how to wear a suit.

june cleaver, via takefive

Today, I wore a suit.

This wasn’t my first time. But—as usual—I was struck by how uncomfortable I looked and how awkwardly the collar of my dress shirt laid upon the lapel of my blazer.

Remember Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, in A Christmas Story? Remember his snow suit? It felt a lot like that.

Now, perhaps it’s just an ill-fitting suit, but I doubt it: everything was tailored just fine. No, this wasn’t so easy to explain away. When I looked in the mirror, I just felt sort of shapeless and boxy. More significantly, I felt like I was playing dress-up in an outfit—and an image—that doesn’t belong to me.

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Suzanne Venker would like to exploit validate this insecurity. In her Fox News op-ed entitled “The War on Men,” women are harangued for seeking out higher education and full-time careers because “women aren’t women anymore.” As a result, “the men have nowhere to go.”

Luckily, Venker breaks down her argument in easy-to-digest pieces so even my feeble female brain can understand. Her argument is simple: “Men want to love women, not compete with them.” The solution? Even more simple: As a woman, all I have to do is “surrender to [my] nature—-[my] femininity—and let men surrender to theirs.”

While this is exceptionally good news for me (like I said, I look awkward in a suit; strollers and aprons are much more flattering), what I worry most about is what our daughters’ futures will look like with such bleak and repressive attitudes towards them.

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It’s not enough to slut-shame. It’s not enough to rape-shame (…and rape-shame…and rape-shame). Now, we must ensure that our girls understand that this overwhelming world of education and self-sufficiency is—really—no place for a lady.

Instead, all too often, powerful women are accused of being overbearing, masculine, unladylike, and—worst of all—unattractive. Thus the “feminine” Kardashian archetype becomes the new role model because even if they’re not the smartest or nicest women, at least they’re pretty.

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I cannot tell you how many times this has come up in my interactions with middle-school girls: pretty lips, pretty eyes, flat stomach, curvy hips, cleavage, “good hair.” It broke my heart every time that grace or intellect or humor were afterthoughts—if they were even thought of at all. This is our value system, and it becomes all the more apparent when reflected within the autonomy-shaming vitriol espoused by Venker and her anti-feminist cohorts.

In reviewing what sort of external attitudes we would like ourselves to be subject to and what sort of lives we want for our daughters, we must first determine what sort of role models we will choose to be. Blaming women and shaming young girls away from academic achievement and self-reliance only serves to defend the disparities and further feed into self-esteem issues, thereby weakening our society as a whole.

The real solution to this social schism has nothing to do with surrendering; in fact, it’s just the opposite. If we hope to provide a “balanced life” for our girls, we must first demonstrate the value of their minds and demand their self-image be derived from a place of internal power, rather than external perception.

Essentially, we must first teach them how to wear a suit.

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worth the fight.

via YWLP

Last year during mentoring, one of my seventh graders confided that she spent every evening—from the time she got home from school until she went to bed—taking care of her four younger siblings. She explained how this meant that she often didn’t have time to even look at her homework, and she was usually too tired during the day to stay awake during class. Her mom worked two jobs and didn’t get home until after midnight, so it was up to my seventh grader to babysit, make dinner, do the chores, bathe her siblings, and get everyone into bed.

When I asked her about school, she shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m too tired… But I don’t really care—it’s not like I even like any of my teachers anyways.”

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The statistics clearly show that my seventh grader is just one of many students not properly served by our current system. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 4.1% of all high school students dropped out of school between October 2008 and October 2009 (NCES, p. 8). While this number has lowered significantly since the 1970’s and 1980’s, 4.1% per year could easily turn into 16.4% total by the time an incoming freshman class is supposed to graduate.

Furthermore, the distinction between high school completion rates across race and socioeconomic status are staggering. Over 9.3% of black young adults (aged 16-24) have dropped out, and that number skyrockets to 17.6% for Latinos (NCES, p. 9). Additionally, students from low income homes were five times more likely to drop out than students from middle or high income families (NCES, p. 6).

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My 7th grader is easily on track to become yet another addition to that statistic. In the particular school I mentored for, Buford Middle School, 56% of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch (over 48% eligible for free lunch alone). Already—in a school that serves only 7th and 8th graders—the dropout rate was 4.1%.

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Having spent the past couple years working with Buford Middle’s at-risk seventh grade girls, I can understand that it’s easy for an educator to begin feeling helpless—especially as one continues to witness greater levels of student potential intermingled with greater levels of adversity. However, it is this potential, above all else, that demonstrates why it is so critical for us to keep fighting.

Whether weighing different types of responses to bullying, seeking out additional homework help, or explaining the subtle intricacies between “going with” and “talking to” someone, my girls have already navigated difficult circumstances, adverse social cues, and responsibility beyond what any 12-year-old should have on her shoulders.

The part of mentoring that impacted me the most was not the bonding and connections formed, nor the joy of facilitating young girls’ development into young women (although both of those were equally powerful experiences). Instead, it was that—each day—I witnessed these students weigh their options between giving up or moving forward. For each day that they chose to move forward, I felt that much more committed to my own promise to be there with them every step of the way. For the more difficult days where they wanted to call it quits, their struggle provided me strength to keep pushing and served as a reminder of why that promise is—and will remain—so important.

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There are so many different ways to make a positive impact, and—if you can find a few hours per month to spare—I would highly encourage you to get involved. While we may not be able to overcome all of the difficulties our students are facing, the value of having someone to motivate them to stay in school, work through their challenges, and find value in themselves and in others really can make the difference in determining a child’s outcome.

That alone is worth the fight.

via YWLP

imagine.

nick nelson via society6

In his plea for peace entitled “Imagine,” John Lennon once sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” Each listener was called on to imagine a peaceful world united by fraternity and social kinship in the hopes that maybe—just maybe—we could end violence through community initiative.

Indeed, most children are raised with the understanding that violent behavior is not a tolerable type of social interaction. In line at the grocery store, mothers scold their children for hitting, while the maternal adage of “Keep your hands to yourself!” is one that stays with many of us long after we leave the nest. Even schoolteachers are given the task of teaching students about proper social interaction: hitting is uncivilized, brutish, and absolutely will not—or, at least, should not—be tolerated in the classroom.

Yet, as we develop over the years, this simple philosophy often manages to get muddied. Whether you blame video games and the internet, music videos and lyrics, or  movies and TV, there appears to be an endless supply of mixed messages. Suddenly, Mom’s warning doesn’t seem to stick as much as it once did, as children are left with the arduous task of unraveling the infinite number of signals being sent to them—all in the hopes of developing a coherent system of socially accepted behaviors.

This same situation unfolds in our educational climate.

*****

In my time spent working at a preschool, I discovered that the promise of “free art time” was like Kindergarten catnip. Overexcited four-year-olds would frantically put away their toys and rush to the art station, anxiously awaiting their supplies. As each child meticulously created his or her own small masterpiece, the only sound that would fill the room was a quiet chatter outlining each illustration in painstaking detail.

As an Assistant Teacher, I often enjoyed the perks.

Yet, by middle school, there is no “free art time.” Students are either encouraged to read, finish homework, or (if you’re lucky enough to get a “cool” teacher) quietly talk to a friend. There is no creative outlet. Sure, reading may have the ability to excite one’s imagination, but—as with any chore—it loses its appeal when it becomes an obligation. When the entire day is structured around implementing obligations, is it any wonder so many students complain about disliking school?

Additionally, this practice can even turn the Arts themselves into a slippery slope of begrudging commitment. If one is expected to play the violin for 3 hours each, this too becomes a chore. As a result, the benefits usually incurred through creative expression can be dampened just as easily as they’re fostered. This tells us that it’s not necessarily the practice of “art” itself that produces such strong educational advantages, but something else…

Something bigger, and perhaps a little less tangible.

*****

John Lennon invites us to consider a world different from our own—one lacking possessions, countries, and religion—all for the sake of mental exercise through an imagined future. In listening to my four-year-old students chatter about their art projects, each one had a story unfolding from it:

“…Here’s the sun, and here’s you and me…First, we’re playing outside. Then we pick flowers for my mommy and I find a really big yellow one…” **

There is no obligation in developing this story; it could just as easily be a picture comprised of colors and scribbles without any associated meaning. But the act of choosing to develop a spontaneous, original story is where the element of creative liberty shines through:

It is here that “art” takes place. It is here that Maxine Greene’s mission of “releasing the imagination” is met.

As this practice all too rarely occurs in secondary education, it is also here that we still have a lot of work to do. In advocating for an arts education, it is not simply about securing band instruments and school plays—indeed, seeking to develop a codified structure of “the Arts in schools” defeats the very purpose. Instead what we must do is foster that development of expression: tell me a story; make something up, anything; use your imagination. 

Only by adapting our current learning practices and incorporating this philosophy into our current education structure will we fully access the benefits derived from arts-based education.

** [N.B. That was the actual story provided by my student, Addison, on the first picture featured in the photograph above.]