Day 21: List a book you are thankful to have read and how it has inspired you to be better at what you do.
I could (and probably should) talk about one of the many books that have inspired my teaching. I should mention that Key Works on Teacher Response: An Anthology edited by Richard Straub is something I consider to be the Response to Writing Bible. Writing without Teachers by Peter Elbow is something I still thumb through for inspiration, and if Donald Murray's name is on something, I'll read it. All of those professional texts (and more) inspire me to be a better teacher, but today I want to talk about a book that inspires me to be more compassionate with teenage girls.
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons is a book that connected with me on a personal level as a woman, and a professional level as a teacher of middle school girls. Just hearing the phrase "middle school girls" is enough to make grown women shudder. When people ask what I do for a living and I tell them I teach middle school English, their first reaction is never based on my content; it's a reaction to the age. "I would never go back!" or "You could not pay me enough to deal with that age!" and "They are so mean in middle school!" are just a few of the things I hear on a regular basis. And on one level, I completely agree with all of these statements.
I hated middle school, and I was terrified to go back during student teaching. I still carry scars from the girl who placed a horrible note on my desk about how much of "poser" I was, and how she signed it, "from those of us who are for REAL." As someone who's always had a crippling level of self-consciousness, and an equally high desire to be a unique mystical butterfly, that note crushed me. I sobbed in the middle of class until the girl who wrote it gave me a hug. A hug from the monster who created the tears in the first place! Or what about the girl, my best friend at the time, who told me she couldn't be friends with me anymore because I wasn't religious and she didn't want to be friends with someone who was going to Hell. I was twelve! Twelve years old and told by my friend that I would burn for eternity. Oh, I know all about how evil middle school girls can be, and that doesn't even count the horrible things I did to others, for no logical reason.
Odd Girl Out explores the way females treat each other, highlighting how we are often cruelest to our closest friends. The girls and situations described in the book are heartbreaking because they are so relatable. I have been that bully and that victim. I have both done and witnessed all of those types of relational aggression. I have perpetrated and accepted them as social norms among grown women. I read this book on a beach in the Dominican Republic, and could not believe that in the midst of paradise I was absorbing a piece of writing that so accurately depicted many of the social relationships I'd known in my life. The contrast between the white powder sand and the aching in my heart is a moment that blazed itself into my memory.
This book inspires what I do because every day I see this kind of aggression in action, and there doesn't seem to be a way to stop it. How can we prevent girls from being mean to each other when their mothers are mean to each other? Our society in general is one big place for people to be mean to women.
Odd Girl Out doesn't give any real answers; reading it didn't help me solve the problem. But it gave me more empathy for girls on both sides of every situation. It reminded me that none of them fall into either bully or victim category 100% of the time. It reminded me that instead of rolling my eyes when I read weekly writings from girls complaining about "drama" for the 10,000th time, that I need to have real conversations with the girls who write them. It reminds me that I should speak out against this aggression between women and girls when I see it, and try to stop myself from participating in it during seemingly-casual conversations. It reminds me to be a better feminist in my real, daily life instead of just from an activist viewpoint. The more we do every day to empower each other as women, the less this type of aggression will be commonplace for our girls.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.