I loved my fifth-grade teacher, Martin Hollander. He told us our class was a democracy in which all of us had a voice and a vote. For the first time in my school career, my opinion counted and my voice was heard. That all ended when he had to leave class for a meeting and put me in charge of a classroom project.
As I stood in front of the class attempting to get my peers to follow the directions he had left in my nervous hands, total anarchy broke out. Notes circulated and spit balls flew across the room. My cries of, “Guys, we have to do this,” were met with taunts and laughter. Rather than feeling empowered, I felt humiliated. I had not only let down my beloved teacher, but I had made myself the object of derision by my peers. Upon Mr. Hollander’s return, he revoked our democracy. This was also my fault, but in retrospect, democracy never existed. We hadn’t voted to make Mr. Hollander our leader and he had the right to become a dictator when we didn’t comply with his wishes.
Needless to say, I reverted to my previous school behavior of keeping a low profile, doing my assignments, following rules, and striving to get good grades. I held my achievements so close to the vest that my male super competitive classmates in high school were shocked to discover I ranked third in the class. Somehow, they had a pretty good idea of who the top ten students, all boys by their calculation, supposedly were. I had no idea there were even class ranks.
In the large lectures at college, it was pretty easy to continue my diligent but modest approach to my education. In smaller classes, however, students were encouraged to talk. As an English major, that was not much of an issue, as there were generally more females than males in my courses. But when I took an introduction to philosophy class, my feeling of humiliation and inadequacy returned. For some reason, this class attracted alpha males who talked at length about what the philosophers we were reading really meant to say. They were so certain of themselves and dominated all discussion. Unable to understand what points they were making, I felt totally intimidated. No way would I dare to ask a question or venture an opinion. What I was able to do, however, was read what we were assigned and get an A on the exam.
My trajectory in school probably strikes a familiar chord with many women. School as an institution favored kids who sat still, followed rules, did homework, and studied for tests. These students tended to be female. Teachers didn’t seem to care very much if they heard our voices. In fact, much of the focus involved figuring out how to get the boys to shut up and sit down. Some common techniques to accomplish this are still at work today, as I observe my granddaughters being encouraged to serve as monitors to keep the boys quiet rather than to serve as leaders.
In my day, we sat in rows of desks, but seating at tables to facilitate group work is now in favor. Teachers often place “good girls” between boys struggling with self-control. The idea is that the girls will help keep them on task. The effect is that the girls suffer the same humiliation I did in fifth-grade, plus they are distracted and intimidated by some of the boys who talk and shout out answers. When it comes to group projects, it is often the girls who do the bulk of the work. Like me, my granddaughters have had to learn the hard lesson that doing the teacher’s bidding will not endear them to their peers. So, they are the ones who quietly make sure the work gets done, and modestly share the credit.
Our local middle school has a high-level math class that is almost all boys. The boys dominated math classes throughout grade school, with many more of them testing into advanced math. Could an equal number of girls have tested into this class? Of course, but by the end of elementary school, many had given up on the notion that a girl could be good at math. Perpetuating this gender imbalance in STEM subjects is the practice of disbursing the few girls in the class, seating one at each table of boys. This is a sure-fire method of silencing a girl’s voice and discouraging her from signing up for the competitive math and science curriculum at high school, which is still largely a white boys club.
Much attention has been given to asking why students of color are under-represented in honors and AP classes, and remedying that issue is very important. Also worthy of attention, however, is why so many capable females decide math and science are not their thing. Just as it is more than time to address racial stereotyping and biases, it is also important to examine school experiences through the lens of girls.
Pigeonholing girls into the role of the model student does no favor to boys. School tends to punish young boys for being too active. They are far more likely to break the rules, get off task, or be noisy and talkative. For this they pay a price of negative consequences like public shaming on behavior charts or loss of the right every child should have to recess. For girls, however, school often squelches their voice and uses them as a buffer between boys who are acting out.
It was only after I left formal schooling, entered the workforce, and later starting writing that I found my voice. In thinking about the role school plays in perpetuating biases against students of color and children with disabilities, it is also important to consider the ways in which gender discrimination continues the suppression of girls’ voices that I experienced throughout school.