Using our Voice

As is often the case for me, I was sorting through papers (oh, the endless supply of paper!) and found something I wrote early in 1994.  To give some context, Leah was in first grade, Dan was in pre-k (daycare at the Albany Jewish Community Center) and I was working full-time for the state Department of Taxation and Finance.

January 24, 1994

Leah ready for t-ball in 1994

Leah came home from school saying she felt sad. After talking about it for a bit, Leah explains that she feels left out – her teacher isn’t paying that much attention. She gives a concrete example of an oversight by the teacher. She ends by asking, “Would it be okay if I told Mrs. Brennan that I feel left out?”

Sometimes Leah asks really hard questions. On the one hand, I am pleased that she is willing to consider the possibility of speaking to the teacher herself. I couldn’t imagine having the confidence to do that – fearing rejection or humiliation. On the other hand, I am concerned that Leah not come across as whiny and demanding. It is also a reality that children who are capable will not get the close attention that those who fall behind get.

The other issue is that Mrs. Brennan has been teaching the class for only one week – since the original teacher went on maternity leave. I urge Leah to give her a chance to get settled.

Leah doesn’t heed my advice. Good for her. She spoke to Mrs. Brennan the very next day in fact, telling her she felt sad and left out. She tells me she feels much better and has no complaints for the remainder of the time Mrs. Brennan handles the class.

I later learn from Mrs. Brennan that she had been overcompensating with Leah – consciously not attending to her out of concern that she would be showing favoritism. She said her heart sunk when Leah approached her.

So, Leah’s instincts were right. She spoke for herself and resolved the problem. What a great lesson! I hope she always has that ability to speak up for herself – to get her needs met. What a terrific skill – but there are certainly going to be challenges ahead. How will she fare in adolescence when attitudes towards girls change? She will need to be strong to retain the identity she seems to be carving out for herself now. I hope she has the strength. I will try to support her. So much pressure to conform, though, to not be difficult…She is a treasure – a hope for the future. Keep your fingers crossed.

—————————————————————

I read what I wrote and I have to smile, remembering how precocious Leah was. (When is it you stop being precocious, anyway? Safe to say she wouldn’t be described that way now, almost 30 years later). But, she was always attuned to her feelings and could put words to them, even as a two-year old!

I would take issue with at least one of my observations. I’m not sure that children who fall behind get more attention. As I watched my kids go through school, I think it is more accurate to say that children at either ends of the spectrum, those that are most capable and those that are truly behind get more attention, and the ones in the middle most often get overlooked. But, maybe you can’t make generalizations about any of that.

My fear that things would change as Leah got to adolescence were well founded. Things did change. Perhaps as much because Leah, like most girls, became much more focused on her peer group when she got to middle school. The approval and acceptance of friends became more important than the judgment of teachers. She still wanted to do well in school, but negotiating her social interactions absorbed most of her attention. Those relationships were much more fraught and complicated than her communication with Mrs. Brennan. Her self-confidence definitely took a hit in those middle school years. If only things could have remained so straight-forward!

Things may have gotten more complicated, but like her mother, Leah retains her voice. Like me, in settings where opinions are solicited or being shared, she is not shy. Her father and husband, among others, can attest to her strong-mindedness.

I do think some progress has been made for girls, especially compared to my mom’s and my generation. I believe girls have taken incremental steps toward expecting to be heard and respected in different settings – school and the workplace particularly. We haven’t arrived at equality, obviously, and there is work to be done in improving the lot of both men and women, but I believe things are better for my daughter and granddaughters. I hope they will continue to take steps forward.

3 thoughts on “Using our Voice

  1. Those middle school years really were challenging. I remember for Daniel and I, they sometimes involved hiding away while we watched the Mets game and waited for things to calm down. Pretty rough stuff. While I cannot pretend to know what it is like to be an adolescent girl, it is obvious that it is a truly difficult time and the way we are viewed and judged by others affects us.
    We hope to give our children the foundation and support they need to survive the difficult times even if it is not entirely unscathed. I must say I am so grateful for the strengths that Leah has been able to muster and the incredible support you have been for her. It ought to be easier.
    Thank you for the insightful blog post.

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  2. As always, I loved reading this blog. I agree that the children in the middle are the ones to typically get lost. I also remember Leah’s gift as a young child to act assertively. Remember when she asked, ever so nicely, for Dale to move over so she could see the TV? She was probably 3 or 4 but she understood her needs and was able to communicate so appropriately. When she was pre-schooler, she could have held workshops for adults on how to be assertive .

    Like

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