When I was a kid in gradeschool, we had gym class once a week, weather permitting. We didn’t have a gymnasium, but we used the parking lot outside to play games. I used to look forward to playing kickball with the boys, who usually refused to let us play with them during recesses. When I was in the fifth grade, though, something changed. Someone had a brilliant idea to teach the girls ballet, indoors, while the boys went outside for games. We could hear them outside, yelling and running, having a great time.
Ballet was not optional. Dressed in our plaid uniform skirts with attached modesty vests over plain white peter-pan collared shirts, we moved our desks aside and stood in ranks. Our teacher, Mrs. Christman, would demonstrate the postures that we were to emulate. She would smile a sticky-sweet, gracious, ladylike smile, and say, “Smile, ladies, gentle smiles…”
I especially hated it. I dreaded it: the boredom, the stifling heat of the un-airconditioned classroom, the awful ballet music, and that simpering woman. I resented being a girl because that meant we were not allowed to play any games or go outside. Reluctantly I went along with the program.
On a hot Indian Summer afternoon, we were opening the windows, preparing for ballet. I remember watching through the windows as the boys ran outside. I said out-loud, “Wouldn’t it be nice if, just this once, we could play kickball instead of ballet?” It wasn’t even a real question, it was just thinking aloud.
Mrs. Christman glared balefully from her place at the front of the classroom. When two other girls said, “Oh yes, please, can we?” she said to me angrily, succinctly pronouncing each syllable, “If you do not want to participate with the group, Shannon, you may sit out in the hall.” I blushed bright red as the other girls looked at the floor. But I answered back, “Mrs. Christman, we don’t like ballet. We want to play kickball with the boys.” She strode to the door and opened it, saying, “You can sit here in the hall and think it over. If you would like to join us, you may. If not, you can spend the period by yourself.”
For a few minutes after she shut the door, I sat on the floor and wondered what was wrong with wanting to play kickball. And although she had humiliated me in front of the other girls, mostly I was just happy not to be practicing ballet! I found a book that someone had left under the coat rack, and started reading it. It was dim and cool in the hallway and I was enjoying myself until Mrs. Christman opened the door to check on me.
Furious, she snatched the book from my hand, ripping the cover. As I sat stunned on the floor, she ranted and threw the book, yelling, “We do not get to read books while others are practicing ballet. What is the matter with you? Are you stupid? I am so sick of your attitude…You had better just sit there and not move one inch until I come out to get you, do you understand me…” I looked at the peach and green tiles on the floor and did not reply.
* * *
Every other girl in my class is a young lady, but this one refuses to comply with my rules of comportment. A girl should want to comb her hair and come to school in a neatly pressed uniform, and appreciate the opportunity to become a lady. This one prefers to arrive at school smelling of the horse barn. She simply drives me crazy.
But this, this was the last straw. There she stood with that defiant expression, looking me straight in the eye, “Mrs. Christman, can’t we play with the boys, just this once? Why do we have to do ballet when we want to play kickball?” There is always that argumentative look on her face. Why, when I told her she could to sit in the hall, she glanced at the other girls, then glared at me and walked out of the room. When I checked on her later, I found her sitting cross-legged on the floor, her skirt behind her (how many times have I told her to sit on her skirt? How many times must I tell her it’s not ladylike to sit like that?). She was totally engrossed in a book, clearly enjoying herself when I meant her to be punished. I snatched the book from her hand and the cover tore (it was children’s biography of Thomas Jefferson). She gave me the dirtiest look I have ever seen from a child, contempt written all over her face. I lost my temper and raised my voice, “When we are being punished for not conforming, we do not get to read books and enjoy ourselves!” It was all so frustrating. She’s such a troublemaker. I’d like to throw her out of here, this spoiled little tomboy who has no respect for authority. She will learn to act like a lady, though, before she leaves my classroom.
* * *
So what made us so different from the boys? Why did we have to practice ballet while they got to play kickball? And what was so bad about asking just one time if we could do something else…
After that, I carried the sense that being a girl was an impediment. I started to feel self-conscious and clumsy, losing confidence and self-esteem with every “girl activity” that we were forced to perform and every humiliating remark from the teacher sent in my direction. She did her best to break my spirit, and she very nearly succeeded. There were no more playground kickball games, no sports at all, and many more sessions of “ballet” and the arts for the girls at school. It was a misery. I felt second-class to boys and inferior to girls who wanted to be girls. No one else seemed to know what was going on, though…instead kicking a ball, we were being kicked just for being girls. This was the year that I noticed there was a difference.
I wonder now how the other girls felt about it,
and whether or not they felt as constrained as I did. I wonder if
they still do. Because, like gradeschool kickball, life excludes
girls because they aren’t boys, much of the time.
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