Friday, September 11, 2009

Getting Schooled

I was watching Never Been Kissed on T.V. the other day, a fluffy teen movie starring Drew Barrymore as Josie, a 20-something undercover reporter revisiting high school for the second time around. Dotting Josie's awkward encounters with Barbie doll popular girls and the seemingly heartless dreamboat boy who invents descriptors like "rufus" and convinces everyone to use them are scenes from Josie's actual high school experience. An incurable nerd the real Josie popped up on the popular crowd's radar only as the weird girl to design cruel tricks around and to make fun of.

The stark stereotypes and divisions within the fictional high school in Never Been Kissed are the movie's main source of humor. The popular crowd is beautiful, holds conversations that lack intelligence to say the least and makes a scene when someone they don't know talks to them in the cafeteria. The nerds make puns tying in chemistry and provide witty banter behind thick glasses. Just as the source of the movie's humor is clear, so is the source of the movie's tension and struggle. Put simply, there are different groups of close friends, one cool, one not and they don't like each other.

Ah, if life were a movie.

The high school experience, well mine, was a bit more blurry. I focus on high school because for me that was where I experienced the most inner negotiations, the most "self-change" as coined by Amy L. Best's in her essay "Girls, Schooling, and the Discourse of Self-Change: Negotiating Meanings of the High School Prom" outside of college. An Air Force brat, I moved with my family from San Antonio, Texas to the small town of Bedford, Massachusetts the summer before my freshman year of high school. I was a "base kid," living on Hanscom Air Force Base with the other military children, which made up a small portion of the Bedford High School's student population. The first day was, as Deborah Kim writes in her essay "Packing," "the nerve-wracking routine of invading a place where everyone else has jostled shoulders and built up kingdoms of nicknames" (Goldwasser 113).

Looking back I seem to almost want the clear lines and divisions of the high school in Never Been Kissed to match my memories of Bedford High School, to find humor in the contrast. Instead I can't remember what group I belonged to. I took honors classes, rarely strayed from my standard sweatshirt and jean outfit. I definitely wasn't popular. Popularity meant someone everyone knew since kindergarten; it meant beauty or confidence and wit that develops with familiarity. I flew under the radar, in between crowds and cliques. I didn't know me yet and trying to discover that in front of hundreds of kids my age was terrifying. Flying under the radar was the easiest way to go about things.

Gym class was the perfect example. I was an athlete, I played volleyball and was one of the pillars players on the team. But no one in Bedford, Massachusetts cared about women's volleyball. Therefore gym class was the same curriculum of discomfort that most girls experienced. I stuck to the sidelines of every game or drill the teacher whipped up, afraid of embarrassing myself or getting in the way of the boys who "fiercely battled in the outfield, as if they were playing in the national league" as Laura Lowe writes in her essay "A Retelling of the Black-Letter Days, the Red-Letter Days and the Fine Line That Ties Them Together" (Goldwasser 89). They never passed the ball to girls anyway. I remember trying to learn lacrosse, a sport I had never even attempted until I moved to New England just before my freshman year of high school. I can still feel the hot rushes of blood in my check as I flung the ball into the ground and watched the gym teacher carry on with the more talented boys.

As for the one day where every girl is a princess, the prom, I remember the strenuous dress shopping and having to look just right. The prom was the chance for everyone to see me outside of my sweatshirt and jeans, to catch the eye of the crush I'd never talk to in person. I wanted people to see me and mention my name for maybe the first time. I, as Best writes, was similar to the masses of girls that believe "how they transformed their bodies directly related to their having a successful prom" (Best 197). My one solitude at proms was the dancing. No matter the preparation or the awkwardness in school halls, once the music starts I lose degrees of inhibition. I still do to this day.

In preparing for prom and in the school halls "girls must find meaning in a cultural context that all too often limits the possibility for meaningful self-representation for them as girls" (Best 202). From childhood girls are often the ones with more restrictions in their lives, more limits and rules. Girls shouldn't stay out too late at night. They have to travel in groups for safety. Good girls should never cross the line sexually and must guard the limitations of their virginity vigorously. The school is another context for these limitations to occur. School dress codes most often address how female students dress more than male students. Girls should hide their tampons when they go to the bathroom or risk hearing snickers from the group of wisecracking boys in the corner of the room. Just writing this list is exhausting, never mind living each item out daily.

How can we change this? How can we stop limiting our girls in school, stop forcing them to live under the radar, and let them free? My one suggestion is creating a mandatory class that sets up an environment for open discussion among different types of students. While teachers often utilize group learning exercises in class, real discussion isn't always possible while doing school work. How about a short class that dedicates itself to getting everyone to talk to each other? Perhaps all-female classes that discuss some of the topics we discuss in this class? Such institutions, built on a limitless home environment, might be a step toward a female student population that doesn't feel the constant weight of such burdens.

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