Samantha: This week my side of the column is a letter to my female peers and myself.
Dear smart women:
Remember in elementary school how we spoke up in class and asked questions without stopping to filter ourselves? In junior high, a strange thing happened. We stopped raising our hands. We started becoming more self-conscious about our intelligence. We forgot what it felt like to beam with pride when we guessed right.
What changed us? Let’s start with an ugly truth about our supposedly gender-neutral society. A smart girl is not treated the same as a smart guy. At worst, he might be labeled “cocky.” A girl may be labeled controlling and aggressive. Some of us are silent because we want to be liked.
Others like being the best just as much as the boys do but remain silent because we are self-conscious. In math and science especially, we choose not to speak in class out of a fear of being wrong, when we get A’s and understand the material. We choose to treat each question as a referendum on our intelligence, worrying that others are judging us. Our inner perfectionist stops us from saying something we’re thinking because we don’t want to look stupid.
I’m not sure why we girls seem to experience this anxiety more strongly than our male peers. When my guy friends think they might have an answer, they just blurt it out even if they aren’t called on. And they don’t seem to care if they get it wrong. We whisper our guesses to each other, often lacking the guts to share them with the class.
Still others of us choose to be silent out of respect for other students. We are giving them time to think through the answer instead of blurting it out. But this courtesy is not always necessary and, in some instances, an excuse to mask a choice to hide our smarts or to avoid taking a risk.
We need to remember that, sometimes, one of us girls really is the only one who knows the answer and that wrong on occasion is as much a part of learning as being right.
Can we solve this problem? Can we change society and girls’ intellectual identities? I can only tell you what I will do. My new year’s resolution is to do three calculus problems on the board and call out two guesses in AP Physics this January. What’s yours?
Wes: Dear Samantha:
Good luck with your important goal for 2010. I’ll bother you about it along the way, encouraging you to be as excited about your mistakes and the learning they hold, as you are about your successes. It’s easy to recite those old saws — nothing ventured, nothing gained; anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new, etc. It’s a lot harder to live them out in the unforgiving world of junior and senior high school.
At the core of the problem is a reluctance to take healthy risks. That’s not only a gender issue, but an educational one. We’ve put all our eggs in the basket of grades and standardized testing, and I have terrible news for you. That’s not education — it’s just evaluation. We learn almost nothing by taking tests or getting good grades. We learn by trying, succeeding and failing and trying something different, by solving problems with unique ideas, researching what others have done and stretching their conclusions. Our schools would do well to reward kids for superior EFFORT rather than the percentage of questions answered correctly. But that’s not what schools are allowed to do. They’re on the same hamster wheel. They get graded, too, and never for their efforts.
Since that’s not going to change, its good you want to influence your peers. In a true academic environment, students are colleagues, supporting and challenging each other to think out of the box, venture a guess and try again when they crash. You don’t a change at school to make that change – though I’d challenge educators to create those kinds of environments whenever possible. And don’t forget that this goes beyond the advanced placement college-bound students. We all benefit from feeling safe when we stretch ourselves in music, art, writing, auto mechanics, welding.
Finally, Samantha, I wish all students saw education as a valuable commodity and themselves as consumers. Rather than figure out ways to dodge school, young people should demand the best education they can get. When I was an eighth-grader, my cousin graduated from Central High School in Little Rock. Fifteen years earlier, the National Guard escorted nine frightened black kids up Central’s front steps in an early civil rights skirmish. My dad led me out on to those same steps and told me the story, noting, “That’s how much those kids wanted a good education.”
Maybe today’s kids aren’t standing up for their right to learn, taking risks, asking questions, demanding they be heard, because they’ve never known what it means to have those rights threatened or denied. They don’t realize the consequences of not participating. I’m not advocating that we take anyone back to those scary times — just proposing we remember them, and the amazing chance we now have for a free quality education here in Lawrence, America.
So Samantha, I close my letter back to you with a final challenge. Remember and help your friends remember that school may be a royal pain (I thought so myself at the time) but education never is. Try and find every opportunity to get around the learning obstacles we’ve created for you — as well as the ones you’ve imagined for yourselves. It’s surprising what strength you’ll find when you set aside the irrational fear of failure and embrace it as a tool of learning.
Next week: Breaking up is hard to do. Harder than it should be.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.