failing to protect this wonderful, loving, trusting little person.

But the essay doesn’t end there. Ms. Sher goes on to tell about a time when she and Sonya were painting together, and Sonya asked her to do a rainbow, which admittedly turned out not to be her all-time greatest work of art. Ms. Sher asked her daughter what she thought, and Sonya retreated to consult with her doll Bippy. After some back and forth, she said, “I know. I know. But that’s not a nice thing to say. I think Mom’s doing a great job.” (p.25) Ms. Sher responded by wanting “to laugh and cry and hold my beautiful daughter so tight with love. / Instead, I bit my lip and said, ‘Yeah, Bippy. Sorry. But at least I’m learning.'” (p.25)

All of us being different, each of us may relate in different ways – if at all – to any given one of the essays in this book. But in the end, that’s only part of the point. Because, all of us being different, all of us are different as parents. To disempower the Good Mother myth, we need to work to actively affirm the individual truths of motherhood, all of them. As Ms. Norman Nathman writes in her introduction, “Read these stories, find yourself within these pages, and join us as we redefine the myth of motherhood to fit reality.” (p. xvii) And Ms. Turlington Burns points out that “At this point in time, the possibility and importance of connecting, empowering, and accepting each other as women and mothers at every point along the mothering spectrum is crucial.” (p. x)

“I’ll probably make a few stops on my way home, maybe head up to Cambridge or go to Northampton,” I told my son in answer to his question about where I was going, and he nodded. A hug and a couple of “Love you!”s later, I was back out in in the snow and rain, the Kian-sized hole now where my heart should have been. “Having children means our hearts walk around outside our bodies,” said President Obama in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, as Jessica Valenti pointed out in her essay based on that quote. (p. 68)

If an especially acute awareness of the hole in my heart was to be my fate on this day, in reading and learning through the afternoon about the lives of the good (enough) mothers in the book, at least I knew I was not alone.

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Aware of One’s Gender

“Can I ask a question?” Julia, a returning 8th grader, asked toward the end of our first all-middle school meeting. “Sure,” I said as 33 pairs of curious eyes turned to look at her. “Well, it’s really more of a statement (laugh). I just want to say that I love this meeting tonight. It’s the best part of the whole year.” It is indeed a wonderful tradition – after an all-school dinner, everyone gathers in the Capen Room where faculty introduce themselves, Big Sisters introduce themselves and their Littles, a few announcements are made, and everyone races off to begin focusing seriously on the finally imminent first day of classes. “I don’t know if I’m ready to say it’s all downhill from here, but I do love this night,” I said softly to Andrea as kids streamed past us. She laughed and nodded. “I know,” she said.

Part of the tradition is faculty members letting students know how they would like to be addressed. About halfway around the room, one of the first-year teachers, Jake Steward (the new Chair of the English Department), said: “You may call me Steward. You don’t have to use the ‘Mr.’ I’m aware of my gender.” Everyone laughed. Eric Swartzentruber was next and, after introducing himself as the Admissions Director, added, “While I am also aware of my gender, you may call me Mr. S.” Everyone laughed again. I laughed too, but it all got me to thinking – what does it actually mean to be aware of your gender?

I suppose the first step is to figure out what you mean by “gender” in the first place. By no means does everyone share the same definition. For some people, of course, it simply means how you were identified at birth based on anatomy. End of story.

However, for others, it’s a little more complicated. I remember one person this summer, commenting on the birth of the royal baby: “Well, the royal baby has been born and, apparently having something resembling a penis, has been identified as a boy. We’ll see.” One’s genetic heritage is, of course, relatively fixed (as I understand it, the developing science of epigenetics continues to call even this into question). But you can’t always tell who is intersex at birth, and you certainly can’t always tell what that new baby’s personal sense of gender will be when they grow up. Masculine? Feminine? Somewhere on a continuum? Both equally? Some other sort of blend? Neither? Fluid? We’re getting to the point where it’s hard to keep track of all possible senses of gender a person can have. Some colleges are starting to incorporate asking students about pronoun choice during orientation and their offices now routinely ask visitors, “And what pronouns are you using today?”

Recently, I was actually asked the “what pronouns” question. And I have to say, it felt entirely respectful and dignified. No assumptions. No inferences. No judgments. Just quietly asking what worked for me, a human being. (For the record, my answer was, “‘He’ is fine, and thank you very much for asking.”)

Of course, in a girls school, it’s a little trickier to avoid making assumptions about gender altogether. It’s right there, three times, in our mission: “… We inspire girls… discover her best self… her voice will be heard.” And I do think, for most of my students, being aware of their gender is indeed becoming aware for themselves of what it means to be a girl growing into a woman. For most of them. But not necessarily for all of them. Sometimes, one’s own best self turns out to be… not female. Just the other day, Mrs. Logan-Tyson mentioned how nice it was to spend time with one of our alums at Reunion and find him to be so happy in life. And that is one of our most important core goals for all of our graduates.

So, for many of us anyway, perhaps being aware of one’s gender is a personal journey that works differently for different people. The tangle of society’s beliefs, assumptions, and stereotypes provides a context for that journey, either supportive netting or a steel trap depending on who you are and whom you are with. Fortunately, if you can remain fully open to experiencing the person with whom you find yourself, you will be giving them the space and freedom to be their own best self, simultaneously regardless and fully aware of gender.

Recently, some grandparents who were worried about whether their granddaughter might be confused about her gender given her short haircut, propensity for “only boys’ sports, such as martial arts”, and love of boys’ clothing, asked advice columnist Carolyn Hax, “Please point us in the right direction.” Ms. Hax began her response with this line: “The ‘right direction’? Love her.”

It really is that simple.

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Filed under Alumnae, Gender, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Our Own Greatest Teachers

Several years ago, a friend of mine who had just had her first child asked me what I had done to help my son grow up to be as strong, kind, grounded, and self-confident as he is. Her concerned look told me how desperately she wanted the same for her own son. My quick response, that my secret to raising my son so well had been for my wife to be his mother, was not given entirely out of modesty or humility (for one thing, my wife is truly one of the most extraordinary parents I’ve ever known). By, in a sense, deliberately avoiding the question, I meant to create space for her to discover the mother she was meant to be. We did have a longer, more heartfelt conversation later on, but ultimately she found the secret on her own: her child was not my child, her family was not my family, and she had to find her own way as a parent to this unique human being and as a member of her own unique family.

Part of our school’s mission is to enable all our students to be their own best selves. As obvious as this goal might be, and as fundamentally important, it is not easily achieved. Recently, Erin L., a seventh grader, wrote the following in an essay:

Is my personality a chance, or am I who I was meant to be?

I am shy and quiet. I have always been… I found that I was comfortable in my routine of school and home, in a small circle of people I knew, but in sixth grade, my shell of comfort was shattered, like a broken snow globe. Facing interviews, and new teachers, I tried to embrace my final year of comfort, and then began work on one of the hardest things I will ever have to do… I began working on banishing shyness. Timidity and innocence are strong protective walls, but as well as walls keep out, they also block in…

As I struggle to break the walls, I am learning more than self-confidence. I am learning how to learn from mistakes, I am learning how to embrace change. I am learning what it feels like to step into a spotlight, and glow underneath the light. So perhaps I was given my personality to teach me, because, I think perhaps we are our own greatest teachers, if we simply have the patience to learn.

No, my personality was not a chance. Something thought me out very well, or maybe it was an unconscious decision on my part. To be who I am to become, may not be easy. But it is my choice.

I suspect I am not alone in wishing I had been that wise at her age. For that matter, even now, at 53, I feel I am still discovering myself – making conscious and unconscious decisions, trying to have the patience to learn and to be my own greatest teacher, shaping my presence in the world so that people might perceive me as I perceive myself. Even after 40 or more years of trying to be who I am to become, I’m not 100% certain I’ve entirely achieved that. But I still have time. We all do.

As the Upper School Rock Band was gathering the other night, several of the students were spinning and bouncing around the room and talking about the character of our school: “We’re all quirky.” “We’re all different.” “We’re all… artistic.” “Everybody accepts everybody else.” “There wasn’t really a place for people like me at my old school.” “It’s almost,” I said with a hint of laughter in my voice as I feigned surprise and a sudden discovery, “as if this school was all about finding out who you were meant to be and becoming that person – becoming your own best self. And that it’s working.” The girls all smiled, and one danced a little half step to her right. “Exactly.” one of them said with a confident nod of her head as she took a firm step forward.

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Filed under In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Not Long Enough

Spearth Day was born of a series of compromises, but has become one of the key dates in the waning weeks of our school year. Many years ago, the students asked for a special day to celebrate the mailman who played such an important role in their lives (today’s students, for whom email is old-fashioned and texting is routine, would probably find this odd). We called it “M and M Day” for “Mail Man Day,” and besides presenting him with a card and gifts when he finally showed, we played an all-school game of Capture the Flag and found other ways to celebrate. Over time, M and M Day evolved and became more organized – for one thing, the tradition of the talent show was begun. Meanwhile, earlier in the spring, Earth Day remained a day off for service – cleaning up local parks and rivers, clearing trails, and so on. The two days were eventually combined into one, and the name “Spearth Day” comes from “Spring-Earth Day.” We spend the morning doing various service projects on- and off-campus, have the Talent Show after lunch, follow that with games and booths organized by classes and clubs, dedicate the yearbook and pass out copies, and end with a barbecue. This year, for a special treat, there will be a dance performance by the Senior IB dancers.

Excitement always run high right before Spearth Day, especially when Wednesday immediately precedes it as that is our half-day of classes. The 7th graders spent Morning Meeting somewhat nervously tying up the few remaining loose ends in the preparation for their booth while the 8th graders set up a coverage schedule and worked hard to ensure they would have everything they needed. Early morning notes on the white board suggested the Community Service Club had done much the same the night before.

Sports are winding down (another reason for excitement as this is a major marker the year is actually starting to come to a close), and so Sophie and Clara, two of the 7th graders, were available and eager to accompany me to the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society. They laughed and sang and talked all the way there, assuring me they had to be the loudest group I’d ever taken (they weren’t far wrong, actually!). There wasn’t much to do on site, but they were cheerful and positive even when just folding laundry, and took the time to make friends with some of the cats. The ride back was just about as high energy as the ride out.

When we returned at 5:30, the school was sheltering in the basement as a tornado warning had been issued. So when the Wednesday night group of the Middle School Rock Bands showed up 20-25 minutes late for rehearsal (dinner had opened half an hour late and hey, they had to eat!), energy was even higher than usual – if possible! – for a Spearth Day Eve.

For the Spearth Day Talent Show, the group is performing “Microphone” by Martha, a second-year 8th grader. The song has rather whimsical lyrics (sample “Microphone, / You have a big head. / You have a cord. / And it is long.”) and a melody to match. At our first rehearsal of the song, I suggested a series of chords to which everyone agreed, and Aliana (who had played drums before during this year) taught Subin (who hadn’t) an appropriately whimsical drum part (Meredith on bass, Molly sharing vocals with Martha, and Ellie on marimba round out the group; Aliana is covering the piano part). The song is a little bit short, so at our previous rehearsal, we had rearranged it so the final chorus was repeated three times – once with instruments, once a cappella, and once more with instruments.

We ran the song twice – the second time because I had forgotten to time it, just to be on the safe side as we are limited to three minutes (lots of acts in this Talent Show!) before sailing into “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane, which we are doing next Thursday for the annual Middle School Music Performance. It is a beautiful piece with subtly shifting block chords in the piano anchored by a relatively straightforward backbeat. Subin was drumming again, Martha had shifted to the marimba, and though I normally play bass on this piece, I had to cover Molly’s piano part since her team was late back from a game. Somehow, Ellie, Aliana, and Martha had contrived to cover Meredith’s vocal since her Team Night had begun way late due to the tornado warning and so was going way late. Still, even with me faking the chord shifts that Molly alone knew by heart, and even with one less voice on the harmonies (which the girls themselves wrote), the song sounded gorgeous and as it sunk in that I had only two more nights with this group before they were done for the year, tears sprang to my eyes which I tried (successfully) to cover up because the girls were having so much fun.

In the 1991 remake of “Father of the Bride,” Steve Martin in the title role tells his daughter on the night before her wedding, “Well, that’s the thing about life, is the surprises, the little things that sneak up on you and grab hold of you.” (IMDb) I know tonight is only the first of many such moments we’ll experience over the next two and a half weeks. It’s a way to mark how much these kids come to mean to us, and to each other. Of course, even those who are graduating and moving on will live on in my memory and in my heart. And they will have good company there, kids both past and future.

And meanwhile, I will savor every moment of the rest of the year. I know how lucky I am. And I am determined not to take it for granted. As, I am quite sure, are they.

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Filed under Graduation, In the Classroom, On Education, On Parenting, Performing Arts, School Happenings, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

A Moment of Peace

132 – Kristin. 134 – Kim and Francie. 136 – Donna and Jenny. 138 – Amanda and Hillary. And so on.

Those were some of the kids on my first corridor, way back in 1985. Of course, those kids would be in their mid-40s now, much closer to my age than to the age of the kids currently living there. But the memories are still fresh. For example, the time there came an unmistakable meow from one of those rooms as I was doing check-in at the beginning of study hall. A little investigation uncovered – you have perhaps guessed – a cat, its container covered by a tapestry so I wouldn’t see. Suddenly, several kids from the corridor were all in the room, begging me to let them keep it. It had been lonely, lost, wandering around. It needed a home. It needed love. I asked where they had found this poor, lost, homeless cat. The parking lot in Friendly’s, the old one on Federal Street. The one, I pointed out, smack in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. I convinced the kids, not without a fair amount of effort, that the cat might actually have a home and that those people might be worried. I drove it down to Friendly’s and, waiting for an opportune moment so no one would see me and think I was abandoning it, released it, hopefully indeed back to its home.

rachelcourtneydorm_72dpiI moved off that corridor in 1988 to a bigger apartment (actually, not very much smaller than my current house), by request taking what by then was the 9th grade corridor with me to “the Extension” over the library. I stayed there for most of the remainder of my 12 years of houseparenting. Four years later, I would be in France attending a friend’s wedding on the first weekend of the year when I first learned of the unique character of that particular corridor. “Bill, you wouldn’t believe it. They all shaved their heads on the first night.” my friend and co-houseparent told me over the phone. A slight exaggeration – they had merely shaved the lower half of the back of their heads, and not quite all of them. But the moment was a foreshadowing. This would be the year that Lilah would absolutely refuse to sleep in room 65 for a solid week, assuring me one of her relatives had confirmed malevolent paranormal activity in the room. The year where I learned I would have say “good night” last of all to Kerry, who found a way almost every single night of the year to engage me in challenging something about the school – except for the night where she taught me the “A Pizza Hut. A Pizza Hut. Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut…” song. The ritual turned out to be her way of calming down at the end of the day so she could fall asleep. And of course – she could laugh about it as a Senior, by then an RA on her old corridor – Mary Ellen, several nights a week, knocking on my door about half an hour after lights-out. “Bill. I can’t sleep.”

Yesterday in housemeeting, I made the following announcement during the “Weekend Activities” portion of the morning: “I’m going to be on duty on middle school corridor. Since this is the first time I’ve been on weekend duty… this century, please feel free to offer suggestions for what you’d like to do.” I had done some coverage on middle school corridor during the last week of school, hanging out during Vespers and Farewell to Seniors before we found ways to help the kids create strong enough connections to the older kids that they began – successfully – demanding to attend these formerly Upper School events. But this would indeed be my first weekend on duty as a resident since 1999, when my family and I temporarily abandoned our house for a year to live in Ferdon.

Similarly, last night was my first on-duty night during a normal school night in quite some time. It proved to be easy, fun, and “relatively smooth” as I wrote repeatedly in my Duty Notes for the night. Around 7:30 p.m. up in Jesser, where we are holding study hall during the two-week-long period of Quiet Hours due to IB testing, several people said, “Oh, we need to talk to you after Study Hall.” Feeling the old familiar sense of uncertain anticipation, I nodded yes, and everyone quieted down quickly – occasional bursts of conversation and laughter from the Humanities classroom notwithstanding (“Every time!” one girl lamented. “Every time, you catch me!”). A little after 9:00 p.m., back on the corridor (Middle School Study Hall only lasts 90 minutes, reflecting the lesser amount of homework they get and their developmental needs), a group of approximately 11 students (they waited patiently while I punched all their names into my phone to make a list) surrounded me as I sat at the duty table. “Okay,” I said turning around to face as many of them as possible, “What do you want?”

It turned out that what they wanted was for me to drive them up to Cardigan Mountain School on Saturday. For the second straight year, Cardigan had invited us on a harbour cruise in Boston to celebrate the end of their year, and the girls wanted to be able to see the boys who had thus entered their lives once more before Cardigan graduated, Saturday being “Eaglebrook Day” when the two rival schools would have multiple games in multiple sports. They knew it was one hour and 41 minutes door to door, they knew the game schedule, they knew I would have to find coverage to staff the dorm in my absence, and in general, especially considering how badly they must have wanted it, they presented their proposal calmly and thoughtfully and in great detail. I explained what would have to fall into place for me to be able to do this, promised to write the necessary emails setting the process in motion, and promised to let them know when I knew for sure if it could work out.

At 10:00 p.m., Susan, a Rock Band student of mine and one of the RAs in the Middle School, joined me in walking the length of the corridors telling everyone “good night” and ensuring their lights were out. This was always one of my favourite rituals as a houseparent, and not at all because it signalled the impending end of my active duty for the night, but more because it was a chance to connect, to read the moods of everyone on the corridor, to provide a little touch of home. “Good night. Sleep well. See you in the morning!”

I had determined to hang out an extra half hour, just to be sure things remained calm and nothing bubbled up suddenly. Whatever her reasons, Susan sat next to me by the duty table, talking in Chinese to somebody – her mom? – and, her face split by a wide smile, showing me a picture she’d just been sent of her dog running outside outside all happy it was spring and it was warm. Later, I would ask her if she’d read the excellent article by Nafisatou, a four-year-Senior, in our latest Alumnae Bulletin. She hadn’t, but she began talking about Nafisatou’s journey toward one of the hardest colleges to get into, “harder than Harvard” she said, eyes wide. And then her attention turned to her own college search and her worries and misgivings. What is there, I thought to myself, about the quietness of a corridor that brings out these moments? Although no one else was visible, we were surrounded, I was acutely aware, by several dozen people, with many more elsewhere in the building. Often, I think back on my houseparenting days, and that comforting sense of being connected to so many people even when most of them may have fallen asleep. I did my best to reassure Susan that everyone finds their place, and let her know most Juniors feel the way she does at around this stage in the college process. I walked her through how she would start to find what college would be a good fit for her. This time next year, I assured her, you’ll know where you’re going.

10:30 p.m. rolled around. I hit “Send” (well, technically “Envoyer”) on my phone to send out my Duty Notes, bid Susan good night, and walked downstairs and through the drizzle out to my car, looking back up at the dark windows where my students slept. Tomorrow, the familiar ritual of a Wednesday. But for now, a moment of peace.

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Filed under Alumnae, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Faculty Perspective, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

… Like We’re People

Every August, my hometown hosts one of the great 10K races in New England, the Bridge of Flowers Classic. Hundreds of runners, from local kids to world-class elite racers, line up on the Iron Bridge while seemingly half the town lines up to watch them or goes to take their stations to volunteer and help out. On several oocasions, Greg Snedeker (our jazz and classical music teacher) and friends set up out on the course to provide musical support. It’s always fun and festive, and a wonderful way to spend the morning.

One such morning, I saw Dana Parker, the Youth Minister from my church during my teenage years (and, for fans of In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle by Madeline Blais, the kind and supportive Dean of Students mentioned in the book) walking down the Iron Bridge to find a spot to cheer on his wife. Thinking I could not pass up this chance to tell him something I’d wanted to say for over 20 years, I ran past dozens of other spectators, skipping and side-stepping around and out of the way of people so I could keep moving and keep him in sight. I finally caught up and said “Dana,” loudly enough to be sure he heard but not so loudly to attract attention, and he turned around. “Bill,” he said, that familiar slow, warm smile spreading over his face. After we caught up up on our lives for a few minutes, I said, “Well, I just needed to tell you that I’ve been trying my whole life to do for kids what you did for us. You treated us like people, and it meant the world.”

He tilted his head and another familiar expression came over his face as he said, “Well, you were people.”

About a week ago, my Humanities 7 students were talking before class started, and they brought up the fact that a number of teachers are moving on this year. One of them, Hank Mixsell, is wrapping up a long and successful career in which he made a positive difference in the lives of countless students; others, such as Kayla Burke, Michele Berdela, and Mandi Repoli, are at the other end of long and successful careers etc. and are moving to be with fiancés and significant others or because they’ve wrapped up their internships here. The kids have connected to every one, and at an age where so much in their own lives may seem to be changing and unstable, changes in teachers can be scary. They talked back and forth about ideas for what they hoped for in new teachers next year, and in the end asked me with heartbreaking earnestness, “Please, just find us a teacher who will love us.” I assured them that the one inviolable principle I hold in hiring new teachers is they they know, understand, and genuinely like middle school kids, and they looked at least somewhat relieved.

I mentioned this moment on the ISED-L listserv, and several people very kindly wrote in to say how wonderful our school sounded and how lucky those kids were.

That was the theme of many conversations during our recent Spring Family Weekend, and the dominant sentiment behind many of the student-led conferences I witnessed Saturday morning. One teacher asked me how my morning had gone, and I said, “Well, I spent the whole morning just sitting and listening to kids talk about how much they had learned this year and what they wanted to keep working on while their parents looked on and smiled. So I’d say it was a pretty good morning.” There were the usual tear-inducing moments when the depth of learning, connection, and self-awareness the kids were showing so simply and matter-of-factly left me feeling overwhelmed.

One of the things these kids talk about openly, and with far more insight and nuance than many people would expect, is the notion that they are still growing up. It is at once a comforting reassurance that they are normal, an uncomfortable reminder that they do still have some growing up yet to do, and ultimately a simple fact of their existence. This is just one of the many ways I can relate to them. I don’t mean just through remembering my own teenage years, though goodness knows I do and I had my share of moments of immaturity. No, I mean the concept that however mature I may be now, I am less mature than I will be. I’m sure if I live to be 100, I’ll look back at something my 95-year-old self did and just shake my head. It’s part of the human condition.

And in our joint humanity, my students and I, we all simply go forward and do our best, with the confidence that comes from genuine respect and deep connections. It’s almost…

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

Nails in the Coffin?

As many of you may know, and to no one’s surprise who follows women’s basketball, Brittney Griner, a 6’8” Senior from Baylor, was the first player to be chosen in the 2013 WNBA draft and will play for the Phoenix Mercury. With only three rounds and only 12 teams drafting, very few players are invited to attend in person, but of course Ms. Griner was there, all smiles, in a white tuxedo.

Two days later, during the course of an interview with “Sports Illustrated,” Ms. Griner was asked why she felt sexuality was no big deal in women’s sports. She responded, “I really couldn’t give an answer on why that’s so different. Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are.” Asked if making the decision to come out had been difficult, she said, “It really wasn’t too difficult, I wouldn’t say I was hiding or anything like that. I’ve always been open about who I am and my sexuality. So, it wasn’t hard at all.” Though the interview received a fair amount of attention on social media, it received attention more for the low-key “no big deal” feeling to the moment than for the news itself. As Wesley Morris said in his article “Brittney Griner and the Quiet Queering of Professional Sports,” “Maybe it was amazing for its utter whateverness.”

Mr. Morris continued to point out that Ms. Griner had painted her fingernails “a shade of orange that might have been awkward had she been picked up by, say, the Atlanta Dream instead of the Mercury.” To him, the combination of the nail polish and the tux emphasized that Ms. Griner was not playing dress-up but was simply expressing who she is. In his eyes, this is simply the confirmation of a quiet revolution, what he calls “the small but increasing genderlessness in professional sports.” He continues to affirm that “This younger generation of gay athletes — accustomed to degrees of cultural, social, and legal inclusion — better knows the relative personal normalcy of being gay than the crisis and melodrama of telling the world you’ve been living a lie. More and more straight ones have gay friends, classmates, cousins, siblings, and parents.”

The discussion may get a bit tricky when you consider that sexuality and gender aren’t the same thing, though of course, for most people, they are related. And of course, fashion is only significant to the extent that a person deliberately chooses their appearance to reflect their true authentic selves. But Mr. Morris’s fundamental hypothesis – that while we might have been expecting the closet to be smashed open in men’s sports, perhaps the revolution may have already been quietly going on for a while as shown by a certain breaking of gender-based fashion rules – is intriguing. Certainly, if the world of men’s professional sports can embrace gay people wholly and unequivocally, that has the potential to create a major shift in public opinion – one which has also, it must be acknowledged, already been taking place slowly but surely for some time.

And maybe women’s sports are indeed showing the way.

The Humanities 7 class, at one point last Fall, was considering holding a “Come as you are” day. They abandoned the idea for two principal reasons. One, that several people were concerned it might not be taken seriously and become just another excuse to wear sweatpants. Two, that several people were confused as to why anyone wouldn’t “come as you are” in the first place. Their honesty and self-confidence were both refreshing. For Brittney Griner, too, it seems, every day is a “Come as you are” day. Maybe those orange fingernails are helping close the lid on homophobia. Maybe transphobia will meet the same fate soon after.

And maybe my students and their generation will help nail the lid shut.

Once and for all.

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