Tag Archives: girls’ school

And We’re Back!

Other than the persistent and depressing cold, which I’ll concede has the virtue of bringing people together united in the strong desire for spring to just come already tinged with a sense of pride that we seem to have survived winter, it’s been a relatively normal return from spring break. The faculty began with an excellent in-service day. We spent the morning thinking about gender and sexual identities and how they relate to adolescent development, and how best to support our students. In the afternoon, we learned about Korean culture and spent time thinking about ways to best support all the English learners in our school. Kids greeted each other with the usual screams and hugs. Classes got back to work with a general good will and air of curiosity, although I’ll admit here that my Humanities 7 class was openly (and occasionally successfully) trying to distract me from starting the brand new unit. They would eventually agree that the unit’s theme would be judging, with the discussion underlining that we were especially looking at how ideals get set, why some ideals end up so superficial, and the sources and effects of judgment on people in general and 7th grade girls in particular.

Wednesday morning, while looking for interesting articles and comments to share on the school’s Twitter stream, I stumbled across an article at edweek.org entitled “Single-Sex Classrooms Making a Comeback for All the Wrong Reasons.” That certainly caught my attention! Reading through it, I felt as though I were in an alternate reality. The concluding sentence, “It seems that there must be a better way to encourage young women, and men, in their academic studies without implementing the archaic practice of total separation in classrooms.” summed up the general drift of the article, and was followed by a question that, in the context of the article, I hope and trust was sincere: “Are you in favor of, or against, single-sex schooling models?”

Well. I am strongly in favour of schooling models that work toward social justice, and unsurprisingly, I believe (based on both experience and on research) that girls schools can provide a unique, valuable, and rich context for that work. I don’t always comment on edweek.org articles, but I was definitely riled up, and before I knew it, I had worked up the following comment that began with quotes from the article:

“This idea that young women are dropping non-feminine topics at an impressionable age because of the opposite sex is flawed.” “One of the arguments for single-sex schooling is that it takes away the tingly, budding attraction emotions in young people” I work in the middle school program of a girls independent school, and believe me, these are not fundamental rationales for our being a girls school. I would run away screaming if that were true.

In sharp contrast to those rationales, our school’s mission implies feminist ideals as it is not just about honoring and developing girls’ and women’s voices but also about working to build a world that is genuinely willing to listen. Year after year, kids in my class say they can talk about gender issues in a way that was never possible in their old schools. They’ll talk about coaches – coaches! – that discouraged them from developing athletic ability. They’ll talk about how much they appreciate being taken seriously and valued as girls. One alumna wrote of how grateful she was to have learned how to live as a feminist in a patriarchal society. And there is research supporting these sorts of benefits of living and learning in a girl-positive environment.

As for the “T” in LGBT – we have in fact had students and alums come out as transgender (by the way, I would argue that the implication here is that gender, unlike sex, isn’t necessarily predetermined), and I do in fact try to be very clear with my students that I’m well aware that not every person at my school whom I’ve ever taught, or will ever teach, will necessarily self-identify as female their whole life.

So yes, I support my school’s model. But I don’t view it as archaic in the slightest. And in no way do I believe I am “teaching stereotypes” – other than to identify them and the forces creating them, the better to work to undermine and do away with them.

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

To ban or not to ban: “Bossy”

“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’” So begins the website at http://banbossy.com/, a new organization co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean-In Foundation and the Girl Scouts of America. The website points out that girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boy’s from elementary to high school, that girls are twice as likely as boys to worry about being called “bossy,” and girls are still called on less and interrupted more in class. (Ban Bossy) There’s no question that we need to do something about that, and there’s no question we know some of the things that work.

On the Girl Scouts’ website, for example, they share the results of a study done in 2008 that showed the following (Girl Scouts):

  • Girls, even at a very young age, have definite ideas about what it means and takes to be a leader.
  • Promoting leadership in girls is primarily a matter of fostering their self-confidence and providing supportive environments in which to acquire leadership experience.
  • To be relevant to and successful with girls, a leadership program must address their aspirational or preferred definition of leadership, their need for emotional safety, and their desire for social and personal development.
  • Girls have a range of “leadership identities,” from strong aspiration to outright rejection of the leadership role.

Of course, girls schools and other girl-positive organizations epitomize supportive environments. However, these environments need not necessarily be all girls organizations (to whatever extent one can ever say with confidence that one’s organization is in fact “all girls”), though that does facilitate the process. In helping create supportive environments, these principles suggest that we need to – following principles of best practice – engage with the individual girls in front of us, helping them figure out how they now view leadership, how they came to hold that view, where they see themselves going, and ultimately how they see themselves able to help move a given group of people forward (the goal behind all good leadership and all good membership).

In that context, the “Ban Bossy” campaign can be, and is, seen by different people as anywhere from an essential component of doing this good work to a needless distraction. A recent chat on the Feministing website brought out several important points:

  • Rather than bringing attention to women’s exclusion from leadership, [it] distracts from these realities by making the issue semantic and easily dismissed. (Jos Truitt)
  • Also I honestly don’t feel like “banning” words like this ever really works, and I actually find it a lot more effective to find power in that word vs. a bland attempt to get rid of it. (Jos Truitt)
  • I do appreciate the goal of starting a conversation about the negative feedback we give to girls who show leadership qualities and how that particular double-standard has real consequences for how kids are socialized. (Maya Dusenbery)
  • This campaign exists without analysis of how “bossiness” is perceived when women and girls of color are bossy, which I think is a really important point. (Verónica Bayetti Flores)

One of the people in my Twitter family is a member of the Tea Party, and she certainly had a vehement and visceral reaction to the campaign and what she saw as thought police. As we discussed the issue, it developed that we agreed that the conditions that led to girls with leadership qualities being more likely to be called “bossy” are something we as a society absolutely must discuss but that we both were uneasy about outright “banning” use of some words. Also, I do believe that gender activism in general and feminism in particular strongly need to continually listen to the full range of voices in the movements, work on intersectionality, and strive to bring out nuance in service to the greater goal of true equality for all humanity. Towards that end…

When posting a link to the “Ban Bossy” campaign in its earliest days, my Twitter and Facebook friend Kenzo Shibata added a comment that caused me to respond, “Like to the power of like.” He said, “I got a better idea. How about we teach children of all gender identities to be collaborative and stop making authoritarianism the ideal?” (Kenzo Shibata)

That, I can absolutely support. Anyone else with us?


Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage, Women in media

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

Meeting of Minds

One day in Humanities 7, class, we were talking about different ideas of what is feminism and what is feminine when suddenly their voices began to get louder and more urgent. There was an edge, and I could tell there was something below the surface I hadn’t quite deciphered yet when one of the girls told another, “You’re a dudist!” Before I’d recovered laughing from the inventive spontaneity of the word “dudist,” I knew I had finally figured out what was going on: some kids in the class viewed feminism as inherently anti-men, while others didn’t. I explained that, while there is indeed a small and often vocal group of feminists who are anti-men and who perhaps get disproportionate coverage in the media, by no means do they speak for all feminists. One could, I told the kids, in fact argue there are as many kinds of feminism as there are feminists. And that led to an inspiration.

“Some of the strongest feminists in this school,” I told the students, “are in Ms. Durrett’s Sophomore Honors English class. Would you like to invite them to join us one day to talk about all this?” They loved the idea, as did Ms. Durrett and her students. Both classes wrote questions to help frame the discussion, and on the appointed day, the sophomores came streaming into our room, the eyes of former Humanities 7 students lighting up as their faces softened with memories. The kids all settled into every beanbag chair in the middle school, some doubling up, with a look of anticipation on their faces.

Though not all the questions dealt directly with feminism, that’s where we began the discussion. There was remarkable agreement, actually, over what I think of as the core ideals of feminism: equal rights for all people, including girls and women. There was, however, a much more extended discussion of the word itself. Few students were comfortable with it, for a host of reasons including, for some, its reinforcement of a binary view of gender. The seventh graders had come up with the term “equalist” the day before, and many of the sophomores nodded slowly as they considered it. “I like it,” one said, and a sophomore who followed up after the discussion with ideas for this blog identified that as one of three specific stand-out moments for her “because [the term “equalism”] offers a wider acceptance and understanding of what feminism stands for.”

Whether and how we will be able to achieve the ideals of equalism is another question altogether, of course. Students felt firmly that the concept that we all should be seeking equality should become the norm and not the ideal, but they were deeply skeptical we would ever be able to truly achieve equality. Humans, they felt, seem to have a natural need for hierarchies, and of course different people have different aptitudes and affinities. However, they hastened to point out, that need not automatically lead to assigning gender to those roles, and hierarchies don’t necessarily have to be attached to them either.

When the topic turned to girls schools, most of the students, though definitely not all, said they came here looking to get away from the behaviors and influences of boys. They love our academic way of being and the way students listen to each other’s ideas, hear them out, and build on them. One sophomore told a story of attending a debate where a girl from another school had a long name, and shocked our student by apologizing for it to the teacher serving as a judge who had to write it down. This led another another sophomore to say, “It’s one thing to apologize for being rude, it’s another to apologize for your existence.”

One of the seventh graders observed a similar gap in confidence between students at our school and girls in coed schools, noting that some of her friends have changed a ton in just the three short months we’ve been here while she has basically stayed true to herself. It stunned and scared her how quickly that gap had opened up, but it also made her grateful for what she had. Another sophomore noted, in another high point of the discussion, that Stoneleigh-Burnham “has taught us to be more than girls and women. It has taught us to be individuals.”

Though we had not specifically planned on discussing sports culture, we segued pretty naturally to that topic while discussing girls schools. Deeply saddening was the near universality of the girls’ experiences in athletics and with their coaches before coming to our school, where they felt they weren’t taken seriously, were actively discouraged from doing sports (by their own coaches!), and were in some cases outright belittled and even bullied (by their own coaches!). The students acknowledged the differences between women and men in terms of muscle mass, upper body strength, and center of gravity, but at the same time several students also affirmed that women’s legs were stronger than men’s (it is worth noting here that, from what I’ve read, the general consensus seems to be that if a woman ever holds a non-gender-specific world record in any event, it is most likely to be the marathon). This discussion led naturally to pointing out inequities in men’s and women’s sports, and most especially media coverage of male and female athletes (both the frequency and the nature of that coverage), to general agreement and outrage.

We kept talking right up to and even a little bit beyond the bell, and as the students jumped up and hoisted their backpacks to their shoulders, many of them, sophomores and seventh graders alike, asked if we could do it again. Of course they would want to do so – throughout the period, they were uniformly respectful and listened actively to everyone. Many voices of all ages were heard, and they had created an atmosphere of equals. We had left untouched their questions about gender identity, and had only just begun to touch on issues with the media. No doubt, they have many more questions they still want to ask. No doubt, we will be doing this again.

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Filed under Gender, In the Classroom, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School, Women in media

Quite a Way to Go

“That Rock Band,” a parent said, shaking his head. Clearly searching for words, he added, “Wow.” It was not an uncommon reaction, and when I emailed my usual post-concert congratulations to the group, I told them about the moment and noted, “Yes, you performed that well; you literally left people speechless.” It’s true, from the first notes pounded out on the piano as they slammed through “Yoü and I” by Lady Gaga, through the last, sweet harmonies held over a cymbal roll and an echoing piano chord as they ended “Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars et al, they were amazing, all of them: Bonnie, Charlotte, Heather, Jin, Joy, Joyce, McKim, Molly, Natalie, Olivia, and Susan. And when I pointed out that the vocalists wrote all the harmonies themselves, the speechless factor among audience members rose even higher.

This is just our first performance, just a few weeks into the year. While six members of last year’s group returned and one moved up from the middle school band, four were brand new, and one of those was a complete beginner to her instrument. Yet, they came together so thoroughly and so rapidly that we chose and began working on our next two songs even before the first performance, something we have only rarely been able to do in the past.

As I looked back on the performance with pride, my mind jumped to an evening at the beginning of this past summer. I was at a coffee house in Amherst, and two baristas were working the counter. While one of them was preparing my drink, he commented to the other, “I don’t like it when chicks cover songs.” So many responses sprang to my mind, of which one of the more polite was, “Even songs written by, umm, women?” but I was technically not involved in the conversation and stayed quiet. The other barista was clearly taken aback; after a moment, she said what seemed to be the only thing she could think of in response: “Really? Why?” He paused, far longer than anyone who had just made such a flat declaration had any right to, and came up with, “There’s just something wrong about it.”

Well. There it is, then. That clears that up! The other barista paused a while and went back to wiping down the countertop.

Earlier today, a friend shared on Facebook a link to a video of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart performing “Stairway to Heaven” at a concert honoring the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. In her posting, she noted that the performance was so good it made Robert Plant cry, and indeed part of what makes the video so moving, beyond the incredible performance itself, is the interspersing of shots of the group members’ reactions to the song with shots of the performers themselves.

I don’t know what that one barista would think of this performance, if he came across it – whether it would simply confuse him and he would think Robert Plant a wimp, or whether it might actually penetrate his male privilege-addled brain deeply enough to make him rethink some of his beliefs. One hopes for the second, of course, but he had quite a way to go.

Family Weekend at our school is in many ways about elevating and honoring girls’ voices as we share what we get to see every day with families who get to see the effects of what we do every day. While the Rock Band performances exemplify what the school is all about, in no way are they the only example. Far from it, in fact – which is part of what makes our school so special.

Which makes it all the more sad that there are still people so deaf to women’s voices that they are literally missing half of what the world has to offer, and have no clue. And so, as we support these girls in bringing their voices to the world, we also work to support the world in shutting up long enough to open their ears and truly listen.

Because sometimes, speechlessness is good.


Filed under Gender, Performing Arts, Uniquely Stoneleigh-Burnham School

Not Giving Up So Easily

co-authored with Charlotte M. ’16

Bill: When you see a new email from Charlotte with the subject header “Psychology: Smart Girls Give Up too Easily,” you know you are in for a treat. For starters, Charlotte is the sort of strong girl who does not often give up, never mind easily. And then, she is the sort of person with whom conversations are always both enjoyable and stimulating as she sees layers of complexity and connects them in profound, surprising, ways while remaining ever-open to other perspectives and any revisions to her thinking that might result. In this case, her father had sent her an article from Psychology Today on how “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.” (Heidi Grant Halvorson). As Charlotte self-defines as a feminist and I as a gender activist, let’s just say that neither of us were jumping with joy over this statement.

My own mind quickly focused on the word “believe.” After all, I can believe the world is flat (especially after having been to Kansas), but that doesn’t mean it genuinely is flat. Does each girl have innate abilities? Of course (and so, for the record, does every single person). Are those abilities unchangeable? I don’t think so, and current theory on the brain and learning absolutely supports that. Do bright boys believe that they can develop innate ability through effort and practice? I’m willing to believe they do, or else the article would not have been published. But that would then raise the question – why don’t bright girls (on average, or as often) develop this belief? Because I am certain some of them do, and believe we have to raise the question why more of them don’t.

Charlotte: When you see a reply from Bill to your email about psychology, you… well, you’re not exactly surprised. He’s the sort of teacher with a passion for not just his subject, but his society. So you’re also not surprised when he self-identifies as a “gender activist” instead of a “feminist” because of the latter word’s association with gender binarism and exclusivity. For me, my ideals and goals lie more with those of gender activists, but I still call myself a feminist because that’s the word our society recognizes (although not necessarily in a good way, hence “feminazi”). Bill put it well when he wrote about generalizations about “boys” and “girls”: “I guess it’s useful in terms of understanding the function of a dominant culture feat. clear gender binary boxes.”

The question becomes, “To what extent should the terminology we use be dictated by social norms?” My beliefs err on the side of lexical accuracy, but I still find myself conforming in practice; I identify as a feminist despite being against a gender binarism, don’t I? Then again, social norms can’t change without mutual understanding and communication. My father once told me that if two people are both rational, have the same information, and have the same value system, they can’t disagree. Not all of society is rational, and it would be practically impossible for everyone to have the same value system, but we can at least start by trying to share the same information, i.e. the language we use when describing views and issues. Then again (again), maybe those who have found terminology that more accurately expresses their beliefs should be the ones to change the language we use to describe those beliefs, instead of the other way around.

Bill: And here we are in one of my favourite places: the world of semiotics! How are thoughts and feelings translated into symbols, communicated, and translated back into thoughts and feelings? Values systems definitely colour those thoughts and feelings, both for the transmitter and the receiver. So even if we think we have a common understanding of what the word “bright” means (or for that matter “girl” and “boy”), the phrases “bright girl” and “bright boy” may actually mean different things to different people. But we can’t stop and define every single word in every single sentence we utter, pausing to double-check how our values systems intersect and interact! What can we safely guess to be the common understanding in our society of “bright girl,” “bright boy,” “innate ability,” and – I’ll introduce this term – “growth mindset”? That will lead us back to our original questions as to whether boys are more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls, why this might be so, and what can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls.

I’ll posit these definitions; feel free to engage with any one of them if you’d like!
bright: intelligent (commonly thought of as “school smarts” but conceivably extending to any form of human intelligence)
girl or boy: female or male child or teenager (commonly thought of as immutable and accurately assigned at birth but increasingly thought to be a matter of self-definition, bearing in mind that not all people self-identify according to a gender binary)
innate abilities: the full range of your different potentials at birth
growth mindset: a sense that, as agent of one’s own destiny, one can develop skills and abilities, and hence what is commonly thought of as intelligence, to different degrees (borne out by research into the mutual influences of nature on nurture and vice versa in actually rewiring the brain)

How do those sound? Ready to tackle our questions?!

Charlotte: Now that we have, as Parliamentary Extemporaneous debaters will say, “redefined the bill,” we turn back to our questions.

Are boys more likely to develop a growth mindset than girls? Why might this be so?

While I disagree with Heidi Grant Halvorson’s assertion that “Girls… develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions… boys, on the other hand, are a handful.”, I also acknowledge that people’s actions and characters can be largely shaped by expectations of them. I heard an interview with Meryl Streep in which she said that most of her ability to portray widely varying characters was in the costume and makeup; she couldn’t see her own appearance, but when others in the room reacted to her presence in a certain way, she would naturally react to their responses by acting more like the character they expected. The same can be said for young boys and girls; even if they are not innately more self-controlled or “a handful,” if their teachers and parents treat them as if they are, it seems likely that they could respond by acting more like the way they were treated. And even if they aren’t shaped by expectations, children and teens could still respond differently to different types of feedback, whether or not those different types of feedback are justified.

What can be done to foster a growth mindset in girls?

As a high school student who is passionate about social issues and considers herself a citizen of the global community, my immediate response is that giving girls growth and effort-minded feedback (such as the examples Halvorson gives of feedback commonly given to boys) would foster a growth mindset in girls. As someone who has no experience in education, however, I don’t know what the best way to counteract praising only innate qualities is, in what situations that occurs, or whether it occurs at all (as a student at a single-sex educational institution, I’ve never witnessed the kind of disparity that Halvorson writes about).

Bill: Well – you have 10-odd years of experience in education! But I know what you mean. And as someone with 50-odd years of experience in education, including pre-school, an M.A.T. and all sorts of professional development, my own immediate response… is exactly the same as yours.

I’m probably better at doing this now than when you were in my Humanities 7 class, oh so long ago (back in 2009-2010), but I work pretty hard to keep my feedback focused on what students have done compared to what they need to be doing. So if a student is working on varying her sentence length in order to keep her audience’s attention through an essay, I’ll comment on that. It’s a skill that can be developed. I also, and I’m quite sure I did this with your class, work very hard to put Humanities 7 learning in the context of the sweep of a lifetime of learning. Don’t have that skill down now? Try again next time. Thinking you won’t be 100% the writer you want to be by the end of the year? There’s always Humanities 8 – and four years here after that – and college, and the rest of your life. Meanwhile, I work very hard to simply not mention innate qualities. I might refer to you all as “smart” once during the entire year, if that. Once. And all of you together.

As for the best way to counteract the praise of innate qualities – my instincts are this needs at least three approaches. One is for people who understand the negative effects of praising innate qualities (especially on any girl who has internalized society’s expectations that she “be good”- and, I suppose, non-girl children who happen to have internalized the same expectations) to just plain stop doing it. This helps build up each student’s personal sense of herself as an agent of her own destiny, despite what others may say. A second is for these people (teachers and parents alike) also to say straight out that they have stopped praising innate qualities, and why. In spreading the word to others, this makes it less likely that children will be inadvertently praised by anyone in a way that undermines a growth mindset. And a third – and this is one of the things I think about the most often as a teacher in a girls school – is to help students develop a personal and internal resistance to praise of innate qualities. That… is one of the things I’m still working on. I hope and pray that what we did last year in the Life Skills 8 class will have that effect. I suspect that an inherently feminist atmosphere such as we have at Stoneleigh-Burnham doesn’t hurt, either!


Filed under Current Events, Gender, On Education, On Parenting, The Girls School Advantage

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