Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Life As A Sexist


I've written before about our magnificent sensory table, a piece of furniture that is perfect in every way other than that it is very heavy, the heaviness being of course part of its perfection, but also the seed of yang in it's otherwise sea of yin. It was during my very first spring of teaching with this tool that I got the idea of introducing new top soil into our garden by way of it's galvanized tubs. So on Monday morning I dumped a couple bags of garden dirt into it and the children spent the morning indoors, digging, filling up pots, and "planting" our collection of artificial flowers. This was before I'd fully formed the idea of expecting the children to do this kind of work themselves, so when it was time to clean up, I instructed a pair of fathers who were working in the classroom that day to dump the soil into the garden.

Without discussion, the guys positioned themselves at opposite ends of the table, hoisted that beast full of dirt over their heads, and carried it processionally through the courtyard and into the garden. Hooray for upper back strength!

Discovering that I'd underestimated the amount of soil we needed in the garden, I recreated the experience on Wednesday, refilling the sensory table for the morning. As we approached clean-up time, however, I began to worry. There were no dads working in the classroom. Apologetically, I told a pair of mothers about my goal of getting the soil into the garden, assuming that they would need to take it out there bucket by bucket, you know, because the table is so heavy and they lacked the requisite upper back strength to carry it over their heads the way the guys did. I intentionally turned my backs on them, not wanting to watch the struggle, but I heard them talking. As I performed my usual clean-up time ring-master function I became aware of a sound I'd not heard before. The women were using the wheels on the bottom of the sensory table to roll it across the floor, out the door, through the courtyard, and to the garden, where they dumped the dirt. No masculine upper back strength required.

My sexism had been exposed, at least to myself, and not for the first time.

I've spent the past decade working with and socializing primarily with females. I've lived my adult life in a sort of gender role reversal in which my wife is the executive while I've taken care, to the best of my humble abilities, of the domestic sphere. I have nothing but respect, admiration and love for the gender. I believe my feminist credentials are solid. Yet, I still with an embarrassing regularity catch myself in sexist thoughts and expectations.

And I doubt that will ever change; not entirely. I've certainly learned to identify potentially sexist thoughts before they emerge from my lips -- I would not have lasted long in any aspect of my chosen life had I not developed that skill -- but the thoughts are still there. And while I know that none of us can or even should try to control our thoughts, I have learned to take great joy each time my sexism is exposed.

I've learned as a teacher and father to stay consciously vigilant for those thoughts and expectations, falsehoods I've mistakenly known as fact for the half century leading up to this point. I still look back on that sensory table episode as epiphanous. I'd simply not been able to comprehend how these two women could do this thing that required in my mind greater physical strength than they seemed to possess, yet by turning my back and leaving them without my "counsel" they'd discovered a solution on Wednesday that made the Monday solution seem brutish by comparison.

Even my prejudices about physical strength were shattered during our recent move to The Center of the Universe, when it became clear that there were several of these younger women who were stronger than this nearly 50-year-old man. It's somehow both crushing and inspiring as women speed past me on their bicycles during my morning commute. Yes, part of this is age vs. youth, rather than gender, but I've nevertheless had the windshield through which I perceive females wiped increasingly clear through the years.

I've come to understand that noting differences between the genders is not in an of itself sexist because there are differences (whether by the processes of nature or nurture) between how we tend to approach the world, and there is certainly an ebb and flow between us: a yin and yang. It's only when I make value judgments, when I assume a male or female would be better suited to this or that, rather than considering people as individuals, that I'm a sexist.

During this summer, we've been continuing the process of moving into our new place. Early on, we had an evening work party to help assemble the nice, new heavy duty shelves we'd purchased for our storage room. The group was pretty much evenly split between men and women. The first part of the job was to remove the random piles of stuff from where we'd originally heaped it in order to make room for the shelves. We all worked together on that part, organizing as we went, but once the center of the room was cleared, the shelf building fell, without discussion, to the men, each unpacking his own hardware, reading his own instructions, and erecting his own set of shelves. I noted the phenomenon, but said nothing about it, just being pleased, frankly, that the work was getting done. And indeed, it was an efficient, productive work party that achieved its goals in the time we'd allowed.

It became evident almost immediately that we needed more shelves. The next work party was scheduled for an afternoon, and as the team arrived I noted it was all women: intelligent, competent, thoughtful women. Again we started, under my management, by clearing space for the construction project, but when it came down to those shelves, I had no idea how to instruct them. I said, "I know how the guys built their shelves during the last work party. I know how I would instruct you, but I would be wrong. I've learned that women don't always do things the way men do, but they always achieve the results . . . often better."


One of them said, "I'm glad you said better. I was worried you were about to get yourself in trouble." It was a joke, but I took it as my cue to get out of the way. There was a lot more talking than there had been when the men were working, less grunting (I'm sorry, it's true), just as much sweating, and, it appeared, more reliance on teamwork. It was an efficient, productive work party that achieved its goals in the time we'd allowed.

I will always have sexist thoughts and expectations, I'm afraid. I suspect all of us do. But I refuse to let them handicap me and I will always take great pleasure in having my sexism exposed.

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Kierna C said...

A very honest piece - as teachers we have to be aware that boys & girls do approach things differently and then we can assist them as best we can.

carol said...

To the previouscommenter--we might say many boys approach things differently than many girls, but then there are vast numbers of outliers--all the more so, IMO, in the early years when they have had less time to be socialized. (I have known innumerable toddler boys who likes to wear skirts and princess things and zero 8yo boys who liked to, for instance.) I think presorting people into expected slots by gender, even if you are ready to be disproven, is just as sloppy as presorting them by race--in both cases, you're expecting people to be a certain way because of how they look. There is a vast weight of science out there showing that in fact there aren't very many solid differences, and even when there are some, there are lots and lots of kids who don't fit the expectation. I look pretty gender-typical and I'm a woman who is married to a man, but there are a lot of things about me that don't fit people's "female" conceptions and all my life I've been made to feel sort of off or odd because of it. This doesn't mean that I reject stereotypical behaviors when they appear in children, but it does mean that I work VERY hard not to assume or to prejudge. Interestingly I have one child who is outside the gender box in a lot of ways and one who is more gender-typical. (Not talking about appearance or sexuality here--jsut in terms of, does Boy like Cars, does Girl like Princesses, etc.)

Trisha said...

Great post! Am I the only one who isn't getting the pictures to load?

Teacher Tom said...

No your not Trisha. I'm fixing it. =)

Teacher Tom said...

That should read: No you're not Trisha. =)

Males in Early Childhood said...

It's a wonderful skill to be able to recognise your flaws & realise that they are part of who you are. None of are perfect & if we were we'd be very dull.

I too find sexist thought escaping & becoming utterances from time to time. I also, ashamedly, admit to the same racially. It's not something I can fully control, the thoughts I mean & I often get angry with myself for having them. Yet, all any of us can do is the best we can & I'm sure nobody would argue that your best is awesome at the very least.

I don't want perfection from anyone, but an awareness that what they say & do impact on others. I think no less of you Tom. If anything your standings have risen even higher. When I don't grow up I want to be just like.......

I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Juliet Robertson said...

At least you are aware of your sexism... I meet lots of pre-school and primary practitioners who are unaware of their assumptions and practice.

Kathy said...

Thanks for honestly sharing your story, Tom. I was just talking Friday with a guy friend who is a center director (and has also worked as a teacher) about his experience as a man in the early childhood field - he'll appreciate your thoughts so I'll be sure and pass it along.

By the way, have you read Lise Eliot's recent book, "Pink Brain, Blue Brain"? Fascinating summary of research of sex differences in every area of development, where those differences originate, and if/when we should do something about them. Exposes a lot of myths and assumptions. VERY readable - she's a great translator of research! I've written a review of the book for those who are interested:


Anonymous said...

Great post - I have my own privilege, as a white, middle-class woman. The only right thing is to acknowledge it. All the rest is learning, communicating, and trying to understand people's world views and experiences.

One other way to reconcile more emotive histories is by listening to oral testimony. The Smithsonian has amazing archives. Personally, I've grown really fond of Foxfire - a journal written by young people, recording their Appalachian elders' way of life: reimagining as they go.

Anyway, I'm getting off topic. I just wanted to post the following links, hoping you might find them interesting starting points :)

Here's a great series of posts by a father:

A sociological questionnaire:

Jess said...

According to Buddhist teaching, in case you have any interest, you are not your thoughts. Thoughts are something you have, but not who you are. It's great to be aware of them, then let them go sometimes. No need to feel bad about them!

On another note, you probably didn't have to say a single thing to the women, other than, "this is the day's task," or some such, and leave it at that. We really are capable! Nice post.