Gender

Survivors. Digging Deep. And the Exhausting Nature of Rage.

Content note: discussion of sexual assault, rape, depression

I haven’t blogged in months. Three-and-a-half months, roughly. On Monday, I wrote about how depressed I was most of the summer, and that’s part of the story.

There was actually a lot I could have written about this summer. I took an arts-intensive workshop with other K-12 teachers and got a lot of great teaching ideas, but also came away with a lot of questions and a desire to take it further, because, well, I think we can do more and expect more for our students’ ability to engage in the art-making process. I think the way we engage them is often insulting to both their cognitive and emotional intelligences (and I’m not talking about the way Powers that Be talk about “raising the bar.” They can shove their Bar).

I took a week-long graduate-level pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. It was life-changing. Career-changing. Did I mention life-changing? There was so much to unpack from the four-day seminar, and so many connections to what I’ve done, what I am doing, and what I will be doing in my classroom. I connected it back to the arts workshop, and made even more connections to what was missing from that experience. I will be writing about it later. But I could have written about it this summer, too.

Here’s what happened, and why it’s taken me so long to come back: I wrote about the Josh Duggar abuse scandal. And my post turned into a three-post series. And I had to dig pretty deep for part of it. And I had to word things carefully, and try to keep a cap on my rage, and not say too much. And then I was tapped out, and I could go no further. Before I could write more, on anything, I had to talk to my parents. There are issues too important, too damaging, too harmful, too caustic, too violent for me too keep myself partially shrouded. And some things are things too important for my parents to read for the first time on a blog.

So I took a break. And I drove home, 1200 miles, took my parents out to dinner, and told them something I’d kept from them for 11 years.

I am a rape survivor.

It made so many things make sense to them, that never clicked before. I told them I’ve been in counseling, I’ve been working on it, I’ve been healing. It doesn’t control my life. But I’m to the point where I want to write about it, to help other women, to help men and women understand, to volunteer with victims/survivors, to help the Church respond better.

Because that’s the part that made me so angry I had to quit writing– when I first started opening up to friends in the church I was revictimized by the responses, and writing Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones drudged a lot of that up. And it was exhausting. It was exhausting to write about it circuitously when I wanted to write about me. It was exhausting to know how feels to be a rape victim, and to have the response be about restoring purity or forgiveness, rather than on pursuing justice or making sure the abuser gets real help or is kept out of positions of authority so he cannot abuse again. (By the way, my abuser abused again. They do that. It’s a thing).

Now I’m back. I’m back teaching, back to grad school, trying to get a handle on this latest depressive cycle. And I’m “out” as a survivor.

There are more of us out here than you probably realize or know. That has to change. This culture of rape and abuse has got to change.

Abuse, Forgiveness, and Casting Stones

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

This is my third piece triggered by and simultaneously about and not about the most current sexual abuse scandal in the news. This topic grieves me and angers me. Even though I am not from the same faith tradition as the current focus du jour, I have seen this play out across Christian denominations. I have friends who have been abused and friends who have been sexually assaulted, and well meaning church people who have handled the information in ways that perpetuate abusive thinking and center the abuser rather than the victim.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote

Sexual abuse is not about sex. Sexual assault is not about sex. Talk to victims, survivors, crisis center professionals, the people working in this field. Sexual assault is about power; it is about the abuse of power, trust, and authority. And the kind of social inclusion that could possibly mitigate this kind of damage didn’t, because the victims and the perpetrator were embedded into the same exclusive, tightly knit group.

In Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t, I added

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve seen in regard to sexual abuse, sexual assault, and the conversations surrounding it, is in the same vein as the forgiveness post. But I was so troubled by it I needed to write a whole separate essay and take a few extra days to process.

“A sin is a sin is a sin.”

I am not going to get into a theological discussion about the nature of sin, or why the Catholic tradition has mortal sins and venal sins, or the irony/hypocrisy of the evangelical church putting so much emphasis on sexual sins and purity as though fornication is the ultimate sin until one of their own men is in the spotlight for just that.

Sexual assault is a CRIME.

This is not just a conversation about sin and the church. This has implications beyond our physical church walls, or the arbitrary boundaries between denominations. Molesting children is against the law. Delicate language recasting it as a mistake, a misstep, an indiscretion, a sin is carefully dodging the consequences of acknowledging the criminal nature of sexual abuse.

My pastor is the executive director of a year-long, faith-based recovery home for women. The vast majority of the women who enter the program have broken the law, often multiple times. I have witnessed these women walk out incredible transformations in their lives. When they give their testimonies at the end of their program, they pull no punches as they share their old lives of addiction and pain. They don’t use soft language or try to dodge consequences. In fact, even as they acknowledge their forgiveness, part of their program is to fulfill all consequences, restitution, etc., that is part of their criminal sentences. But as they name it, they do so because it takes away the shame of secrecy, and establishes a habit of accepting the consequences of their actions.

By dismissing the serious, violating nature of sexual abuse by quipping, “A sin is a sin is a sin,” in a misguided invocation of forgiveness, bloggers and supporters of the perpetrator uphold the code of secrecy that allow perpetrators to escape the consequences of their crimes. And completely ignoring the victims.

“Let he among us without sin be the first to cast a stone.”

I read a really awful blog post, based on a really awful tweet, all based on a gross misuse of that concept. All hash-tagged with support to forgive the perpetrator.

I wrote on Thursday: it is not for any of us, the general public to forgive him. We were not wronged, molested, or abused by him. If we repeatedly avoid hard conversations about abuse, assault, and the systems that facilitate the molestation of children–all under the misguided call for “forgiveness”–these crimes will continue unabated and the bodies and lives of children and women will continue to be attacked.

Now, let me tell you what it can be like to be a female victim of a sexual crime in the church. Elizabeth Smart speaks about her captivity, and the lessons she learned about sex a la the “chewed gum” analogy  significantly impacted her perception of herself as a rape victim/survivor. When I attended church camp in middle school and high I went to a small-group lesson on boundaries in dating. We signed True Love Waits cards. I remember learning that once we passed boundaries there was “no going back,” and that it was my responsibility (as a female) to keep the physical side of the relationship in check. During college, a group of friends were talking when someone opened up that she had been raped freshman year. One well-meaning but misguided friend’s first instinct was to ask if her boyfriend knew she wasn’t a virgin.

This pervasive fixation is aimed at girls remaining pure. And in all those lessons I learned–directly and indirectly–there was no grace.

The full context of the casting stones verse involves a woman about to be stoned for adultery. She is about to become a victim of the male-dominated purity code. She is marginalized, just like every person for whom Jesus went to bat. When people trot this verse out, lacking context, in defense of an abuser, they miss the point entirely. When high-profile men lose positions of power and authority because of sexual abuse or sexual assault allegations, they are not victims. Their victims are victims.

On Thursday, I said I feel no nuance about standing on the side of the marginalized. These girls–now in their teens–don’t have hash tags or social media campaigns. But I’m guessing they have a lot of hurt and misunderstanding. Maybe they feel like chewed up gum. Maybe they only now understand the full extent of what happened to them as young children. Maybe they are horrified by the support offered to their abuser while they feel ignored or revictimized.

The church has done a terrible, terrible job of standing up for abuse victims/survivors/overcomers. It rushes “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” and centers the abusers instead of uplifting and surrounding the hurt and abused. Is it any wonder the rest of the country stares back, agog?

Abuse and What Forgiveness Isn’t

Content note: sexual abuse, power, privilege, abuse in the news, abuse narratives

Most of the blog posts I’ve read that defend a Christian accused of a sexual crime against another person (or persons) get the concept of forgiveness really, really wrong.

In Abuse and the Use of Power, I wrote briefly about the difficulty I experience writing about religion. I currently attend a Christian peace church that turns the mainstream idea of church hierarchy on its head, but I have attended and witnessed churches and church relationships that cause a great deal of hurt to individuals and groups. I am conscious of the contributions the church has made to historical and modern constructions of racism, misogyny and sexism, privilege, power, and the language and action of oppression. I have also seen the church participate in reconciliation and liberation.

It’s safe to say I have a complex relationship with the church. It’s full of wrestling and nuance, which is something that often gets lost as soon as tempers flare and parties start shouting past each other.

Granted, there are some things about which I feel no nuance. Deconstructing power. Sexual abuse. Standing on the side of the marginalized.

And in that vein, I have read some very troubling things over the last week. I am not going to link them, because page hits. Also because I ended up in a very angry rabbit hole last night following the push behind a specific blog post. It was ugly and confounding, and I decided not to go the route of a detailed illustration of the parallels between featuring a blog post on forgiving abusers while simultaneously featuring specific language that has been called out as being sexist and damaging… the more I dug into it the more I realized my emotional health couldn’t handle it. Especially not before bed.

Forgiveness.

Through the lens of power, here are my responses to points of conversation as I have read it to date, and what I assert has been missing from nearly every conversation involving a high-profile sexual assault:

“We should forgive him!” That is not within our power; forgiveness is not ours to give. Unless we are the target or victim or God Himself, it is not our responsibility to forgive.

“He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him.” There are many variations of “The perpetrator did X, so the victims should do Y,” and they are problematic. First, an apology is not an equation. It does not guarantee forgiveness. In my 12-Step group, when we reach Step 9 and make amends we do so with the full understanding that forgiveness may not be proffered in return. When my students get an apology, they say “Thank you;” I have taught them not to say “It’s okay.” Because usually it is not okay. Second, forgiveness cannot be demanded, required, or coerced as part of a conditional agreement or system. “He confessed and apologized, so the victims need to forgive him” is an expression of the exact same abuse of power and authority that manifested as the sexual assault. The hierarchy of perpetrator over victim remains in place, and the authority remains in hands of the assaulter.

“Move on.” A lot–and I mean a lot— of blogs and articles and opinion pieces have mentioned and paid lip service to the victims. The amount of ink they get compared to the perpetrator is a dismal ratio, and maybe that’s to ensure they’re privacy. Then again, maybe not. In this specific case, we’re told the victims got counseling. We don’t know what kind. We’re told they moved on. Or, we’re told they should move on. Empty cries to “move on” ignore very real issues that happen in churches and families around us. One woman wrote about her similar molestation, and that she was counseled (by a lay member of the church, a non-professional) that forgiveness was required, and that moving on was the only thing that would glorify God. And a five-year-old child cannot complete counseling. For one, counseling is an ongoing process. Furthermore, if a child cannot fully process what happened to her body, she cannot understand the implications of forgiving that sin against her. It’s distinctly possible that if/when she chooses to forgive her assailant, she will need to re-forgive him every time the memory of abuse reemerges as a power in her life. A victim/survivor of sexual abuse is the only person who can decide when she can move on, forgive, let go of some of the hurt. As far as us moving on? If we do not have real conversations about child sexual abuse, the systems that facilitate its commission, and the barriers to intervention, it will keep happening. We need to have conversations about how to best separate victims from their abusers, how to help victims recover and heal, and how to rehabilitate abusers so they do not abuse again.

Forgiveness is not neat and tidy. But it is also not a transaction, or an automatic response to “I’m sorry.” If it is forced, required, or coerced, it becomes an extension of the original abuse. “Moving on” is an illusion that ignores real issues and maintains the power structures that facilitate abuses of authority.

Curriculum Disputes, Reading Lists, and More Books by White Guys

Last Monday, a committee in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho recommended Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck be removed from the ninth grade general reading list to the small-group reading list.

The four committee members who feel the book should be removed from required reading shared their reasons with the Spokesman-Review:

  • Profanity: use of words like “bastard” and “God damn.” One committee member counted the profanities–102 profanities in its 110 pages.
  • Negativity and darkness: committee members found the story too “negative.” This next bit I’ll just quote directly from the article:

The book is of high literary quality, committee member Eugene Marano said, and he’s not so bothered by the coarse language. But the gloomy tone gives him pause, especially the bleak ending.

“I thought it was too dark for ninth-graders,” said Marano, a retired Kootenai County magistrate judge. “It needs to be in a small group to explain away the dark part of it.”

The Boise Weekly did a little digging and found the approved books for large and small group instruction for ninth grade in the Coeur d’Alene school district:

Current approved titles on the ninth grade whole group reading list are “Romeo & Juliet,” Animal Farm, Great Expectations and The House on Mango Street. Titles on the small group reading list include Go Ask Alice, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Odyssey.

Here’s what I have gleaned from this reporting, the above books that have not been challenged, and my knowledge of those texts: The Great Depression is too bleak, but teen suicide (as told by Shakespeare) and teen drug use and suicide (as told by an LDS Idaho writer in the form of a cautionary tale) are not. While small group novels have more challenging or intense content, the committee appears to be under the assumption that this pedagogical strategy is used to “explain away” the bleakness, negativity, or challenging nature of the text, rather than to dig into, discuss, analyze, synthesize, or reflect upon it. The ad hoc committee and school board need to have this point clarified. Immediately.

That covers my response to the coverage thus far. Now I get to the heart of the matter.

While I appreciate the articles by both the Spokesman-Review and the Boise-Weekly, I am not satisfied by the depth of their research. In thirty minutes of searching, I downloaded Coeur d’Alene School District’s Approved Novels list for grades 6 through 9. The district website says the document was last updated December 2014; the document itself states September 2013. I went through each title for each grade; as an educator, a member of the greater Idaho community, and a part of the growing consciousness of how a “safe” canon has diminished our ability to engage in critical thought, I am very troubled by what I find, both in terms of the content itself, and how our framing of it limits students.

Banning and challenging books is anachronistic and counter-productive. Last year, the Meridian, Idaho, school district banned the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. The American Library Association named it the most-challenged book of 2014. The ALA “condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information,” and “promotes the freedom to read.” Banning books does not protect students from ideas. Choosing to challenge a novel, when students have access to the the entire world of information in their pockets, demonstrates an archaic understanding of the purpose of education and the sharing of information. Finally, after the ban of the Alexie novel, interest in the book increased, and instead of it simply appearing on a supplemental reading list, every student was provided a copy of the novel. For free.

The committee does not understand ninth grade students. Fourteen-year-old students, even in conservative northern Idaho, have heard the words “bastard” and “damn.” They have heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. They have used those words, and worse. Reading them, in a piece of literature meant to reflect the experiences of migrant workers during the Great Depression, will not scandalize them. Furthermore, if eighth-grade students can handle the required text of The Diary of Anne Frank, which also has a bleak ending, they can handle Of Mice and Men, provided they have a competent teacher who guides them through the process–which they do. It was the Great Depression; it did not have a happy ending for the nation’s poor, and hiding that is insulting to the history and to the students. Committee: trust your teachers, trust your students.

In 2015, the book list is populated with predominantly white male authors. This begs the question: why are we arguing about a book written by a dead white guy? Of the approved titles on the Whole Group Reading List (and I am including the required titles and choice lists), almost 70% are written by white men. Several of them are repeats of the same author; there are two (TWO!) other novels by Steinbeck on the approved novels list. I’m going to break this down some more, because this is the most problematic piece of the issue.

  • In grade 9, a teacher may elect for the class to read The Miracle Worker, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography, but is not the autobiography itself. As an educator of the Deaf, I cannot tell you how many times I have encountered individuals whose entire concept of deafness is based not on Keller’s words, but on someone else’s adaptation of them. This is part of a pattern of books that address the topic of disability that are written by able-bodied authors: Freak the Mighty (grade 7), and two books from the grade 9 Small Group list, Stoner and Spaz, and Stuck in Neutral.
  • The Grade 11 list has left me irate. In the entire canon of American Literature, out of the 11 titles selected for the approved novel list, there is one novel written by a woman. ONE. Where are women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Harriet Beacher Stowe, Willa Cather, or Louisa May Alcott?
  • Again, Grade 11: Eleven novels, two Authors of Color. Frederick Douglass’ autobiography is on the list, as well as Thousand Pieces of Gold, by Ruthanne Lum McCunn. The selection of two biographies on a list that also features classic works of fiction is an easy way to make sure the list pays lip service to diversity without tackling broader systems of inequality. This is unacceptable. On the entire 6th-12th grade list of 73 titles, there are only seven titles written by People of Color: 3 African-American, 1 African, 1 Latina, 1 Chinese-American, 1 Japanese-American. There are other novels that address topics of racism, segregation, and diversity, but these are written by white authors who do not represent the Black (or Latino, or Native) literary community. As I was working on this blog post, a video surfaced of the principal of TNT Academy in Georgia making racially charged remarks at graduation. A Twitter conversation turned toward colorblind pedagogy, and everything clicked about this entire book challenge (tweet embedded with permission):

This is what a legacy of systemic silencing and supremacy looks like. This is where it starts: narrowing our students’ access to books based on our archaic definitions of whether a novel is “a quality story [or] a page turner.” Arguing about the word “bastard” and whether the Great Depression is too depressing, instead of challenging our state’s entrenched biases. The person who successfully challenged Alexie’s novel last spring claimed a semi-autobiographical novel written by a Native American that described his experiences of racism when he left the reservation was, by definition, a racist novel. We are seeing the damage wrought by decades of failing to engage students with literary voices outside the approved canon.

Migraine Monday: Tampons and TMI

This morning, I felt like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every morning, I feel like Data. I wake up and do a complete systems check, focusing on usual offenders to see how I’m feeling.

Today, I did not pass inspection.

The left side of my head hurts, specifically behind my left eye, and my C2 vertebra. My hips are tender. I have cramps. But after a weekend of digestive failure, my upper and lower GI tracts seem to be functioning at satisfactory levels and I can eat and drink without stabbing pains or bloating.

Also, I have cramps.

Fortunately, I can function, and I am able to work today. I have a baby-migraine and cramps, but not a knock-me-on-my-butt migraine or a make-me-pass-out menstrual nightmare. I have experienced those as a one-two punch before, and it’s unbearable. Today is bearable, and I’ll take the win.

Like Data, my pragmatic filter leaves little space to leave out such information about various bodily functions when my basic functionality is on the line. When my ability to even get out of bed is at stake, there is no TMI.

When it comes to teaching my students about their own bodies, and helping them understand that there is no shame with their own body processes, the TMI line blurs a bit then, too.

Granted, there are some definite, hard-and-fast boundaries between my life and my students’ lives. My first two years of teaching, I taught a kiddo (now a sophomore in high school) I shall refer to as Sherlock. He was a very, well…investigative fellow. I once left the classroom for 15 seconds to grab worksheets off the printer in the classroom that was literally four steps away from mine. I returned to find him standing on my rolling desk chair, reading my email off the Smart Board. He was also known for such observant quips as, You should really try 5-Hour Energy so you don’t crash at 2 p.m. every day, and Did you give up coffee because you burp less during calendar now. He was also very impulsive and inquisitive and lightning quick and would rummage through other people’s things while they were present, that is, until the day he discovered my tampon drawer. He was horrified. I never again had to remind him not to open my desk drawers, that it is inappropriate to ask a woman if and when she is going to have babies, and not to tell classroom visitors, My teacher Ms Danielle doesn’t have babies but she has houseplants.

Back to the tampon drawer. The year his mother was pregnant, he suggested I have a baby. When I said that was a very personal topic, he then suggested I buy a baby. Sherlock was always up in my business. My friend James doesn’t have a middle name, so he used to write NMI for his middle name on documents (indicating No Middle Initial); Sherlock’s middle name should be TMI.

But here I sit, six years later, ready to show my tampon drawer to one of my kiddos. On purpose. She started her period this year, and she’s pissed. She started out excited about her first bra. She and mom went on a special shopping trip to buy one, and she told us about it at morning meeting the following Monday. I was cheering her on–no body shame here! We’re growing up, and we’re strong and awesome! She didn’t show anyone, and so it still stayed mostly private. And that was it. One announcement, boom.

Then she got her period. No one was expecting it this soon, none of us were really ready for it, and mom didn’t have the signing vocabulary to explain what was happening. She wants the purple pads, but they’re not the right kind. None of the other girls have theirs yet. She cries the whole week before she gets it and doesn’t know why she’s sad. It’s awful, and it makes her mad. So I’m going to show her my tampon drawer and tell her that this week is my turn. Because my period makes me angry, too. For the last seventeen years I have experienced severe dysmenorrhea that, as of my surgery in October 2013, does not correlate to what is actually physically going on. It’s frustrating as heck and when my GP and two specialists can only offer a shrug and an IUD, I shrug and take it. And then the week before my period I turn into a dinosaur who bloats out of her clothing and tries to staple people’s mouths shut. And that’s just the PMS, while on treatment, and I have the clarity to talk myself down. I don’t know how I functioned in my pre-meds days. I really really don’t.

So, she’s angry about her period. I’ll offer a little empathy and a peek in my tampon drawer. And then I’ll take some Aleve (which works for both the migraine and the cramps, at least to take the edge off, anyway). It may be TMI, but it might just be the TLC she needs. Because if I’m 30 and I think this is all BS, I can’t imagine what 3rd grade must feel like right now.

Fit Friday: Tank Tops and Taking Up Space

It’s May, and Idaho has made that quick and awkward transition from cool-and-almost-springy to my-kids-come-in-from-recess-hot-and-smelly. I have third-graders who needed to start wearing deodorant this spring, which is a new one for me. My second year of teaching, I had that fun conversation with my fifth-grade boys about DEODOROANT>AXE**. Their big takeaway was, Ms. Danielle taught us how to get chicks in middle school! But, it got them to start showering daily and give up the Axe in favor of pit stick, so I marked it a success. I’ve had fourth grade girls start their periods before. But third grade… I was just not expecting it this year.

That first group of students I taught? They’re sophomores now, for three more weeks. Most of them are taller than I am. You can insert any number of cliches here about how they’ve grown, and how old I feel. It’s been fun, though, to watch them. That’s one of the perks of working in a small school–I can see them every day, if I make a point to be in the hallways between classes or after lunch. We have high school students who have transferred to our school, too, over the past seven years who have added to the mix of personalities. And to the dating pool. I bring up this last point  because that’s a Big Deal in the middle school and high school. When I taught these students, boys and girls played together and were friends. Now, it seems everything is viewed through the lens of dating and pairing up and sex. This is not just the perspective of the students, but also the staff. When you are teaching students who are preoccupied with who is dating whom and the tangled webs thereof, it’s important to pay attention and to be proactive and involved.

Here is my disclaimer: I am not in these classrooms. I don’t interact with these students much. And there is a lot I’m missing.

What I see is this (in the hallways, staff meetings, and handbook revisions every spring): Girls have been chastised for wearing tank tops; boys are not. Girls’ clothing is sexualized; boys’ is not. Girls try to take up less space; boys try to take up more.

Toxic body image affects girls and boys. Girls see one version of the ideal body, and learn to lose pounds and inches and to take up less space. Boys see one image of the ideal body, and learn to build certain muscle in certain places. Self-perception and self-worth often hinges on these limited definitions of acceptable physical femininity and masculinity. (I’ll expand these more in the future, and provide more nuance).

In my anti-diet support and resource group, we talk a lot about giving ourselves permission to Take Up Space. To wear tank tops, even if our arms are not toned. To wear the clothes we want before we reach our goal weight. To wear the clothes we want without allowing our body parts to be scrutinized or sexualized. Do you know why we have to consciously give ourselves permission to do this, at the age of 20, 30, or even 60?

Because this kind of body shaming and sexualization starts in high school. When we talk about the dress code, we talk about girls wearing tank tops, and the boys getting distracted. We talk about the girls not having enough “self-respect,” about the girls using their clothes to get attention, about it detracting from the learning environment. When we talk about the boys wearing tank tops… we don’t. We have not, in my recollection, talked about boys wearing tank tops. A former student wears tank tops and sleeveless muscle shirts almost daily. I have never seen nor heard him told to cover up or change shirts during the day. I have seen multiple girls forced to wear t-shirts or hoodies or zip-ups over tank tops that were deemed inappropriate.

It starts before high school, when I am expected to tell a second grade girl that she cannot wear a tank top on a 90ºF day because of the dress code. Second grade girls (generally) do not have bra straps or breasts, and they definitely do not have sexy shoulders. Second grade children do not think about their own bodies in that manner, unless the adults in their lives create environments where those aspects are amplified.

Are there adult men and women who find shoulders, breasts, cleavage, or clavicles attractive? Yes. Are there adult men and women who find well-defined biceps, triceps, and pectorals attractive? Yes. Do we objectify every adult human that walks past us in a tank top? I sure hope not. Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same?

Why can’t we teach our high school students to do the same? I might raise a stink if the dress code comes up again. I might bring it up myself. Our girls should be allowed to take up space; they should not have to “hide” their bodies. The boys should not have free reign to take up as much space as they want by wearing shirts that reveal their entire torsos from a profile view, especially if we’re using the idea of “professionalism” as the rationale behind other pieces of the dress code. Melissa Atkins Wardy at Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies had a pointed piece about reframing dresscodes as “Don’t Wear Saturday on a Wednesday.” It strikes a sensible balance between allowing girls to retain agency of their bodies and clothing, respecting boys’ ability to control themselves and treat girls as humans, and teaching students to dress for the situation and venue.

Happy Spring! I’ma go garden in a T-Shirt while it’s still cool enough to do so. Once it’s mid-June…sports bra. Lots of sunblock. Not because it’s sexy, but because it’s just too hot. Also I have six-foot fences, soooo..

**I have to credit my sister Katrina with the approach to this one. This was said in a very kind manner. I am not the Takes No Prisoners teacher with my kids.

When you rub an onion and an orange together, it doesn’t make the onion smell better, it just makes everything smell kinda gross. Trust me, you don’t smell good. I used to be a middle school girl, and the people around you would much prefer you to shower daily and wash your hair than to smell like a can from a commercial. This is your homework for the next two weeks: Shower every day, wash your hair, wear deodorant. There will be a test, and it will be the asthma of the para across the hall who cannot breathe after you spray that stuff in the boys’ bathroom.

Cute, Part 3: Poetry

Content note: poetry in the elementary classroom

I’ve written before about my dislike of the adjective “cute” in regards to my students. Sometimes, it’s used as a disability consolation prize. Most of the time, “cute” is more about how the adults feel than about how my students feel. They’re getting older now, some of them are 10 and 11; “cute” is becoming more condescending. Context matters, of course. Several friends pointed out on my previous blogs posts on this topic that context matters, and that “cute” can be a compliment. It can be, but I maintain that for people who see my students every day, who know them, who have seen them from many angles, “cute” is a non-compliment that ignores the many dimensions of their personalities. It’s the “Hihowareya” fly-by of the school environment.

Right now, my class is diving into the thick of our spring open house preparations. The open house is a month from yesterday. It may seem like we have a lot of time, but with only four days of school a week, and field trips, parties, therapies, and other interruptions thrown into the mix, we really do not have a lot of time to get ready. I decided to focus our energies into literature and poetry study. We just finished our first-ever novel, so we are doing open-ended wrap-up projects: the students each chose their favorite character and completed a character web, descriptive paragraph(s), and illustration. The kids finished their writing today, and the mini-essays are so different. Ponyo focused on one specific event that only took up two pages of the entire novel, an interaction between the main character and her little brother, whose relationship during the rest of the novel reminded me of Ponyo and her younger brother. TLK chose the father, and talked about actions; every action he picked (killing a one-horned buck, surviving smallpox) was centered around the love for his family. Sir New Dude also chose the father, but focused on character traits like bravery and strength.

We are reading and writing poetry. They picked a favorite poem from a wide selection of books I offered, and they will be presenting it in a few different ways. The students will each work with me to translate it to ASL and record it. The students who wish to read it in spoken English may do so (three students asked if they could, so I added this). They will illustrate the poems they picked. We are also translating a song and recording a music video. Working with them, hearing and seeing them give voice to each poem, looking at their illustrations, digging through the meaning they attach to the ideas has been simultaneously surprising and totally expected. It fits with how I understand their minds and hearts to work, but the nuance and depth they bring reminds me how often we (and I include myself here) do not give enough credit to young people for their ability to make connections to the world and each other through text.

Sir New Dude and TLK selected “Grasshoppers” from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. TLK follows SND’s lead for reading aloud; the roles are reversed for signing. They each wear one hearing aid, so they sit side-by-side, their aided ears together when they read it. SND is a fast reader, so he is practicing listening and waiting for a partner; he has a tendency to steamroll people in regular conversation, too. As a hard-of-hearing kid, it might be a compensatory tool for controlling his environment so he doesn’t miss anything–if he’s the one talking, he knows what’s going on. When they were drawing, they searched YouTube for nature videos of grasshoppers jumping, some in slow motion. Using science to understand art–beautiful. 

Freckles chose a poem from Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson titled “failing.” Right away he told me, This kid needs to learn math but it’s really about life too. I asked him why he liked the poem. He said it felt good. The kid in the poem laments the adult answer of, Just ’cause; Frecks was nervous, but when I told him he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying adults make him feel frustrated, too…well, you can probably guess what he told me. I added a few pencil marks on the poem and asked him to read it again. After he did, adding the pauses and a breath, he looked at me and said, Yeah. That was good. That last line was even sadder when I breathe. Frecks gets poetry. Of course he does; there’s a reason he was drawn to that book–his whole life is poetry. I am not trying to be profound or emotive. I mean that the first two stanzas of the first poem in that book could have been written about Freckles and his noisy brain that no one ever calls cute but everyone is always telling to be quiet and sit down and stop singing.

Elsa picked a poem from the book Food Hates You, Too, called “Toast.” It’s about bread getting eaten and being dead. She drew a really morbidly hilarious picture of dismembered bread being eaten by worms, and two angel breads going to heaven. All those people who tell me how cute she is are missing out on a wicked sense of humor. That toast was gross, man. And so, so funny.

Ponyo’s poem is from Heartsongs, by Mattie J. T. Stepanek. She stares at the picture of Mattie during poetry time. While other kids were drawn to a book, or a specific poem, she was drawn to the poet. She spent 20 minutes today watching subtitled clips from Oprah on YouTube. Mattie was a boy with muscular dystrophy who started writing poetry when he was 3; he died when he was 13 before my students were even born. He was a peace activist and poet who became quite famous in the late 90s when he wrote his Heartsongs books. Ponyo drew a picture of Mattie instead of a picture of her poem. She originally picked the book because she was going through a goofy sweetheart phase, and the book is called Heartsongs. But when she learned about Mattie, and read the poems, the sweetheart stuff stopped. Completely. But if I ask her why she loves it, she doesn’t know. That’s a bit more complex than “cute” can give her credit for.


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