In the midst of a national showdown pitting #ConfirmKavanaugh vs. #BelieveSurvivors, I attended kindergarten back-to-school night.
The disconnect was jarring.
My soul raged against a political system that belittles and attacks women who come forward, as their civic duty, to share stories of sexual assault, while my body was present in a kindergarten classroom that was a pictorial display of innocence.
An orange stuffed animal in the shape of the letter "I" (his name was Ichibod) slumped over in the front of the classroom. A Velcro wall hanging reported that the weather that day was "Sunny!"
Try as I might, I couldn't escape gender politics, and the dominance of male prominence, amid the buckets of markers and glue sticks.
The culprit: Sight words and gender pronouns.
Allow me to explain. My daughter’s teacher handed out the lists of sight words our children would learn throughout the year. These are words that students are expected to read immediately upon sight — no sounding-out allowed.
I just wanted my 5-year-old daughter, and her peers, to be as literate in recognizing "she" as they are in recognizing "he" on sight.
Included in the first list are such foundational words as "I," "the," "of," "see" and "and." I scrolled through the weekly lists, perhaps gunning for a fight.
The pronoun "you" showed up on the second list.
"He" on list 3.
"It" on list 4.
"His" on list 5.
I skimmed further, searching for "she" and "her." I couldn't find them.
At the end of the evening, I approached the teacher and asked when our kids would learn to recognize "she" and "her" on sight. I downplayed my query by saying I wouldn't be a good feminist if I didn't inquire. I threw in friendly — but forced — laughter for good measure, an attempt to put the teacher at ease. I realized that even though I write and think and conduct research on gender, I am still vulnerable to the stereotype that one who consciously brings gender into social (and educational) settings is a bleeding-heart liberal with no sense of humor, trying to enforce a stifling political correctness.
Meanwhile, I just wanted my 5-year-old daughter, and her peers, to be as literate in recognizing "she" as they are in recognizing "he" on sight.
We continued the conversation over email, where I learned that "she" and "her" appear only after students master the initial six lists of sight words. Since students work through the lists at their own pace, and since the kids are tested only once every few weeks, these kindergartners — as a cohort — will be more literate in male pronouns and possessors for months before they learn their grammatical female counterparts.
I needed to do better not only for my daughter, but also for this generation of youngsters entering the machinations of their formalized education.
We are teaching our children that maleness comes first.
At a time when gender is at a state of heightened intensity for these littlest learners (good luck trying to get a gender-confirming girl into a grey winter coat, for instance) what may seem like a "no-big-deal" hierarchical ordering of gendered words does in fact signify a broader social issue: Maleness is dominant. So much so that it's taken for granted that "his" can appear on list 5 while "she" does not have her debut until list 13.
Maleness is so authoritative that when we question why, for instance, “he” or “his” appears well in advance of “she” and “her,” I worry that my concern can be dismissed (oh relax, don't you have other things to worry about?), belittled (stop getting so worked up about kindergarten!) or even explained away — as in the case of my best friend, who when I relayed this story to her, pondered: “Maybe the list is alphabetical?” (It's not.)
We are teaching our children that maleness comes first. We are teaching them to be more literate in male-related words, to default to male as the preferred and more widely recognized pronoun and possessor. These 5-year-old students are learning to make their way as students in a precarious time. But words do matter. Hierarchies matter. Power is embedded in both.
This story has a happy ending, fortunately. My daughter’s teacher thanked me for bringing this to her attention, and said that moving forward, she'll present the gendered words together, more equitably. She told me that as a sociology major, she recognizes the subtle messages that shape our perceptions of the world.
And through the kindness and grace that perhaps only a kindergarten teacher possesses, my daughter's teacher did not once correct or condescend or mention that I misspelled "sight" throughout my email to her.
It may have been too late to save my pride, but it's never too late to learn a lesson.
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