Tag Archives: It Gets Better

Goosebumps

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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Nail Polish, Barbies, and the Circle of Life

So I finally taught somebody something,
namely, how to change her mind.
And learned in the process that if I ever change the world
it’s going to be one eighth grader at a time.
– Taylor Mali, from “Like Lilly Like Wilson

Recently, Susanna Thompson sent me an email asking if I had heard about the controversy being generated by a J. Crew ad, adding “Twitter is all a-flutter.” I responded that I had heard about it, and in fact had been a-flutterin’ myself. The ad is for nail polish, and it shows the company’s president playing with her five-year-old son, whose toenails have been painted pink. Amid the firestorm of comments admonishing the mother to set aside lots of money for the massive psychotherapy her son would no doubt need eventually, or analyzing the history of colour as a symbol for masculinity and femininity (did you know pink was once thought of as being masculine and blue feminine?), was one small voice asking if anyone else had noticed the happy and loving looks being shared by the two of them.

When my niece was five years old, she too loved pink. She took dance lessons and loved wearing her tutu around the house. She also loved Barbies and was already building up a good size collection. One day, I was talking to my father, and he observed, “It must be driving you crazy.” “Not really,” I said, “as long as that’s who she really is. I just don’t want her feeling she has to like Barbies because she’s a girl and people expect that of her.”

People’s expectations, of course, do inexorably shape who we are. Thus, when a new study comes out documenting learning style differences between boys and girls (thanks to 7Wonderlicious for this link!), or wiring differences in female and male brains, very often there are two competing reactions. One is essentially, “See? Boys and girls are different. It should have been obvious. Now that that’s settled, can we move on and figure out how best to help boys and/or girls?” Another is essentially, “Nooooooo! That reinforces stereotypes. Can we kind of keep this on the down low?”

Suppressing truth, of course, is not the answer. Neither, however, is using truth selectively to reinforce stereotypes, whether they are gender-based or not.

Several months ago, an alumna returned to share her autobiographical one-woman show with the school (see the YouTube version of that housemeeting here). She talked about how one week into her first year, the name “Janice” just wasn’t doing it for her, and so she decided to use the name “Obehi” to reflect and honor her African heritage. She launched into a rendition of “The Circle of Life,” and as the song built to its climax and her voice soared with power, you could sense how thoroughly she had energized the room. “Brace yourselves,” I thought, “because if I’m right about where this is leading, you are in for such a shock.” Shortly after the song ended to thunderous applause, Obehi suddenly crumbled.  “That Africa, to me…” she shuddered. “God, what’s wrong with me?” she wailed.

Our school’s mission statement says that each student will graduate “secure in the knowledge that her voice will be heard” (italics mine). The implications of that part of our mission are profound. Secure in the knowledge that she has found her voice, secure in the knowledge that her voice deserves to be heard, sure. No problem. Hundreds and hundreds of SBS alumnae (and at least one alumnus that I know of) can attest to our success there. But our mission is also that her voice will be heard. That implies a world that will listen. It also implies a world that is willing to set aside stereotypes and fully engage with the person standing before it. To my mind, then, our mission is not just to educate our students, but also to help build that world.

Mr. Bogel also received the email about the J. Crew ad. He asked me what I thought about the male faculty getting together and wearing pink nail polish one day. I told him I’d been wondering the exact same thing, and brought it up with Mr. Deason and Pete at the middle school team meeting that afternoon. In one sense, of course, it would be a small gesture, all but meaningless in the flood of images and stereotypes and assumptions in which our students live every day. But on the other hand, if it carries meaning for just one student, or if it makes just one person stop and think about gender expectations, then why not?!

And I’m pretty sure Mr. Bogel and I were thinking about the same student, one who would probably appreciate the gesture.

Besides, little gestures add up, and you never know when the chance to make a big gesture might come along. I stopped through the “cosmetics” section of Target that very night. And I do believe that if some day our world really and truly can say we have put stereotypes behind us, I will have contributed to that moment. One toenail at a time.

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

Things that Matter

(a speech delivered in housemeeting on Martin Luther King day)

In “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King wrote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Think quietly about that a moment. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (…)

Sharon Draper is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King award. In the Humanities 7 class last Friday, I read aloud the 4th chapter of her book Out of My Mind. The story is told from the perspective of Melody, a girl with cerebral palsy who can neither walk nor talk and who is amazingly intelligent. However, when she was five years old, she was examined by a doctor who had absolutely no clue how smart she was. While he asked her questions like “What is this colour?” in a loud, slow-paced, condescending voice, she was reading the titles of Spanish-language books she could see in his room. She was also wondering how, if he was so smart, he thought it made any sense whatsoever to ask questions of someone who couldn’t speak her answers.

Cries of outrage and suggestions of what should be done to the doctor filled our classroom again and again as the examination continued. And when the girl’s mother finally took control of the situation and told the doctor in no uncertain terms why exactly he should be ashamed of himself, the room erupted in applause.

Injustice is everywhere. Ask Melody. Ask anyone who is disabled in some way. Ask girls and women. Ask LGBT people. Ask people of colour. Or people of any number of religions. Or… most anyone. Many of you no doubt thought of your own examples while I was taking a breath to give mine. No doubt, we still have a long way to go before we can say with ringing confidence that we have realized Martin Luther King’s dream that children might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” No doubt, we also have a long way to go to realize similar dreams concerning abledness, age, gender and gender expression, sexuality, race, religion, and any number of axes of diversity.

And those dreams do exist. If injustice is everywhere, so too is resistance to injustice. It is deep within the human psyche to cry out, “That’s not fair.” and seek out what may be done about it. We realize that, in Martin Luther King’s words, all people “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” We recognize and understand, again in Martin Luther King’s words, that “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.” And time and time again, we choose love. Progress, however slowly, is being made.

We must recognize that progress, for we have the need for hope. But we must also recognize the slowness of that progress, for we have the need for action. The focus of the school’s mission is to elevate girls’ and women’s voices. Use them. Speak out. Live every day of your lives. For as Martin Luther King wrote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

– Bill Ivey, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School Dean

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

It Gets Better.

Today is October 20, 2010. No different than any other Wednesday here at SBS. Many girls are dressed in their soccer or volleyball jerseys, classes will end at noon and there will be a mad rush to the dining hall for lunch. It’s the same as every other Wednesday except for one very obvious difference.

There are a lot of people wearing purple.

Suicides among LGBT teens have been highlighted in the news lately and the “It Gets Better” project has received support from thousands of LGBT adults and celebrities who are urging teens not to give up, that the bullying ends and it will get better.

This morning as I arrived to see students, faculty and staff alike wearing purple to support the movement originally started on Facebook, I logged into Twitter and Facebook to see tons of tweets and status updates about the day.

One particular tweet from Admissions Quest caught my eye. This morning they tweeted “It Gets Better: Boarding Schools Work to Be Safe and Supportive of GLBT Students – http://clicky.me/2eMf“. I clicked on the link and it took me to a post by Sherri Bergman, the Director of Communications at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School.

While reading the post I was struck by one line in particular..

“Yes, it gets better, but there is no need to wait.”

Here at Stoneleigh-Burnham School we strive to be an open and supportive community. Our GSA is one of the largest student groups on campus and even girls who aren’t members showed up to school today with their purple tops, shoes, pants and leggings. Those who forgot were sporting purple ribbons pinned to their clothes, and still others wore purple ribbons on their wrists in support of their LGBT friends.

In a world that is struggling with teen suicides related to bullying it is comforting to live and work in a community like Stoneleigh-Burnham. Here, instead of allowing bullying or hate we promote an accepting community that encourages girls to be who they are…no matter who that may be. We help each girl to find her voice and follow her passions. We encourage respect and tolerance, understanding and compassion…and we see it every day, in the smiles on their faces and the laughter in their voices.

It’s true, it does get better…but if you can find a supportive and accepting school community, there is no need to wait.

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