It seemed like a simple question: “Can we infer, from the story, that the polar bear ate the seal?”
But Arwen* slumped down in her chair and blinked repeatedly at the wall. I had rephrased the question twice before, and I decided to try a new strategy.
“You seem distressed, Arwen. What’s confusing you?” I asked.
“I am distressed, actually. You see, I told this girl at school a secret, and I thought we were friends, but then at lunch she sat at another table and said something. Then she pointed at me and twisted her finger around her ear and everyone laughed.”
I knew exactly the gesture to which Arwen was referring, a way to wordlessly say “that girl over there is cray!” My student, a generally articulate and soft-spoken fifth grader with mannerisms more sophisticated than I could hope to learn, mumbled her story and then stared at me with wide eyes, earnest for some sort of explanation or comfort.
“Oh, I meant…” I began, but couldn’t bring myself to repeat the question.
This wasn’t the first time a student had confided in me about bullying. I work with kids who have learning disabilities–dyslexia and ADHD are the most common–which has nothing to do with their intelligence. I tell that to my students on their first day of class: certain neurological connections in their brain are simply weak or transmit the wrong information, but we don’t measure intelligence by the strength of a few shaky connections, especially when we have exercises that can strengthen them. In reality, my kids are so clever and observant and funny and imaginative–but they are also bullied.
The problem is, schools aren’t designed to sufficiently address learning disabilities, and they become an easy target for cruel children. It’s infuriating.
Generally, the boys haven’t opened up to me. They are, of course, conditioned to believe that showing vulnerability to others will make them more feminine and thus less valuable. I’ll let you guess what my thoughts are on this phenomenon (in short: get. out.), but I’ll tell you what I learned from girls.
First of all, girls are acutely aware of the divide between tomboy and girly-girl. There is no in between for them, and moreover, they resent the other group, which they perceive as their fixed opposite. Girly girls make me promise not to tell anyone that they chose a Hulk sticker as their reward; tomboys look down on girly girls for embracing their femininity. The roles are rigid with no room for variance or gaps or overlap, so I learned early on to introduce myself as both a former ballerina and soccer player who enjoys shopping and science fiction. Take that, gender roles.
This divide without any room for deviation from one’s gendered persona, I think, is another huge factor in bullying. Another one of my students who self-identifies as a tomboy (I’ll call her Eowyn) once told me that she wanted to “beat up” another girl, because she was a “mean little princess” who wrongly accused Eowyn of breaking a rule. Her desire for violence was alarming. I knew Eowyn as a sweet girl who always told stories with vivid details. She once gave me a gift: a hand-written Hogwarts acceptance letter after I told her that I had been waiting since I was ten for one of my own. Where on Earth did this desire to physically hurt another girl come from?
I’m not sure that I ever had an suppressed wish to pummel another girl during my own childhood, but I remember my jealousy and ill will toward other girls, especially during middle and high school. I compared myself to classmates for whom social interaction seemed so easy, or those young ladies who somehow avoided the truly horrific acne stage of puberty, and I felt as if I was in some strange girl-world competition with them. In fact, it wasn’t until very recently, when I was maybe 20 and after I had studied binary oppositions in literary theory for a couple of years (significant in this case: women vs. men, whore vs. virgin) when I realized how much energy I was wasting on these worthless comparisons and toxic animosity. I didn’t have to love all other women; I didn’t even have to like them. I just stopped perceiving myself as a lesser reflection of them, and the hatred faded away along with it.
Fast forward to fall 2012. I was YouTubing Amy Poehler instead of working on French grammar and found this: Smart Girls at the Party. Poehler, a hero of mine since her days on SNL and current run as the brilliant Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation, created a network for young girls using an online platform. She interviews the girls about their lives and goals, and each YouTube episode concludes with a dance party.
“We wanted something to feel bite-sized and positive and I do think that there’s some lack of celebration of the unique, original girl,” Poehler told the New York Daily News. “So in some ways, it was a response to that. But, honestly, we really wanted to do a talk show that had a dance party at the end.”
Agreed. There is nothing more fun than dancing. Since the original episodes, though, Smart Girls has expanded to include other features, such as a blog, Operation Nice, Ask Amy, Girls of the World, and even Boys’ Minute!
Here’s one of my favorite videos about dancers from Operation Nice.
The website explains that the aim is to “help young women and the young at heart with the process of cultivating their authentic selves,” and the front page tells smart-girl visitors that “when you are interested in something, your life becomes more interesting and you become more interesting,” and equally important, “caring is cool!”
These messages are simple enough, but their meanings could make girls completely rethink the way that they approach their lives. If a girl pursues her interests rather than focusing her energy on comparisons to classmates, then the division between girls disappears. I remember a similar narrative in the 1990s: “girl power!” But this “girl power” mantra became increasingly diluted, and instead of the Spice Girls encouraging productive conversation by way of great pop music, eventually turned into a marketing method for Lisa Frank. “Smart Girls at the Party,” I think, inspires a much more effective dialogue, and using the Internet as a platform for “Smart Girls” allows for communication spanning the world over (rather than, say, a more passive form of conveying information via major television channels).
Let’s skip forward, once again, to today as I returned Arwen’s sad stare. I decided to place our polar bear story on the back burner for a moment, and instead repeated some powerful words that I once read from Poehler herself. “You know what? Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good? Kick them to the curb.”
*If you think I’ll disclose my students’ real names, no way, man. I will never share the name of my students, or my place of work. Enjoy these Tolkien pseudonyms instead.