Rachel Bunting

teaching negativity

Every week or so, the PTO at my son’s school sends out an email with reminders about upcoming events, school projects, and requests for volunteers. This week, I saw the following [emphasis not mine; sadly, it wasn’t necessary for me to boldface anything, as it already appeared that way in the original email]:

In conjunction with the Spring Book Fair, Larchmont will once again be participating in Scholastic’s One For Books Program. This time…we’re making it interesting!

From March 2nd- 27th, we will be holding a coin race. There will be 2 collection jugs in the main office, one for the girls, one for the boys. Each student is encouraged to bring in and donate his or her spare change and/or dollar bills. At the end of the collection period, whichever group has collected the most money wins!

Here’s where it gets interesting: If the GIRLS win, a favorite male teacher or two, will have to dress up like a glamour girl for an entire school day! If the BOYS win, it will be two or more of the female teachers dressing up as dapper dudes! Sound fun? Start saving up those coins. We’ll keep you posted on the leaders.

The best part, all of the money collected goes to buy books for CHOP’s Reach Out and Read program where they use the unique doctor-parent-patient relationship to foster a love of books and reading in children, especially those facing poverty. What a great way for our students to help others!

Thanks for your support of this service project!

This frustrates me, for several reasons.

The school houses grades Pre-K to 4, which covers ages 4 to 10. So apparently, the school intends to begin enforcing gender segregation and gender superiority at a very young age. While I understand that children will segregate themselves to a certain extent, I don’t think it’s responsible of the school to reinforce those behaviors at an age where children are so receptive to such specific messages. And to set up a “who’s better, boys or girls?” dynamic seems, to me, risky and inappropriate. Once again, I understand that kids will do it themselves to an extent – but to put the authority of the school, the administration, the teachers and the parents behind it is to send the children a message that this is how the world is, this is how we should behave. It feeds into the sexist culture of greater society, and if there’s any hope of creating a real sense of gender equality for this world in the future, I would think it starts with our young people.

And of course, why don’t we reward the winners by humiliating the losers? And what could possibly be more humiliating for the losers than dressing men up like women? Yes, I understand that the contest is “even” because the women have to dress up like men if they lose, but I think everyone knows that seeing a woman wearing a tie or a suit is considerably less socially transgressive than a man in a dress. While women wear clothing every day that is modeled after menswear, “men in dresses” is usually a joke, something to laugh at because everyone knows that men don’t belong in that type of clothing. And if the men aren’t donning skirts and eyeliner as a joke, they’re looked at as freaks, part of the counter-culture (remember Shannon Hoon, the amazingly talented and tragic singer of Blind Melon?)

The exercise here is a reinforcement of what Ariel Levy discusses so capably in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: to be a male is to be superior, so of course women should strive to be like them in daily life. On the other hand, to be a woman is to be inferior, so men should not seek to be like them. It’s frustrating that, despite my best efforts, my child is having gender roles and stereotypes fed to him at school.

And let’s not forget that there’s a substantial population of people for whom wearing clothing that “belongs to the opposite gender” is a way of life, an avenue of self-expression, or a way to claim an identity. Why don’t we mock them, too, while we’re at it, since they’re part of the freak population? This concerns me for a very specific, very real reason: my neighbor, whose son also attends Jacob’s school, has a trans partner. They are kind and friendly, good neighbors in a number of ways, and the son is a quiet, polite and sensitive kid. I am loath to consider what message he takes away from this situation.

Perhaps it wouldn’t bother me so much if the school hadn’t already put on a play this year (which Jacob thankfully bowed out of, despite my cajoling to continue participating) called The Legend of Bully Jo, produced by Taubenslag Productions. The play told the story of Bully Jo, a girl who was so mean her father attempted (without success) to pay people to marry her, and, after she was kidnapped by a monster, he had to pay people to rescue her. Woman as property, anyone?

And maybe that wouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did if I hadn’t heard my son singing “God Bless America” in the kitchen one night. When I asked him where he learned it (expecting him to say Sunday School), he answered, “In Music class.” Um, this is a public school, folks. Separation of church and state, where are you?

Do I have a real problem with the fact that Jacob has learned the words to “God Bless America”? No, of course not. His father and I are tasked equally with Jacob’s moral and religious guidance, and while I choose a different path than his father for that obligation, I respect his right to have Jacob attend Sunday School and learn about the Christian faith and its basic principles. My problem stems from the fact that Jacob learned this at a public school, where it shouldn’t really be part of the curriculum. And I can’t help but wonder what the parents of Jacob’s Muslim and Hindu classmates think when their children come home with this – because certainly, no one is singing “Allah Bless America,” or “Vishnu Bless America.”

And further, my problem intensifies when the children are being taught to view the world as either/or, to believe that only certain expressions of self are acceptable, even when those expressions deemed “unacceptable” don’t have a direct impact on anyone else. Because this isn’t just about men and women, sexism and feminism. To me, it’s about how Jacob is learning to respond to the world we live in, how he’s learning to test boundaries and traditionally accepted views – or not. When the school is reinforcing such restrictive and intolerant attitudes, what hope do we have?

0 Responses

  1. wow – very inappropriate. I would consider writing the PTO a letter, but then, that invites conflict and as a mother, I know I have to choose my battles. HOWEVER – the “god bless america” thing is something I would not be able to let go. No, no, and hell no.

  2. Rachel,
    It’s likely I’ll be pulling Jacob out of the school at the end of this year – we’re looking to move anyway. So I’m not too worried about conflict, and I’m seriously considering writing a letter to the PTO and the administration.

    It is incredibly frustrating, especially when I know that the parents of the other kids in Jacob’s class don’t share the same values as me. I know that, no matter how carefully I craft this letter of complaint, I will be wasting my energy.

    Still, I see myself doing it anyway.

  3. Ever notice that most of the smart, progressive teachers teach at university, and the ones who just wanted a cake-job and summers and weekends off teach younger kids, and usually subscribe to the same gender and societal rules that piss us off? I’m probably gonna get under some people’s skin for saying that, even though I didn’t say all teachers are like that. Just a general trend I noticed after some good professors woke me up and I started to observe the people who come out of teacher’s ed.

    Anyway, the whole friggin school system seems to keep feeding kids bullshit like this, and if they’re lucky, some of those kids will have a good mentor undo all of what they’ve already learned and start over. But wouldn’t it be so much easier if we just started teaching them equality and tolerance from the beginning?

  4. I think there are a lot of ways to define the differences between college profs and elementary school teachers. That may be one of them, but is a pretty big generalization.

    And sadly, this idea came from the parents of the kids, not the teachers. Of course, the teachers are reinforcing by agreeing to participate in the contest.

    Yes, it would be easier if we started from the beginning…

  5. Crikey.

    I suppose it’s too much to hope that should the school continue with this, whatever teacher gets to dress in drag uses it as an opportunity to talk about gender performativity?

    Right. Thought so.

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