Sunday, July 12, 2015

Undertones of inequality
I was in a large circle of men and women at a retreat when one of the women spoke up addressing the undertones of inequality that were happening. The men instantly became defensive and she asked for support on the issue from the women. At the time, I had no concept of what she was talking about. I remember putting my hand up sheepishly to support her, but wondered if I had zoned out of an important conversation. 'These were kind, intelligent, insightful men. What was she talking about?'
I'm thankful for having that experience. It awakened my subconscious to how I perceived the world due to my background experiences. I noticed something was happening that I wasn't fully aware of.
Monument acknowledging Margaret Sievwright  
I grew up learning about the plight of the suffragettes - how they campaigned for equal rights and responsibilities of citizenship as men. Then, the range of feminist movements establishing equal opportunities for women in education and employment. I knew about the many forms of abuse and had experienced its different forms throughout my life. I understood how disempowering it felt and the loss of self-esteem and confidence. I understood how hard it was to find strength to speak out, to have a voice, and to challenge someone else's thoughts when you knew the consequences would be aggressive or manipulative ones.
The defining moment came when I took my class of Year 3 to an assembly to acknowledge an organisation providing dictionaries for the Year 4. We sat and listened as the representative talked about their organisation and then proceeded to talk down to the students about how they were offering a 'hand up not a hand out' to them. Being of the same race and class as the rep, it was in that moment I became conscious of the subtle undertones my friend had spoken about at the retreat. Later, the rep addressed the Year 4 and asked them to look for words in the dictionary while we sat and watched. Only to hear him say 'Lets give a word to the girls to look up. Girls, find the word fashion.' I was gobsmacked. 'Was this really happening in this day and age?' Another teacher turned to me and stated what a wonderful gift the dictionaries were and I snapped back saying I thought dictionaries were becoming obsolete and the money would have been better spent on a laptop. It isn't entirely true, dictionaries still have their place. I looked at her strangely 'Was she not seeing and hearing what I was?'
When the spectacle was over I stomped back to the classroom, while my class tried to keep up with my pace. We sat down on the mat and I praised them for sitting and listening patiently for as long as they did in assembly. Then, continued to make them sit and listen (poor kids) while I read them Jane and the Dragon by Martin Baynton. The students listened, engaging with the story, knowing something wasn't quite right with Miss Em. The story had nothing to do with our unit of inquiry. When I had finished, one of the boys asked innocently 'Can girls be knights?' I was dumbfounded by the statement. ' Kids still wondered this question?' I remember the tears pricking my eyes as I became concerned with the messages society were dictating to these little minds. I said 'Anyone can be a knight, including girls. If you are determined and persevere you can be anything you want to be and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.'
The students may not remember that day, but it was a huge wake up call for me as an educator. I, then, started to recognise, identify and learn the subtle undertones of sexism, racism and bigotry and they are everywhere.
I tell my students 'Once you have learned about an injustice, you have a responsibility to do something about it'. In this case I realise I need to be a role-model and champion the girls who want to be knights and support the boys who are brave to ask if girls can be knights. I need to be one of the many voices in this movement and be part of collectives driving this change. I'm certainly not perfect and will continue to make mistakes along the learning path as I grow, but am open to this discomfort and the challenges it brings. Hearing about the experiences of others is encouraging and I recommend watching Roxane Gay's TEDtalk - Confessions of a bad feminist.
Above all, I want to acknowledge and thank the men and women who have the strength to stand up and address inequality. You never know who is in the room or the catalyst you become for their journey.