When I was in 7th grade, my teacher asked me one day to stay after class finished up. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but he looked dissapointed, not quite angry, but something was definitely up.
I should back up for a moment. Bear with me here, or just skip to the bottom and scroll back up as you like. The meaty part is down there, impatient readers.
I’m originally from Boston, moved to Ipswich, MA in 1985 after my mother found out that the kindergarden I was set to be bussed to was over an hour away from our house in the then most definitely NOT posh South End. The suburbs were a far more affordable choice than sending me off to private school, particularly since many in Boston had waiting lists you had to sign up to before you even conceived a child.
So we moved, and I went to the public school in Ipswich. I was lucky. I had an amazing kindergarden teacher, Barbara Beaman who treated every screaming running child like the tiny explorer we were, giving us paints to wreak creative havoc with, and love to fuel our little souls. I had an incredible first grade teacher Ann Marie Tlumacki who taught us to love science, stoking our curiosity for the natural world by bringing in monarch caterpillars for us to observe devouring milkweed, turning into chrysalises and finally erupting into beautiful butterflies. I had an inspiring librarian, Mrs. Kelly [whose first name I now cannot find], who let me read hidden in the stacks of books to my heart’s content, who secretly shared the progress of her mold collection, born of milk sodden tea sachets and kept hidden in lidded teacups under her desk, and who taught us all our first computer program after lobbying to get Massachusetts first Turtle. I had teachers who cared about me, deeply, and those are only a few of them.
I could have been pegged as a “challenging” child, but instead was sent to ELP [previously GATE], the Extended Learning Program, where I was introduced to “The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury, “The Cat and the Coffee Drinkers” by Max Steele, as well as poetry writing and book illustrating projects. We were teased for going to “special” classes, but I didn’t care. After all, I was in those classes with all my friends anyway, and my mind was nourished and I learned voraciously.
It was in Middle School, with larger classes, a straining budget, and tenured teachers who had long since given up on the idea that they were there to help children learn, that I first felt out of place. The science and math classes had me coming home, spewing trigonometry and plate techtonics to my parents over the dinner table. But then I was scolded by my Reading teacher for doing my Yellow Book Standardized Reading Exercise too quickly. I was already being teased as a nerd, as a weirdo. To be admonished by a teacher for excelling was too much.
I was lucky, and I got to go to a tiny tiny private school, 130 students for 7-12th, only 20 kids in each grade. That year, nearly half our class was from the Ipswich public schools, so it was an easy slide into my new world. I was challenged, and the classes were hard in a good way – except for math, where one other Ipswich transplant and I wound up without a teacher, too far ahead to be with the other kids our age, and the tiny school’s schedule to tricky to sneak us in with the high-schoolers [I didn’t have a math teacher til senior year].
So there’s the picture for you. Me, age 14, the blissful devourer of knowledge, pulled aside by a teacher after our Humanities class.
Humanities was one of my favorite classes, discussion based, with only 8 kids in the room. I remember we were working our way through American history, somewhere between the diaries of Sturbridge Village and Jack Kerouak.
My teacher stopped me in the hallway, just before the door.
He looked me in the eye and told me I needed to stop talking so much in class.
He told me that by talking so much I was keeping the other kids from learning.
He told me I needed to learn to sit and listen, and let other people speak.
He told me that even if I thought I had something important to say, something to contribute to the discussion, even if it was something no one else had said, it would be better to just keep quiet.
I was damaging the entire class by being so talkative and he expected me to do something about it.
I looked him back in the eye.
"So, if no one else is talking and the room is silent, I should still just sit there and not say anything?"
”______ talks just as much as I do. Why aren’t you speaking to him as well?”
"No he doesn’t."
"Yes, he does."
"Please, Alexis. I need you to work on this."
So, for the rest of that month, I was silent. I did not speak up unless I was asked directly to contribute to the discussion. I sat, and since we were all required to take notes, I took notes on who spoke in class, ticking off each time they opened their mouth, be it a yes/no answer or a broad reaching discourse.
It was a very quiet month in that classroom.
My silence did not suddenly give voice to those terribly oppressed students. Instead, that other student whom I had named before, became the dominant voice of the class.
We were on a first name basis with our teachers. We were encouraged to speak up, to give feedback, to share our opinions openly. There was never supposed to be a separation of school and home, of public and private discourse. So one day, I stopped my teacher after class and shared with him my findings. That my silence had not changed the participation of the other students. That the other vocal participant had continued to dominate the discussions, now taking place mainly between said student and the teacher.
I suppose I was expecting the muzzle to be lifted.
Instead, I was told that I was wrong. That student was by no means over speaking. How dare I suggest such a thing? Furthermore, I was still talking far more than I should be, so obviously I had not yet learned to listen properly. So no. I should certainly not go back to my old ways of jumping in whenever I pleased. I needed to learn.
That was not the last time I have been silenced. That was not the first time I have been made to feel guilty for my “excessive participation” either for being a show-off, or for making it harder for other students.
But I have learned. I’ve learned to shut up. I’ve learned to listen.
To listen to how the men around me are participating before I speak up, so that I can gauge my contributions to be just those few klicks below theirs – no, not the loudest of them, about sixth-tier or so.
To listen for the reaction of those around me when I do speak up, so I can tell how long I should wait before speaking again, lest I accidentally dominate the conversation, intimidating the other participants.
I have also learned to say fuck it to anyone who judges me for being vocal. Who calls me abrasive. Who calls me pushy. Who calls me hard to deal with. Because anyone who is so affronted by my opening my mouth, who prefers a silent room to my participation, who is so incapable of eliciting the response of others in that room and blames me for having rendered them mute, will never help me grow or learn.
Frankly, I don’t want to help them either.
Did you wonder, by the way, about that other student in the classroom? Were you able to guess what made them so different than me that I was taken to task when they were not? The difference: their gender.
Should you think, for even a moment, that this was all my own imagining, that I really was the 14yr old hellion irreparably damaging the hard earned education of my fellow students, let me tell you this. That student, that boy, whose participation I tracked tick mark after tick mark on my paper, class after class, he confronted me. He asked me
"Why aren’t you talking in class? Are you ok?"
"Yes, I’m fine."
"Are you not doing the reading or something?"
"No. That’s not it."
"Well what the hell. It’s really boring being the only one talking in class."
I’ll leave you with some background, because this is not some isolated incident, some ill chosen overly personal object lesson from my far distant past.
In Literature: Have you seen Harry Potter? Do you remember Hermione Granger? Those first few movies [or books if you prefer] she was so annoying. Always waving her hand in the air, always with the answers to all the teacher’s questions… wait. Why is that annoying? She had done the reading, the homework. Yet we still see her as the overly pushy full of herself better than you teachers pet. How could we see her any way else? After all, her teachers are shown exasperated by her, annoyed at her exuberance. Never mind perhaps accelerating her schooling. No no. She’s just being difficult. She’ll pipe down, she’ll learn.
“It’s a horseshoe with only my B&P class, so we’re way more laid back and its smaller. In other words, I talk a lot. So much in fact that I’m getting the “Hermione look” from Chris. Every time I raise my hand, he gives me the exasperated look and goes, “Yes Jessica?” He also gives the rest of the class crap because Katherine and I are the only ones with our hands raised.” http://insatiablesweettooth.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/science-rules/ - The Hermione Granger Look
In Psychology:”Talking in class is often perceived as ‘showing off’, especially if it is girl-talk. Until recently, girls have preferred to keep a low profile rather than attract negative attention. Teachers are often unaware of the gender distribution of talk in their classrooms. They usually consider that they give equal amounts of attention to girls and boys, and it is only when they make a tape recording that they realize that boys are dominating the interactions.” http://www.pbs.org/speak/speech/prejudice/women/
In Conferences: ”Maybe you’ve thought, it’s too bad the organizers didn’t think to balance this out a bit more and ask some women to speak too.” http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/a-simple-suggestion-to-help-phase-out-all-male-panels-at-tech-conferences/266837/
I wrote this at the ass crack of dawn after finding that post in The Atlantic. I’d just spent a good part of my Friday tracking down two women to sit as Judges at Chicago Startup Weekend because for all that I’m no longer based in Chicago, am not a Startup Weekend organizer, and frankly had other work to do, no one else had seen it as a problem that all the judges were men. As well as all but ONE  of the mentors. I contacted each of the judges, as I know them directly, and two of them even offered to STEP DOWN for a woman. However, none of them had taken action of their own accord. These are really rad guys. It’s just not their habit to vet their fellow speakers, judges, mentors etc. After all, in the tech world, folks have gotten so damn used to seeing a whole page of man speakers that seeing even one woman speaker in a conference lineup is a novelty. This was the status quo.
What I would like to bring to the attention of anyone who makes it this far down the page is this: It took me a total of 2hrs, on the Friday afternoon before the event started that night, to track down not one but TWO women who were prepared to drop EVERYTHING they had planned and go judge, last minute, that Sunday.
For one, props to them.
For two, how the hell do we excuse interrupting someone’s life that severely, with that little planning.
For three, shame on every conference or event organizer who ever ever tells me “I would have loved to have more women but…”
- Women don’t like to give up their weekends
- Women with the appropriate qualifications don’t exist
- Women haven’t stepped forward to volunteer
- Women would rather stay home with their children
- Women are just really hard to track down
- Women lack the experience for this sort of thing
- Women shouldn’t be getting so upset about this being all men. It’s the content that counts, after all.
If I can find two women in two hours, you better watch out. You let me organize your conference? There will be hell and high water comin’ down cause there won’t be a man opening his mouth on your stage.
And yeah. The content will definitely be what counts.