It happened in December of 2001. I still think about it. I’m not sure why but obviously, it is important or I wouldn’t still think about it.
I had just begun teaching social studies and language arts at this particular school. I had begun after the school year was underway as I had previously been teaching fifth grade in another school district. I was approved and hired but with all the hoops I had to jump through, it took about six weeks for me to start working. They actually required a one week “training” course even though everyone in that course was an experienced teacher but they paid us all to attend so, hey!
The school was a year round one so after I had been teaching for about eight weeks, I was “off track” for six weeks. It wasn’t normally like that but I had begun the year late so that’s how it worked out for me that year. While I was off track, another teacher approached me about teaching his class for him for a week. It would be off the books. I would go in and work his schedule as if I were him. That way, he didn’t use up any of his sub days. Then he would do the same for me when I needed it. I already knew that I would need three days when school resumed after the Christmas holidays because I was going to drive my son to college and needed a couple of extra days. We set it all up and I went in to work the five days for him so he could attend the five days of residency for his low residency MFA. In the language arts class, we went through the lesson plan as scheduled. Basically, the kids were editing some of their previous writing after a short lesson each day. I was supposed to be there as a resource for them and for them to come and read me their writing for help and/or suggestions. That’s when it happened.
They were writing about themselves. What did they like about themselves. What did they not like about themselves. And the whys. They were seventh graders. Girl after girl wrote about their bodies. That wasn’t the surprising part. I know girls that age are thinking about their bodies. My own daughter was their age at the time. It was how they were writing about their bodies that caught my attention. Each one, without fail, referred to their “ass” . Not their “butt” or their “booty” or their “rear” or their “bottom” or their “tush”. It was their “ass” that they wrote about. That bothered me. After all, the word “ass” is oft coupled with “piece of” and “dumb”. Merriam-Webster defines the word as a stupid, obstinate, or perverse person. I know girls (and boys) this age–10 and 11 years old– are experimenting with language. I have heard a lot of words that are considered vulgar. I don’t condone them. I don’t use them myself but I know that they are considered acceptable in certain circles.
As a teacher, I would point all of this out to my students. I would discourage the use of that word, especially to describe their own bodies. I would point out that they should hold their bodies as sacred and not disrespect them by referring to them with such language and also hold others to respect their bodies. That’s what I would do. That wasn’t what their teacher had done. I could see his handwriting on their papers with comments like “your ass isn’t that bad” or “I’m glad you’re happy with your ass”. This was a male teacher. This was a male teacher interacting with female students. He was someone that they respected and as such, he was in a perfect position to discourage the use of the word in connection with these girls’ bodies. Yet he had, by using it himself, encouraged it. And as a mother, it really bothered me that a male teacher would interact with female students in this manner. I knew that if it were my own daughter’s teacher I would definitely do something about it. It was not out of any belief that there was something inappropriate going on. It was because by not stopping this usage of the word in his class, he was condoning it and thus perpetuating the underlying meanings that this would have on the girls’ lives. I won’t try to speak for him about why he did not stop or discourage such use of the word ass in his class. I won’t put words in his mouth or thoughts in his head. I just don’t know. But by not stopping it, he was saying it was okay. And it wasn’t.
I decided that I might broach the subject with the teacher when he returned. It really did bother me. I wanted to think about what to say and how to say it without sounding like I was accusing him of something and without soundling like an old lady that was out of touch with kids. Unfortunately, when he returned, I was still off track. I did not return until after the Christmas break. And as luck would have it, on that January 7, 2002, on the first day I taught in that calendar year, on the way home from work, I was involved in a rear end collision on the freeway. The accident not only totaled out my car but as it ended up, that was the last day I was ever able to teach. My injuries kept me out of the classroom. Eventually, I realized I would not be able to return when the new school year began so I had to resign my position and so I never spoke to that teacher again.
I should have done something. I should have said something. I should have and I didn’t. I think that is one of the reasons that I can’t forget this. I am disappointed in myself. I feel like I let them down…those girls that I only knew for the one week that I was in their classroom. I can only hope that the teachers they had after that year said something. I hope that they didn’t allow this kind of word in their classroom. I think that even if they didn’t lecture the girls (and also the boys about using that language in reference to a girl’s body) but said something like “use whatever language you want outside of my classroom but it is not allowed in my class or in your assignments” it would cause the kids to pause and think about why it wasn’t allowed. It could turn into a very teachable moment. I hope someone said something. I truly hope that those girls learned not to disrespect themselves by using such language when referring to their bodies.
This was really difficult for me to write but I know that it is important. Maybe I was/am being prudish. Maybe it’s okay for them to use the word in this way. But it really has bothered me all these years. I really think that it is important to put a stop to this, at least temporarily. At 10 and 11, young girls should start thinking about their bodies as being too good and too sacred to be described in such language. It is something that will effect how they and others see themselves and their bodies in the future.
Girls are not stupid, obstinate, or perverse.
Girls are not a piece of ass.