Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Everything's still not awesome on the playground

Lily and a cousin. Expressing themselves.

"Today was the worst day," Lily told me one afternoon last week when I picked her up from school.

"What happened?" I asked. 

Blinking back tears, she told me that she was playing basketball at recess with her friends, but they wouldn't pass the ball to her. I asked her which friends she was playing with- she rattled off the names of a bunch of boys, several of whom she'd been in class since kindergarten. 

"Were there any other girls playing?" I asked.

No. She was the only one. 

"They just kept passing it to each other."

My throat clenched. The whole thing felt very familiar. 

Because 30 years ago, I was Lily. Wanting to play basketball at recess and none of the boys would pass me the ball. By the time I reached fourth or fifth grade, I stopped trying to play with them. Years of being among the last picked for basketball or kickball or softball or dodgeball reinforcing what I had come to understand was the truth: I just wasn't good enough.

And it's true. I wasn't the fastest. I wasn't the best shot. I wasn't he tallest. I wasn't the most coordinated. 

On the other hand, I was always willing to try. 

And I was always willing to pass the ball.

I told Lily, I was sorry. That I knew how she felt. It was frustrating to want to play with her friends but feeling as if they didn't want to play with her. I suggested she find other kids to play basketball with. 

Here's the thing. I know most of these boys Lily mentioned. They are sweet kids. Maybe they played basketball together on a team or something. Their excluding Lily was probably nothing personal. It could've just been habit, you know? They're so used to playing with each other that adding someone new might throw them off.

They have their own thing going on.

The boys I went to school with had their own thing going on, too. 

It wasn't always like that. When we were in first and second grade, I remember racing around the playground with them playing "Ghostbusters." I was always Janine, naturally. There were limited roles for girls when playing "Ghostbusters" back then (we didn't have Melissa McCarthy or Kristen Wiig). Just the secretary or the love interest. And let's be honest, second graders aren't including love interests in their ghost-snatching scenarios.

But at some point, we drifted away from "Ghostbusters." The boys went on to play basketball or dodgeball. The girls drifted over to hopscotch or jump rope. Sometimes we'd shoot baskets. A couple of the girls were really athletic. They'd sometimes play basketball with the boys at recess. They were always the first girls picked for teams (though generally, not the first kids picked- even the less athletic boys were picked ahead of the most athletic girls). 

We had this old-school phys-ed teacher. Picture the typical 80s/90s-era elementary school gym teacher. He was that guy. Tall, tanned, shorts that were a little too short. He used his whistle a lot and had lots of cheesy catch phrases and bad jokes. He was impressed with the sportsy kids and indifferent to the less sportsy ones.

It should come as no surprise that I did not relish P.E.. I don't remember ever reaching the top of the rope. I still can't turn a cartwheel. In all those years of doing fitness tests, I achieved just one pull-up, one time. My mile times were average. I was usually at the back end of any batting lineup. It wasn't that I didn't try- I always tried to do the best I could. It's just that my best wasn't all that impressive. And had no confidence in my abilities.

But I was an active kid. I loved riding my bike and hiking with my family. I enjoyed running- even if I wasn't all that fast. I played soccer for years. Just rec league, but I wasn't shy about getting dirty.  

For most of my life, I had this perception of myself that I wasn't athletic. Recess and gym class in elementary school were the roots of this. I'm certain of it.

When I started practicing yoga, I realized I was wrong about myself. I'm actually quite strong and really flexible. When I played indoor soccer in my 20s, I was one of the better shooters on my team. And we had a pretty talented team. We had a three-season stint as league champions, in fact.

Lily is a different kid than I was. She's more outspoken and confident. She believes in her own authority in a way I never have. I love that about her. And it is also infuriating. 

It's hard not to project my own experiences on my girls though.

Like that the boys I grew up with just didn't think girls were as good as they were at sports. And maybe I wasn't. But maybe I could've been had I just gotten to play. If they passed the ball to me once and a while.

It starts early, this division. Jovie's first season of soccer was on a co-ed team of 5 and 6 year olds. There were just a few girls on the team and already the boys were excluding them when it came to sharing the ball. They've heard the phrase "girls suck" from boys chasing them on the playground, even from their own male cousins. Family they've grown up with. 

They're 6 and 8 and it's happening. Already. This insidious indoctrination about their worth as humans. I mean on the one hand, I know these boys- they're not mean kids. I know their parents. They're good parents. I could brush it off as just playground hijinks. It's child's play, right?

Casual sexism. Child's play. 

I'm not trying to be some millennial snowflake. I want to raise sturdy, resilient girls who don't crumble at the slightest offense. And my kids aren't perfect either. Just the other day Jovie farted right in my face. Unapologetically. Lily doesn't always have a lot of patience for classmates who learn differently than she does. They're all works in progress. 

We're all works in progress.

I was out to dinner with a friend recently and we touched on the #MeToo movement. He expressed some hope that things would be better for women moving forward because of all the conversations people are having and the increased awareness, etc. I told him I'm  not so optimistic. It's not that I don't support #MeToo and #TimesUp and all the awareness being raised about what girls and women experience walking through a world that is openly hostile to them in very sneaky ways. These are the ripples that will bring about the change over time. I know that. 

It's just that our gender roles- the way we interact with each other- it's so ingrained in us. And from such an early age. It's in our marrow and ways we are still not even conscious of.  

At 5 and 6 the boys on Jovie's team have already decided that they don't need to include her in their game. By 9 or 10 they've decided girls are inferior. By middle school...

Let me share you a story about middle school that I hadn't shared because I was too embarrassed about it. Last year I was subbing in a seventh grade classroom for an instructional assistant I'd subbed for frequently. I was familiar with several of the kids in the class. At one point in the class, one of the boys I'd taught before did something obnoxious. I rolled my eyes and groaned at him as if to say, "Dude, really?"

This kid took my groan and turned it into a moan. Like a moan of sexual pleasure. If I addressed him at all in class- he'd moan at me. Not just that one day either. Anytime I was in that classroom, he'd smirk and then moan at me. Me, his 36-year-old, pregnant teacher. It was mortifying and belittling. And I did nothing. He needed to be written up. But I was uncomfortable about how to address it. Like what would I say, even? "I think this kid is making sexually explicit noises at me?" Would they think I was mis-interpreting his actions? Or that I had done something inappropriate? Or that it wasn't something worth getting administrators involved with? As a sub, all this stuff felt murky. You just sort of end up lowering your standards for behavior.

I should've said something. Because he needed to be called out. I'm still kicking myself for that. Backing down to a 12 year old.

And here's why I don't have a lot of confidence in the future. Because this boy is the future. And he wasn't an anomaly.

I spent the second half of the year co-teaching eighth grade science with a male teacher. I observed right off the bat that the boys behaved differently for him than they did for me. And it wasn't just because I was a substitute. I saw this in other rooms where I was subbing as an instructional assistant with female teachers. They showed more respect for male teachers than they did for female teachers. (Though I should note, in general, most middle schoolers didn't have much respect for any teacher male or female.)

I feel as if #MeToo is as much about women finally being aware of what overt and subtle sexism looks like as it is about calling out men who assault and harass women. Because honestly, it's such a part of the air we breathe as women, there are things I never would've even considered calling out. 

When I was 11 and 12, I never liked riding my bike to the shopping center near my house because of the men who'd whistle at my sister and me. The boys who walked behind me one day after school barking and howling at me when I was in sixth grade not only humiliated me, they made me feel unsafe. The boys who snapped my bra, the boys in high school who told me I was sexually frustrated anytime I crunched on ice, the boss who tried to get me to take my shirt off during a party outside of work. Looking back, it feels as if all of this was more about power than sexuality. More about seeing me squirm or blush. More about making sure I knew were I stood. 

In a place where the ground is never sure beneath my feet. That's how it goes for us, I think.

I don't know what happens to girls and boys. I don't know when the shift occurs. When they go from playing as equals to not passing the ball to each other. It's such a quiet thing. But I think it's this crucial moment for both. 

I took the girls to see "The Lego Movie 2" this weekend and was pleased to see it touch on this very topic. Based five years after the last installment, ever-plucky construction worker Emmet is living with his special best friend Lucy/Wyld Style and the various other Master Builders in a Mad Max-styled wasteland called Apocalypseburg. 

Anything "cute" has been banished for fear that it would attract the alien invaders made from Duplo blocks. Apocalypseburg, of course, is the brainwork of the little boy Finn from the last movie, now a teenager. And the glitter-bombing Duplo invaders from the Sis-Star System are the work of his annoying little sister, Bea. 

Lucy presses Emmet to be darker and moodier in order to anticipate the danger awaiting them around every rainbow-bricked corner. "You can't keep pretending everything is awesome," she tells him. "It isn't." And he tries his best to be a little broodier, but just can't muster the same brand of sulky cynicism Lucy has.

When Emmet builds an adorable dream house (featuring a trampoline room, toaster room and double-decker porch swing) that results in Lucy and several of their buddies being kidnapped by a mysterious visitor from the Systar System, he realizes it's up to him to save them.

While floundering his way to their rescue he joins up with ├╝ber manly-man Rex   Dangervest and his crew of velociraptor lackeys. Rex, with his perpetual five o'clock shadow, chiseled features and chaps (they're basically like vests for legs, he says), tells Emmet to become a real man, he needs to "Crack open his pain bone and suck out the marrow."

Rex, the galaxy defending, cowboy, archeologist and raptor trainer, tells Emmet the only way he can save his friends is to peel off every last vestige of sweetness and friendliness and replace it with a drive to destroy anything that gets in his way. We watch Emmet wrestle with this- his soft, fun-loving self struggling to embrace Rex's hard-edged toughness. And he ultimately listens to Rex, thinking that's how he'd most impress Lucy.

How appropriate, I thought. "The Lego Movie 2" addressing toxic masculinity when the term, for better or worse, is such a flashpoint. It's no coincidence, either, that both Emmet and Rex are voiced by Chris Pratt.

The male characters aren't the only ones trying to figure out their identity. Part way through the movie we learn that emo-chick Lucy had actually taken a Sharpie marker to darken most of her pink and purple locks because she didn't think she looked mature enough or that she'd be taken seriously with technicolor hair. The seemingly dubious shape-shifting Queen Watevra Wa'Nabi is only trying to return to her truest form (a heart) via a forced marriage to Batman (who himself is perpetually wrestling his dark, Batmanny demons). Everyone's kind of a mess.

Again, it all feels very familiar.

Everything is not awesome.

And in fact, just as all hope seems to be lost, "Everything is Awesome" from the original "Lego Movie" gets a reprise.

Lily didn't understand why I laughed out loud at the lyrics:

"Everything's not awesome.
Whoa, I think I finally get Radiohead.
Bro, you should check out Elliot Smith.
What's the point? There's no hope.
Awesomeness was a pipedream."

Because I listened to all the Radiohead and Elliot Smith in my least awesome days.
I mean, "Everything's Not Awesome" could pretty much be the theme song for the past couple years, no?
I don't know how it goes for boys. What it's like for them to navigate shifting identities and expectations as they get older. I know it's not easy for any human. Growing up. I only observed that they older they got, the more space boys seemed to take up- either physically or with words and actions. They were encouraged to be bigger and louder and stronger.
For me, I always associate this time between the ages of, like 11 or 12 through high school with this creeping feeling I wasn't quite good enough. And that boys were just... better. Over the years that feeling manifested itself in different ways. Meekness, probably in elementary school. But then frustration and resentment in middle and high school. There were times when I know I was overtly hostile toward the boys around me. So much so they'd call me a femi-Nazi or "Stupid Haller". They used these words like swords, I think. They probably thought I hated all boys and men. I didn't though. I just didn't understand them. And didn't like how at times I felt inferior to them, while knowing that I had awareness beyond my years.
It's only now, decades later that I've been able to put words to that frustration. That I feel validated. I wasn't crazy. Or shrill. 
I am grateful that my girls will grow up with the language of feminism. That they will understand better than I that they aren't objects to be scrutinized and judged. They they are self possessed and can speak up when they feel uncomfortable or wronged or belittled. I'm an imperfect teacher, though. I'm sure there are yawning gaps in the example I set. Ones I hope will be filled in by friends and teachers and aunts and mentors.
I don't want them to end up being the 37 year old woman who didn't call out the 12 year old for being lewd.

I recognize that a mother of three girls doesn't have a full picture of what it's like to raise boys. I have all these nephews, but not first-hand experience in "boy world." I was listening to 1A on this morning. There was a segment, "How to Raise Boys" during which one of the commentators said we should be raising boys to be more full hearted. And actually, we should be raising all humans to be more full hearted. But I think that idea of full-heartedness is particularly touchy for boys. Because it's a little bit more mushy and vulnerable and men, I feel, aren't at ease with the idea of vulnerability. The commentator went to say that she'd like to see more parents feeling comfortable letting their kids express their full selves and tending to their emotional live. She added that she didn't want people to underestimate boys' ability to be full human beings.

We're raising girls now to understand they can be all the things: Astronauts, ballerinas, athletes, artists, bakers, teachers, CEOs, the President. They can be these things and they can still be soft. They can still like glitter and rainbows. Or not. 

Lily and Jovie's gym teachers are the polar opposite of mine growing up. Two strong, beautiful, goofy women who celebrate their femininity while encouraging all the kids to be active and healthy. They're like celebrities in that school, Ms. Findley and Ms. Jennelle. They greet the kids in the morning with Golden Retriever levels of enthusiasm and periodically don costumes- Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Woody and Buzz. Ms. Jennelle shows up to work with her hair curled and makeup matching whatever activewear she has on that day (if it's yellow, that means canary-colored eyeliner; if it's blue, then it's cobalt eyeshadow). I told her one day that I admired her whole look. She said she thought it helped the girls see they could be both fancy and fit. And I loved that. 

Boys need that, too. Like the equivalent of Rosie the Riveter- or even a male Ms. Jennelle to show them they can both play hard and be delicate. Both tough and tender. Intelligent and compassionate. They can like the color pink and like velociraptors. They can grow up to be all the things: Astronauts, ballerinas, athletes, artists, bakers, teachers, CEOs, the President. 

And ideally, maybe it wouldn't matter much who that role model was- a Ms. Jennelle or a Mr. Jennelle. 

The world I want for my daughters and nieces and all my wonderful nephews is the one where everyone feels comfortable expressing their truest selves. And everyone gets passed the ball.

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