Mission: Fighting the Theft of Girls’ Voices

Anyone who knows me well knows why I became a teacher. A decade ago, I did not get the call to simply teach public school students how to write essays. 10 years ago, I got the call to teach the black and brown students at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS). From its genesis, the road I paved to become a literature teacher merged intricately with the road the universe paved for me to make the world safer for women, children and people of color. While my tenure at TYWLS taught me a lot about the particulars of a single sex school environment, I underestimated how starkly different girls carried themselves when they were educated with boys.

Joining the teaching staff of The International School of Kigali -Rwanda (ISKR) ignited a few assumptions on my part. Generally, my largest assumption was that I would have the most difficult time adjusting to teaching the children of the haves. A career dedicated to the children of the have nots provided me with an arsenal of skills that I assumed would have to be reworked in this new environment. I have found that assumption to be totally unfounded as my current students, who come from all over the world, behave all too predictably like the ones I taught in East Harlem. And their parents seem to ask themselves the same question after 3 p.m. that I ask myself before 3 p.m. If I were to strangle this child right now, would the world judge me harshly or would it understand?

I was only vaguely cognizant of my second assumption: teaching in a co-ed school would seem odd to me for the first several months at least. I did not even consider the difference in the girls because…well, girls are girls are girls. My only assumption was: Teenage boys might get more bored and disruptive in a literature class than their female counterparts. After two months, I am surprised at how often I reflect on all those professional development workshops the Young Women’s Leadership Network sponsored during my teaching career. No matter the topic, each workshop had as its foundation this simple premise: SINGLE SEX EDUCATION MATTERS. Teachers must make concerted, calculated effort to ensure girls do not fold themselves into that dangerous box of polite silence the world will insist is the most appropriate space for them. I do not recall many times in my classroom at TYWLS where I felt myself bubble into a mild rage because my girls refused to own their voice. I talk myself out of a fit of uncontrolled rage at least twice a week at ISKR.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I teach the 8th grade. On Mondays and Wednesdays, 6 boys from 5 different countries seat themselves on one side of the large conference table. 6 girls from 6 different countries seat themselves on the opposite. I instruct all students to write down the day’s critical thinking question about the text we are reading and answer it thoroughly. I watch the 6 boys hurriedly jot down the first thing that pops into their heads. I watch the girls think for a moment, write, erase, rewrite, call me over and ask the same question in at least a dozen different ways: “Is my answer good enough?”

When I ask for volunteers to share their responses, the boys’ hands go up immediately. Sometimes, they don’t even wait for me to ask for a volunteer; they just start talking. More often than not, the responses that come from the boys’ mouths are shallow and barely scratch the surface. I turn to the girls, who have written (in the most painstakingly neat penmanship) the most insightful observations about characters and connections to texts we read weeks ago. I watch them erase their answers. I watch them continue to write long after I have announced we are moving on, as if perfection can indeed be attained if I just allowed them 10 minutes to draft an answer instead of a measly 7.

“I want to hear from this side of the table.” I turn to the girls, ignoring the two eager hands waving in the air.

The girls remain silent. I start to feel the rage bubble in the bottom of my belly. I have made it clear to at least two of these girls that their responses are not only thoughtful, but are more correct than I was even hoping for.

Why are they silent?

I put one of them on the spot. “Yara.” She looks startled and irritated. “Let’s hear your answer.”

She averts her eyes at first and begins her answer the way so many girls here do. “Well, I don’t know if I am right…”

The bubbling makes its way to the middle of my stomach.

“Well, nobody knows how right you are either. The only person who knows the right answer is the author and since he’s dead, I guess you’re gonna have to speak for him.”

She smiles and looks back down at her paper. She begins to speak again.

“Well, uhmm…well, I think the tone is…”

It is only two brief seconds that Yara pauses to gather her thoughts. However, Joseph steals those two seconds with agility and precision.

“I think it is like the tone of the last poem we read because…”

The rage rises to my throat. Not because this impulsive 13 year old boy could not control his vocal cords long enough to wait for his classmate to finish her thought. I can barely contain myself because I am baring witness to Yara’s conscious choice to have her voice stolen. I see in her face the same irritation that I and her classmates feel as Joseph the Interloper casually grabs the mic I explicitly gave to her and only her as if he has a right to it. As if it is better suited to his hands. I see Yara half way open her mouth. I see her close it and lower her eyes to the table.

“Yara, were you done with your comment?” I encourage her to look up at me as I ask her the question again.

Her eyes remain lowered. “Joseph, I appreciate your eagerness and I will get to you in a moment, but we are interested in what Yara has to say now.”

Yara remains silent.

“Let’s hear it,” I insist.

I wish I could connect this trend to a specific country or a specific age group. Perhaps my fits of rage would be assuaged if all of the girls who offer up their voices to be co-opted by entitled males were poor village girls from “developing” countries. If only I could simply say, “Yara is only 13. Maybe Dutch girls are just more dainty.”

But Makeda is not Dutch. She is not 13. She is a 17 year old Ethiopian who introduced herself to me via her I am poem with: “I am a feminist.”

When Makeda whispers to me that she wants to withdraw her name from the ballot as representative on the student council, the bubbling in my stomach that is becoming so familiar I barely notice it shoots through me with a fierceness that is surprising.

“That is unacceptable. Your name will remain on the ballot.”

Makeda does not understand why I am angry. Like Yara, she doesn’t understand why I cannot let her simply choose to fade into the background. After all, it is her choice. It is only an insignificant extra-curricular activity.

“I didn’t know we’d have to give a speech,” Makeda tries to explain as if this will make me understand why she needs to momentarily turn herself into a mute.

“I cannot allow it, Sweetie. This might be selfish of me but I cannot allow an almost 18 year old who is going off to university to major in Women Studies in a year to stand here and tell me she plans on cowering in front of 20 people she has eaten lunch with for the past three years. I will allow you to make your speech last, which gives you a few minutes to jot down something on this napkin. But you will be telling your inzu why you are qualified to represent them on the student council.”

I do not know what to make of Makeda or her friend, Ariana. A 16 year old Italian with two parents who work for the embassy, I am baffled by Ariana every time she opens her mouth to announce the play she has written “is really stupid. I can’t believe the drama class actually has to perform it.” I watch her watch me as I peruse the snappy dialogue she puts in her characters’ mouths and the sophisticated way she uses stage directions to paint the picture of a family who is grappling with a host of problems.

I bite my tongue each time she disparages her stellar work and plan my moments to transform the rage into calm encouragement. In those planning moments, though, I watch her classmate, Kito, very closely. As Ariana consistently dismisses her obvious talent, Kito continues to nonchalantly turn in incoherent, grammatically torturous scenes rife with gratuitous violence that follow no clear plot line or dramatic structure. I talk him through rewrites in which he respectfully defends his choices. When he capitulates to my advice, however, it is only a humble, “Okay. I see what you are saying now.” Not once has Kito denounced these hot ass messes as “stupid” and unworthy of sharing with anyone else.

While I am certain that my girls at TYWLS were not immune to self-deprecation and self-doubt, I struggle to recall many memories in which either of these self-defeating notions were the norm. Girls being anything and everything but afraid in their class discussions. Girls fighting over whose turn it was to speak on behalf of the school at some event. Girls admitting that laziness is the reason why their work was below my and their own expectations instead of attributing poor quality to inferior skills. These seemed to dominant my daily experiences at TYWLS. I took for granted the reassuring comfort of such an environment. I allowed myself to believe that what I and my colleagues had created was the standard.

In this new environment, I decide every day to replace the grumblings of rage with commitments to gratitude. I remind myself to appreciate that my work to mold girls who are blind to their own power into women who are committed to their mission will be more challenging. Isn’t that the exact reason why I left my beloved TYWLS in my beloved New York City in the first place? If I am to continue my mission, I must accept the new shape it has chosen to take and adapt myself to it. The bubblings of rage will not likely subside. I am thankful that they won’t.

4 Responses

  1. Wonderful installment! I hope a book will eventually grow from your travels and your blog! Having known you for your whole teaching career at TYWLS, I know these students could not have a more skilled teacher, a more conscious mentor, or stronger role model. I have no doubt under your guidance as a teacher, those girls will emerge from their virtual niqabs into the air and daylight of their own power and the sound of their own confident voices. The boys will learn a thing or two as well. You have your work cut out for you;18 years of learning to cast your eyes down and throttle your own ideas and voice will not be easy to undo. But, as you know, success grows on success. It is interesting that adolescents are adolescents world over, rich or poor, have or have not. In New York, I often observed high school classrooms in which the girls voices dominated their male counterparts in literary discussions. Your students in Kigali will learn lessons about voice: how to locate their own and trust themselves … and how to listen to and respect the voices of others.

    • Thanks, Elaine! Here’s hoping that the work results in more courageous girls AND more feminist boys!

  2. Great, great writing and insight. This does seem to be a thing with co-ed education.I think there was a writer who explored the topic in a book called “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” Fight on, K girl.

    • I read Reviving Ophelia right out of college! I didn’t realize it until just now, but I think I have always had feminist/womanist concerns in me and probably was on the road to TYWLS much earlier than even I imagined.

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