“You can wear a dress all you like, that’s not a problem, and on hot days like today I’d even encourage it, but I will not have princesses in my class.”
I found myself uttering these words to the girls in my Year 7 Maths class yesterday morning, and realised that it’s the one thing that drives me insane about teenage girls, conveniently packaged in a verbal nutshell.
I see it every year. They come in at the beginning of Year 7, no older than thirteen and mostly younger. They’re keen as mustard, eager to learn and enthusiastic about their latest adventure. Their uniforms are clean, in good repair, and a sensible length. They wear the correct socks, little jewellery, and no makeup.
By the halfway point of the year, things are becoming blasé, and some are already showing signs of Princess Syndrome. By the end of the year, so many of the girls who started out so well have been lost to it. The skirts become short enough to be little more than long belts. The socks turn black, pink, purple or spotty. Piercings abound, and there’s enough makeup on each face to supply the entire cast of a uni theatre production for the whole run of performances.
Appearances aside, there’s the attitude component as well, and that’s the problem. They can dress like Hugo Weaving circa 1994 all they like, and it doesn’t concern me, so long as they don’t adopt a similarly ne’er-do-well attitude to their studies along with it, but that is what unfortunately tends to happen. I see two main archetypes, though there are many more minor varieties.
The Pretty Little Drip
“Oh, I can’t learn things, I’m a girl. I can’t be smart and pretty at the same time!”
I’ve hit puberty, and discovered boys. Did you know that there were these whole other kinds of people in the world? Male ones? Male ones who are suddenly really really interested in me and anyone else with two X chromosomes? (Oh wait, they didn’t pay attention to that part of the lesson and know nothing about chromosomes…) But wait – they won’t like me if I’m smart. I have to giggle inanely, bat my eyelashes at them, and wear my skirt as short as possible so that they’ll look at me. And that means they like me…. right?? But they won’t like me if they think I’m good at anything, so I have to pretend I don’t care and I’m just a dumb, giggly girl.
The Angelica Graynamore
“Would you like to hear one of my poems?”
“Long ago, the delicate tangles of his hair… covered the emptiness of my hand… Would you like to hear it again?”
“Long ago, the delicate tangles of his hair… covered the emptiness of my hand.”
– Joe Versus The Volcano
I am deep. I think I am deep. I’m so busy being deep that I haven’t realised that I’m actually being quite shallow. I write soppy poems throughout my diary and am mortally offended if anyone looks at them. I spend so much time being deep and contemplating my depth that I never seem to be able to pay attention to anything happening around me.
I find both of these quite irritating – the former in particular – and this was the basis for the above quote. I was lamenting how lovely my Year 7 Maths class was, and how it was all going to change in a few months. I begged them not to become Neanderthals or Princesses, and stop learning because of some ongoing act of silliness. “Maths,” I waxed lyrical, “Is as beautiful as a sunrise.”
I’m finding that this year in particular, I’m trying to be a more positive role model, to try to offset the inevitable pubertal learning decline that all kids seem to go through. I’ve been wearing dresses to work, and on some occasions, downright flouncy ones at that. Hair up, jewellery on, heeled shoes except when I’m teaching Science classes and swap them out for my Blundstones. I’ve been dialling up the feminine, and I have to admit, I’m rather enjoying it – as ridiculous as it sounds, walking back to the car after paying for petrol and knowing perfectly well that the guy in that car is checking you out even after two kids is something of a confidence boost.
But at the same time, I’m also being my usual self. The one that builds dioramas for the sheer fun of it, climbs over toilet walls at the swimming sports because the door is locked to get to the leaking toilet, fiddles with the cistern and stops the leak, puts together flat-pack like a boss, exuberantly tries to make learning academic subjects like science and maths a riot of eccentric educational madness, bites off more that I can chew and still manages to chew it all somehow, and fixes school furniture wherever possible in order to avoid wasting the maintenance guys’ time with minor things like that, because frankly they have enough to do without having to deal with that kind of crap.
That’s my point, kids. Boys as well as girls. You can be feminine and still be made of awesome. Smart is sexy.
In this same Maths class, I noticed that one of the table legs on the teacher table up the front was bent inwards, rendering it unstable. This isn’t hard, they’re mass-produced and not particularly strong – I can bend the table legs with my bare hands. It looked like someone had sat on it, or maybe sat and bounced a bit. In any case, I saw it from the back of the room as I was circulating. I twitched, and started moving my belongings to the floor.
“What are you doing?” asked one of the kids.
“I’m fixing the table leg. It’s all bent and it’s annoying me.” I turned the table on the side and stood on the wonky leg, pushing the table back to bend the leg back into the correct position.
It was at this point that the kids collectively started singing the Bob the Builder theme. (Have I mentioned that he’s taking over my life? My kids think he’s absolutely boss, and somehow, even when they’re not with me, he just keeps coming back… But Why even got me to set the theme song as my ringtone. Still, at least it’s a cartoon I actually like rather than tolerate…)
I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Do I look like Bob the Builder to you?”
“Ha, you’re Wendy!” proclaimed one of the girls, “Oh my God, you’re just like her!”
“Ha! Just because I have to compulsively fix wonky tables doesn’t mean I’m Wendy. Now, do your maths!”
When I had the chance to think about it, though, I decided to take it as a compliment. I mean, when I consider that character, what do I see? She’s strong, clever, extremely capable, organised, has a good sense of humour, and is equally comfortable in work gear or a dress. She’s reliable, trustworthy, patient, kind and yet doesn’t take any nonsense either. These are all really admirable qualities, and qualities which I genuinely aspire to in both professional and personal terms. If the kids think I’m like her, is that such a bad thing? Does it mean that I am actually achieving that which I set out to achieve, and being a positive role model that shows that being feminine is no handicap to being capable and intelligent, and that it is actually infinitely cooler to be that way than being a dumb Princess?
Perhaps. It’s becoming clear to me that I’m developing something of a reputation among the student population – more than one kid came to find me the day after swimming to tell me how cool it was when I jumped that wall (other than the scratch on my hand, I’d actually already forgotten about it until they reminded me) – and bringing our resident snake into my Year 7 Science class earned some respect eyes, I noticed.
That’s how it’s going to be, though. No degradation to eye-batting dumb-dumbism. Nothing is unachievable. Nothing is ‘too’ anything. You can if you try, and you should never stop trying.
Wear a dress all you like, but no princesses in my class.