Every spring, seventh-grade students immerse themselves in the world of Maycomb, Alabama as they parse the complexities and power of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Considered a foundational text through which to explore the damaging impact of Reconstruction-era white supremacy, segregation, and Jim Crow practices, To Kill a Mockingbird also has a great deal to say on the subject of gender. Scout, Lee’s young protagonist, subverts the expectations assigned to her gender in myriad ways through her attire, comportment, and values. Shirking the expectations of a “lady,” Scout faces numerous obstacles to the development of her authentic self, but none hit home quite so harshly as the pressure applied by her beloved brother, Jem.
Students wrinkle their brows, bemused, reading Jem’s increasingly gendered insults --“Scout...shut your trap or go home -- you’re gettin’ more like a girl every day” or “Scout, sometimes you act so much like a girl it’s mortifyin’!” These comments go uncorrected and unacknowledged in 1930s Maycomb and challenge Jem’s seemingly unbreakable bond with Scout. Students question the nature of Jem’s comments - what does it really mean to be a girl, and what makes the “condition” so insulting? - and, fortunately, in our 21st-century classroom, immediately recognize and discard the limitations of stereotypes assigned to girls and women.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an antiquated text in many ways, but something about the disparaging “You’re such a girl!” commentary still holds water today. I know, as do my students, that the comment is designed to wound, to reveal weakness or inadequacy, even as we all intellectually acknowledge the stereotype’s ridiculousness.
When I work with middle school students, it is both easy and helpful to reflect back to my own experience as a Peck student. To a large degree, I know firsthand the lived experiences of these students and, more specifically, can understand the pressures, expectations, and realities faced by the young people I teach. Given the very unique pressures assigned to women, I strive to be the sort of champion for my female students that my teachers were for me. Teachers such as Sue Sweeney, Laura Caruso, Jim Cross, Lulie Edie, Helen McPherran, John Murray, Don Diebold, Julie Skinner, Mary Courtemanche, and many others instilled in me a strong sense of self and of capability. As I moved through adolescence and grappled with questions about identity and my place in the world -- Who do I want to be? How can I be a good friend and recognize when others are good friends to me? How can I better understand others’ perspectives? -- my Peck teachers supported me through the struggle with affirmation, warmth, accessibility, and steady, high expectations.
As a young woman at Peck, I learned quickly the value of authenticity, compassion, and a powerful voice. Peck wove a narrative in which I could be exactly who I was: I could be big, bold, and could take up space. As an adult, the lessons learned through middle school hold fast today. The examples set by strong mentors and teachers at Peck have allowed me to practice courage and vulnerability as I hold my full self up to the light, despite any risks involved.
I am a huge fan of the work of Brené Brown, a social worker, research professor, and author known widely for her study of shame, vulnerability, empathy, and courage. Brown’s work draws heavily from a famous Theodore Roosevelt quote entitled “The Man in the Arena.” As Roosevelt states, and Brown echoes, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who strives valiantly...who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” Though I’m inclined to exchange the pronouns, Peck taught me to dare greatly at a time in which young women my age were not encouraged to do so as overtly as they are today. Because of Peck, I stepped into the arena and challenged myself to remain each day, open to the potential criticism and possibility that arises from honoring your true self.
Rereading To Kill a Mockingbird for the seventh time now, I wonder how much we all are, as little kids, just like Scout. We are all curious, rambunctious, bold and brave - we all have an innate desire to, as Brown and Roosevelt state, “dare greatly.” We all chafe against limitations assigned to us, to the labels that clip our wings. I am fortunate because the education and teachers Peck gave me emphasized who I was over who the wider world told me to be. Peck remained the arena within which, as a young, middle school girl, I could bring my whole self.
Today, teaching at Peck, this community remains one in which I can bring my whole self. Peck has evolved in ways big and small size my 2005 graduation; our commitment to character, to educating the whole child, and to supporting our students through the struggles and successes inherent to middle school life remain timeless. I hope that I can inspire my students to bring their whole selves each and every day, too.
To visit the Peck News digital companion to learn more about Stretchy Goal at The Peck School, visit www.peckschool.org/pecknews.