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A personal story goes a long way . . .

By | Straightlaced

A few months ago, Straightlaced–How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up screened at the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference in Colorado. Wanda Holland Greene, Head of the Hamlin School in San Francisco and long time supporter of GroundSpark, co-presented the film with Social Studies Teacher Kirsten Gustavson to an audience made up primarily of independent school leaders and teachers of color.

Wanda opened the workshop by asking the group to do something we are rarely asked to do in our everyday lives as adults: Think back to when you were a child and try to remember a message that you received about what it meant to be a “proper man” or a “proper woman.” She asked participants to think about what their chosen message was and try to hear it in the source’s voice—was it their mother’s voice, their teacher’s voice, the television, the radio, or maybe their pastor?

Wanda Holland Green and Kirsten Gustavson

Wanda Holland Green and Kirsten Gustavson

Unearthing the messages about who and what they should be in the world, and locating the many different sources of these messages, was incredibly revealing. “I wanted the audience to have an introspective approach to the topic of gender,” Wanda says.  But she also wanted people to bring their insights into their classrooms. She goes on: “So what does it mean to create a safe, inclusive learning environment in our classrooms when gender messages come from so many multiple sources, unique to each individual’s experience? If diversity is a component of excellence, how do we take into account the varying experiences of gender expectations that all of our students face?”

The answer to this question is obviously complex, but one important piece is surely Wanda and Kirsten’s approach of asking educators to think back to when they themselves were young. “Straightlaced allowed us to reconnect our professional work on diversity and inclusion with the very real “stuff” of lived human experience.  By sharing our own feelings and stories about gender, we remembered how powerful the messages are, and many left the session energized and excited to help our young people better understand their own experiences,” Kirsten noted. Sharing our personal stories allows us to see the similarities and differences in what we all experience and offers a chance for dialogue to grow. Certainly the young people in Straightlaced show us what a powerful force stories can be.

Here’s GroundSpark’s challenge to you: Tell us your personal story. Leave a comment about a message you received when you were younger about what being a “proper man” or a “proper woman” means.

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  • My dad was from Savanna Georgia. It was very important to him that his ‘rough-around-the-edges’ son(me), got a proper education in what was called being a proper ‘young gentleman’. What was particularity agonizing was this place I went to on the weekends called “Stanly Pelitezer’s School of Dance”. Not only did I have to dress formally, but I spent countless hours listening and forcefully demonstrating what it was like to be a proper ‘gentleman’ by dancing, eating and staged conversations with girls. Even though I complained routinely, I still had to go. The girls had to wear white gloves and we (the boys) sat on opposite chairs across the room in this big hall, before we “mixed”. We were not allowed to have side conversations and the mood was always very somber; like we were waiting on death row. I cannot remember even one happy moment after all the time spent there. I knew I was different and I knew I liked boys, but this was yet one more venue for me where it was impossible to express my true self. I also had to take English horseback riding lessons. I spent years at that but never had my own horse or was allowed to show. Since I always felt obligated to please my parents, not showing or competing made absolutely no sense, even by their standards. One day I just refused to go anymore. It caused a firestorm, because it was yet another thing that proper young ‘gentlemen’ were supposed to do. I was teenager by that point and sometimes my refusals were granted.

    Comment by Kevin Fetner — May 1, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  • In school, when I was 8 or 9, I recall walking to recess. It was a sunny day and I was feeling happy so I started whistling a tune. I had just learned how to whistle and was feeling proud of that accomplishment. Suddenly a window was flung open and one of the female teachers shouted at me, “Stop whistling. It’s not ladylike.” All my happiness evaporated in that moment. At home, I remember my mother telling me I needed to work on being more feminine and polished. Often this extended to behavior; don’t question, don’t talk too much, wear the clothes that I think you should wear. Ironically, I enjoyed wearing skirts and dresses, but perhaps it was the way I wore them (grubby knees, bitten nails). As a teenager, I recall being chastised for wearing too much turquoise eye shadow – it was the 1970s! As I sneaked out of the house one night, my parents called me back in to say goodbye. “You look like a tart”, my mother said, and I was ordered to go back upstairs and tone down the makeup before going out. Always the message was, “What would people think?”

    Comment by Louise Everett — August 25, 2010 @ 7:25 am

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