Thursday, November 20, 2014

Feminism at an all-boys school

At the boys' college prep school where I work, I don't get to interact with the students very much. My old office there gave me a small glimpse into their daily lives, as it was near a main door and they passed by multiple times a day. I could hear their conversations, debates and sometimes, singing. Then we shuffled things around and now, in my new office, I'm almost completely removed from them (I'm tucked behind the faculty offices, in which the students aren't allowed). Although I like my office, I miss hearing the students.

A few weeks ago, one of the boys emailed a female faculty member and asked for her help. He was starting a new club and every club requires an adult moderator. She came to me with the email, grinning from ear to ear, and asking if I wanted to also be involved. The student wanted to start a feminism club. He had written something like, "Since we're at an all-boys school, we don't know very much about the opposite sex and the world they face. I'd like to start a club where we can discuss these issues, and hopefully better prepare ourselves for entering the co-ed world in college." It took me about five seconds to get on board.

We talked about the student's request and how the club should be moderated. Adult supervision should be light-handed; let the students run with this. We hoped that the boys who showed up for the first meeting were there to seriously debate issues, not smirk and make crude remarks. We discussed a new name for the club, as the word "feminism" sets so many people on edge. We settled on women's studies, the administration cleared it, and the boy who had requested it set the first meeting for yesterday.

At 12:10 p.m., three female faculty and one male faculty showed up, cautiously optimistic. The topic for the first meeting was the Rosetta space mission scientist who chose to wear a shirt depicting nude women for his international press conference. One of the math teachers knows a female scientist who wrote a paper regarding this man's sartorial statement, and what it means to women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The paper had been copied and distributed before the meeting. I arrived a few minutes late, slipping in and sliding into a desk near the back of the classroom. 

Fourteen students were arranged in and on desks, and the debate was lively. Was the shirt appropriate? What were his motivations in choosing to wear that shirt on that particular day? Is it fair to judge a scientist with extraordinary accomplishments by his choice of fashion? Did his words (describing the spacecraft as "she" and continually referring to "her" as sexy, but not easy) compound the issue? One boy saw no issue with the shirt. "It's just a shirt. It doesn't define him, nor does it detract from his achievement. He landed a spacecraft on a comet…and everyone's in an uproar over his shirt? Isn't that not the shirt's fault, but rather the fault of the people who are choosing to perceive intentions through their own personal filters?" The rest of the boys intelligently debated him through many different levels. "Perception is important. What if the President of the United States held a press conference wearing that shirt. Would that be okay? What if your teacher came to class in something like that?" I was astounded when one boy asked, "If symbols aren't important, is it okay for you to wear a shirt with a swastika on it? Just as a joke? Would you expect people to not judge you for your choice to wear that symbol because your intentions weren't to promote discrimination?"

The debate raged on, both sides expressing themselves respectfully and intelligently. Is misogyny different from objectification? If you're objectifying a woman, doesn't that mean you love women? No, it means you love their bodies and what their bodies can do for you…you remove the human element altogether, which is really a form of hatred. I couldn't see one boy as he was obscured by several people, but I listened to him argue his point and thought that he sounded more intelligent than most adults.  I finally leaned way back in my chair to see him: he looks like a disheveled boy who would be more concerned with playing video games than debating women's rights. I was floored.

At one point during the discussion, a new boy arrived at the door. He poked his head in and made a joke (I couldn't hear it), but no one laughed. He was dismissed, and reprimanded. "Dude. We're trying to have a serious discussion here. You're interrupting. Go." The boy left, and the classroom resumed its debate. No faculty moderation necessary.

The time went by way too quickly and the bell rang for the next class. Both students and faculty bolted, and I returned to my hidden office thrilled and inspired, reaffirmed that the work I do there is important, that these students can truly grow up to make a difference in the world. 

One of the faculty stopped by my office in the afternoon. He was beaming. "Wasn't that fantastic?! Wasn't that incredible?" It was, I had to agree. He told me how, in his role as their teacher, he doesn't get to experience things like that very often. He teaches them science, about molecules and protons and neutrons, about chemical reactions. He loves what he does (and he's very good at it), but he usually doesn't get to know the students in-depth outside their ability to learn chemistry in his classroom. He was re-charged, just like I was.

The group is supposed to meet weekly, and I already can't wait for next Wednesday. I don't know what topic they will discuss, but I trust that it will be as timely and worthy of discussion as yesterday. And I will keep working to tell the good stories of this school, knowing that there are young minds being shaped that will leave our school and go out into the wider world, better prepared than many of their peers, and perhaps ready to fight for the rights of all human beings to enjoy equality and respect.


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