Hall Pass

I noticed I had been tagged by a former high school student on Facebook a few days ago. “While looking for pictures of my Daddy in some old memory and picture boxes that I forgot existed,” she began, “I came across this WHS [Woodruff High School] artifact that became the deciding factor on whether or not I was punished with demerits for a week out of every month.”*

She posted these pictures of the artifacts, hall passes from my class:

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The high school where I taught English for 18 years was the same high school I had attended. By the time I was reaching the end of my time there, the school had morphed into an extremely authoritarian environment—demerits issued to students for being late to class, simply going to the restroom during class (for any reason), eating in class or chewing gum, and the usual assortment of what most people would deem disciplinary issues such as fighting or causing a disturbance during class (“holding court” and talking back being the major offenses).

These strict rules meant some students found themselves issued in-school suspension (ISS) for nothing more than very minor infractions, such as needing to use the restroom several times.

As this student noted, and as is typical of school dress codes, for example, these policies were very harsh and disproportionate for young women during their menstrual cycles:

I was 15 years old and hated getting demerits for needing to use the restroom. (you know——that unfair rule that is a blatant disregard for females and the needs we biologically have zero control over. The one that punishes females because periods refuse to schedule themselves around a 12 minute break or that 4 minutes we were given to change classes.) 

Early in my career as a teacher, which began in the fall of 1984, I recognized that teaching English was often about far more than reading, writing, and literacy. My classroom, my teaching, and the school environment—all of these projected daily lessons to students about who they were and who they should be.

Frankly, I found those lessons to be extremely problematic.

One principal allowed prayer over the intercom and boldly announced that he would be proud to be punished for flagrantly breaking the law—all while expecting students to meticulously follow every rule imposed on them by the administration and teachers.

The first decade of teaching, in fact, taught me that formal education is often a way to reflect and perpetuate the very worst aspects of sexism, racism, and classism grounded in a community. In my doctoral program, I came to recognize I had been thinking and practicing critical pedagogy without any real awareness it had a formal name and philosophy.

But the restroom pass, I think, and how I navigated school and classroom rules with my students stand today as (using my former student’s language) powerful artifacts of a more basic grounding for how formal education and teaching should be guided—maintaining an awareness of and respect for basic human dignity among all students.

While the school policy for restroom visits mandated that all students were turned in for any trip during class, I initiated a policy that allowed students simply to take a prepared pass (see the artifacts above) and go to the restroom if needed, no demerits issued. Students did not need to ask and were expected to leave and return with a minimum of disruption to class.

I explained my policy and stressed to students that it was their responsibility to honor what I was offering—that using my policy to sneak a smoke, vandalize the restroom, or simply to wander the halls would put them at great risk of being punished harshly if caught by another teacher or an administrator. In other words, I could offer grace from embarrassment and demerits, but I could not control what happened once they left my room.

Throughout much of those 18 years, I was almost daily reprimanded by administration for not issuing demerits for students coming late to class, using the restroom during class, and eating or chewing gum in class. This was stressful (and petty, I felt) and genuinely helped bring my career as a public school teacher to an end.

Human dignity and professionalism also cannot be partitioned.

Another aspect of how I managed my class in opposition to school rules I found dehumanizing and (using every chance to teach) draconian included that I always explained to my students that I was not sneaking or hiding my practices as a teacher from anyone. I was openly challenging these rules and I was also willing to pay the consequences.

Once the assistant principal and athletic director/football coach stood at my door and began to yell at me since several students were eating while working on their essays. That day, I walked out of the class, past him, and to the principal, explaining what happened and noting it needed to be the last time it did.

How can we, I asked, expect students to maintain a level of behavior, tone, and deference to authority that the people charged with authority in the school flaunted daily?

I simply have never been able to separate my personal aversion to hypocrisy from my roles as teacher, coach, or parent. As I have noted in posts before, I had a sign on my wall that read: “Any fool can make a rule and any fool will mind it” (Henry David Thoreau).

The more I taught, the more I recognized that my role as a teacher of literacy was about power and human autonomy. I could not compartmentalize classroom discipline, interacting with students, and the so-called ELA curriculum from each other.

Ethically and philosophically, all of my behavior as the teacher and as a person had to be consistent with the ideals I believed in—central to that being the need to respect the human dignity and autonomy of the students assigned to my class, and all of the students in our school.

Of course, over 18 years, I made many mistakes in both how I treated students and in my teaching; I failed students from time to time as people, and I did occasional great harm to reading and writing (sigh).

But much of the time, my classroom was a safe haven for young people to be honest and genuine, for learning to be a community experience, and for lessons that were healthy and fair but not simply about Nathaniel Hawthorne or writing literary analysis.

And my classroom was a work-in-progress, searching for ways to meet Paulo Freire‘s idea of teacher/student working with students/teachers as well as creating my teaching role as authoritative, not authoritarian.

Reading the Facebook post from a former student, written 20 years after the fact, helped me understand that the hall pass was more than a loophole or a pass to use the restroom. It was a pass for a student to be fully human as a 15 year old young woman.

How often as adults, especially in schools, do we deny children and teens access to their humanity as if they need a pass for that? As if each of us is not born with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

When we as adults are charged with roles of authority, our first directive should be always to see and to hear the humanity of those assigned to that authority.

It has been two decades since I left teaching high school, and one of my students reached out with kindness and once again taught me a lesson.

And a reminder for me as a person and a teacher: “But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.”


* The full post reads:

While looking for pictures of my Daddy in some old memory and picture boxes that I forgot existed, I came across this WHS artifact that became the deciding factor on whether or not I was punished with demerits for a week out of every month.

I feel like I need to make this confession——20 years later. When you were my teacher in tenth grade, I accidentally brought this hall pass home in my coat pocket on like the first or second day of school. I had every intention of returning it and apologizing for the accidental theft, but I was 15 years old and hated getting demerits for needing to use the restroom. (you know——that unfair rule that is a blatant disregard for females and the needs we biologically have zero control over. The one that punishes females because periods refuse to schedule themselves around a 12 minute break or that 4 minutes we were given to change classes.)

I wasn’t searching for a loophole, but a loophole found me. I held onto to this hall pass for my entire sophomore year. I went from having to attend Saturday school regularly to have demerits erased to stave off ISS to never getting another demerit.

This hall pass did the same thing my junior and senior years. I used to look at it and remember there was at least one teacher at WHS that refused to enforce such bullshit. Tonight I looked at it and saw a symbol of how indoctrinated and conditioned we are/were to the archaic rules and punishments that infringe on our very basic needs.

Thank you for being a teacher that absolutely refused to punish girls for having functional ovaries.

Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments: Reading and Writing Beyond Gilead

Becka said that spelling was not reading: reading, she said, was when you could hear the words as if they were a song. (p. 297)

The Testaments, Margaret Atwood

“How did Gilead fall?” Margaret Atwood asks in the Acknowledgements, noting that The Testaments, set 15 years after the main action of The Handmaid’s Tale but drafted 30-plus years after that novel, “was written in response to this question” (p. 417).

Even a writer of Atwood’s talent and success probably could never have imagined that Handmaid has become the cultural and political touchstone that has occurred with the rise of Trump and the popular Hulu series.

Those who found Handmaid in the late 1980s to be powerful then and an extremely compelling work of fiction may be skeptical about Atwood’s very late return to this now modern classic. For both the newly converted and the long-time fans of Atwood, I want to assure you all that this much delayed sequel pays off quite wonderfully.

I came to Atwood as a teacher—specifically high school Advanced Placement Literature and Composition—and then as a scholar. I have also grounded a tremendous amount of my academic and public work in Atwood’s fiction and non-fiction.

With efforts here, then, to avoid as much as possible spoilers, I want to highlight a few of the ways in which Atwood maintains elements from Handmaid while also extending her writer’s urge to connect literacy with empowerment and attaining ones full humanity.

The Testaments offers the narratives of three women—notably including Aunt Lydia from Handmaid. In both novels, as is common with Atwood’s fiction, the narrations are both lending a voice to those often unheard or silenced and working as meta-narrations about the nature of truth when stories are told, retold, and examined (both novels end with Gilead being  the focus of academic scholarship).

Much of Atwood’s fiction is an exploration of what it means to tell and retell stories.

Names and renaming are also prominent in the sequel, dramatizing the power of names and (re)naming as those processes disproportionately impact women in the service of men and patriarchy.

Handmaid details the end of the U.S. and how Gilead comes into being, although much of that is limited to what Offred could have known as a handmaid. Then, many of the finer details are revealed in the Historical Notes, a scholarly examination of Gilead well after its fall.

Testaments broadens the perspectives by including one voice from an inner woman of power, a woman mostly trapped in the upper levels of the Gilead machine, and another view from outside (Canada) that is both somewhat naive and deeply cynical.

These testaments piece together a well established Gilead for the reader and also document the theocracy’s final days. Some of the most compelling elements here are the full development of Aunt Lydia and the careful examination of two characters being groomed to be Aunts (after narrowly avoiding being wed to Commanders).

Part XVII: Reading Room serves as an excellent example of where Atwood excels in combining many of the thematic and narratives elements of her dystopian speculative novel. Aunts are women designed within Gilead to control other women; Aunts are embodiments of a sort of paradoxical authority, including their legal access to reading and writing.

In their journey to becoming Aunts, Agnes and Becka—who have bonded over their fears of being married to a Commander—take on a mentee (Agnes)/mentor (Becka) relationship since Becka has learned to read and write well ahead of Agnes. The motif of reading and writing is emphasized near the end of the novel, and Gilead, I think, to highlight the power of language.

Agnes struggles:

My reading abilities progressed slowly and with many stumbles. Becka helped a lot. We used Bible verses to practise, from the approved selection that was available to Supplicants.. With my very own eyes I was able to read portions of Scripture that I had until then only heard. (p. 297)

These scenes reminded me of Atwood’s deft use in the original novel of Commanders reading scripture to the Wives and Handmaids, with the reader alerted to what Becka soon reveals to Agnes:

The day came when the locked wooden Bible box reserved for me would be brought out to the Reading Room and I would finally open this most forbidden of books. I was very excited about it, but that morning Becka said, “I need to warn you.”

“Warn me?” I said. “But it’s holy.”

“It doesn’t say what they say it says.” (p. 302)

This echoes in Handmaid when the Commander reads the Bible before the Ceremony with Offred:

The Commander pauses, looking down, scanning the page….We lean toward him a little, iron fillings to the magnet. He has something we don’t have, he has the word. How we squandered it once….

For lunch it was the Beatitudes….They played it from a tape….The voice was a man’s….I knew they made that up, I knew it was wrong, and they left things out, too, but there was no way of checking. (pp. 88-89)

In both novels, Atwood reveals that whoever controls the word maintains power. These novels should remind readers that throughout history, learning to read has been carefully controlled—who is allowed, who is not, and who remains so burdened with living that to read seems a luxury.

And so Agnes gains a sort of consciousness along with gaining literacy: “Being able to read and write did not provide the answers to all questions. It led to other questions, and then to others” (p. 299).

As Becka cautioned, Agnes confronts that “[t]he truth was not noble, it was horrible”:

This is what the Aunts meant, then, when they said women’s minds were too weak for reading. We would crumble, we would fall apart under the contradictions, we would not be able to hold firm.

Up until that time I had not seriously doubted the rightness and especially the truthfulness of Gilead’s theology. If I’d failed at perfection, I’d concluded that the fault was mine. But as I discovered what had been changed by Gilead, what had been added, and what had been omitted, I feared I might lose my faith. (p. 303)

This awakening in Agnes born of her learning to read and write leads to a larger theme for Atwood: “Once a story you’ve regarded as true has turned false, you begin suspecting all stories” (p. 307).

And in Testaments, “Beneath its outer show of virtue and purity, Gilead was rotting” (p. 308).

As compelling as Atwood’s motifs are in their deconstructing of history and the present, The Testaments if no mere “protest novel,” which James Baldwin rejected, explaining:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality….

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in the insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended. (pp. 17-18)

Atwood doesn’t stoop to simple Continue reading

Isn’t This What School Should Be About?

My chest swelled and I cried when I opened the text: “Her artwork is displayed in the hallway.”

Skylar 5K artwork

“Her” is my granddaughter, Skylar, in her first few weeks of 5K in the rural primary school serving my hometown. Skylar is biracial and her parents are divorced; her school sits in a relatively high-poverty area of Upstate South Carolina, about the 11th most impoverished state in the U.S. and a deeply inequitable state by economics, race, and gender.

Usually, still, Skylar climbs onto my lap or beside me on the couch, just to be physically against me; I often hold tightly one of her small feet or she hooks an arm through mine as if we are tumbling through space and she needs to make sure we are tethered together forever.

This past weekend I watched her play at a bounce house and party facility, there for my grandson’s (Brees) third birthday party. Skylar ran with earnestness to maintain pace with a some of the children, her friends, but balked at a few of the bounce houses.

She stood nervously at one before turning to me and asking, “Is it dangerous in there?”

At another bounce house earlier, she initially refused to go in, shuffling up against my legs and softly telling me she didn’t like it. Later, she scrambled in, and as she had on another trip there, became trapped so an older boy went in to help her.

She crawled out crying.

As I looked at this artwork of hers, I was reminded of the weekend party, the bounce houses and peer pressure that proved to be nearly unbearable delight and fright for my dearest granddaughter who I love far too much.

When my daughter began to light my grandson’s birthday cake, Skyler warned her to move the cake back with “Remember. Safety first.”

Skylar, you see, already exhibits some of the anxiety and hyper-awareness I know all too well. She is a deeply sensitive child who is powerfully drawn to and deeply wary of the world she inhabits.

She inspires in me as my daughter did the urge to lift her into my arms and hold her close to me. Forever.

Of course, that is not love and that is not even remotely desirable since it would be an act (literally or metaphorically) of denying this beautiful girl her full and complicated life.

As my existential self-education taught me, our passions are our sufferings; if we seek ways not to suffer, we then must abandon our passions.

My precious Skyler will hurt in her life, be disappointed in very real ways. That’s being fully human.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that she like all children in the U.S. is being handed a country that remains far too calloused about children, girls and women, and the many inequities that much of the country simply pretends do not exist.

I am disappointed and even angry, however, that the schooling she can expect is almost never like her artwork being displayed in the hallways but more like a prison, or a hospital.

As I told a class last night, her 3K, 4K, and 5K experiences already contain assessments of her “readiness” and how well she meets standards—and ultimately, she must meet the demands of being on grade level for that most important grade of all, third.

Many loving, kind, and gifted teachers will work uncritically as agents of this terribly flawed educational system even as they show her their love and kindness. School, then, will be one of the things I cannot protect her from, one of the things that will hurt her.

Despite Skyler’s disadvantages of race, gender, and a fractured family, she has what Barbara Kingsolver calls a “family fortune” in the love and care offered by both sets of grandparents and access to race and economic privileges in that extended family.

I often look at Skylar and Brees, recognizing that Skyler will mostly be viewed as white (although people routinely mention her tan, even in the dead of winter) and Brees will mostly be viewed as black.

Sky and Brees

Their lives will remained colored by the centering of whiteness in the U.S., again something I cannot protect either of these children from.

Skylar will be pushed a little, or even a lot, behind boys just because she is a girl, and will likely grow up to earn a fraction of those some young men who more often than not are just a fraction of her.

So my heart ached at the bounce houses as I walked around just to keep an eye on her, just to be there when she wanted to say she was feeling shy or afraid.

And I cried when I saw the artwork now hanging in her school.

I am trying very hard with my grandchildren and reminded of the speaker in Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”:

…Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world.

And then the end of Smith’s poem, mixed as it is with tortured optimism:

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

As I look at the artwork of a 5-year-old child, I am left with a question as well: Isn’t this what school should be about?

Teaching First-Year Students Includes More than Disciplinary Content, Skills

I have two vivid memories of my father—one when I was an older child, the other when I was a teen.

Walking down Main Street of my hometown, my father and I stopped to talk to an adult, and when I didn’t respond with the obligatory “yes, sir,” my father slapped me hard across the face.

Years later, my father was playing in a pick-up basketball game on our home court with my teenaged friends and me. During the game, I crossed the respect line with him and he turned to once again hit me hard across the face—in front of all my friends.

I was raised that children were to be seen and not heard, and all child interaction with adults had to include “sir” and “ma’am.”

Eventually as I grew into roles of authority—teacher, coach, and parent—I took on a much different lesson than my father had intended; I am extremely informal in my clothing and speech, and I avoid formal situations like the plague (because they literally make me feel ill, triggering my anxiety).

Especially as a teacher and coach, I have always worked very hard to treat children and young people with full human dignity and respect; that is something I always wanted as a young person, and those adults who showed me that respect remain important in my life.

In short, while I think all people regardless of age should treat each other with something like respect (for our collective humanity, but not roles such as authority), I also believe that anyone in a position of authority should earn the sort of trust that comes with that authority.

I don’t want students to respect me as their teacher simply because of my status, but because I have the qualities that position represents, characteristics that they in fact respect.

As the academic year is beginning again for many of us in all levels of education, these thoughts were triggered by a Twitter thread and a powerful piece on inclusive teaching.

The thread began:

And some of the replies include:

And then I added:

This exchange, I think, fits well with Sathy and Hogan’s framing of inclusive teaching:

Besides teaching content and skills in your discipline, your role is to help students learn. And not just some students. The changing demographics of higher education mean that undergraduates come to you with a wide variety of experiences, cultures, abilities, skills, and personalities. You have an opportunity to take that mix and produce a diverse set of thinkers and problem-solvers.

Teaching inclusively means embracing student diversity in all forms — race, ethnicity, gender, disability, socioeconomic background, ideology, even personality traits like introversion — as an asset. It means designing and teaching courses in ways that foster talent in all students, but especially those who come from groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Since I currently teach two first-year writing seminars and typically have several first-year students in my other courses—and I have been working directly in several committees on diversity and inclusion at my university—I see a strong connection between every professor’s role in teaching beyond what the academic obligations are in each course and the discussion of students emailing professors.

This is especially true for helping students transition from high school into higher education.

My university is a selective liberal arts college with a relatively homogenous student body, often white and relatively affluent.

Although I came from a working-class background, my students tend to function in ways that would make my father proud; they are quite deferent and formal with professors.

Unlike my own upbringing, their ways of navigating adults and people in authority have more to do with spoken and unspoken rules about social capital; none the less, they tend to do the face-to-face “sir” and “ma’am” routines flawlessly.

However, these students often have limited experiences interacting with teachers through email so the concerns raised in the Twitter thread are elements of my teaching I have had to develop once I moved from teaching high school English into higher education.

Here I want to emphasize that something seemingly as superficial as teaching students how to email professors can and should be a central lesson in fostering student awareness about diversity and inclusion.

As I noted in my Twitter response, I have been properly checked in the past about my own tendency to be informal. For women, people of color, and internationals, academia often remains a constant reminder that anyone not white and male exists in marginalized spaces.

Women faculty report often that students and others seeing them in their department spaces assume these women professors to be secretarial staff; people of color have reported equally erasing experiences with similar interactions.

The micro-aggressions of sexism and racism accumulate and overwhelm over time; these experiences do not envelope the profession and lives of white males, who receive immediate deference and assumptions of “Dr.” and “professor.”

The casual email to an early-career women professor sits in these moment-by-moment micro-aggressions while white men of academia can foster low-key and informal relationships both face-to-face and through email with their students; but the latter is one more example of the advantages of privilege.

Yes, I will talk to my first-year (and all) students about emailing their professors. I will couch that in discussing, for example, that student evaluations of teaching (a process first-year students also have little or no experience with) have been shown to perpetuate sexist and racist attitudes by students and then to further entrench sexism and racism (as well as xenophobia) in the academy through tenure and promotion processes.

We will address as well respectability politics and how to navigate that against the norms of student/professor interactions.

Class session will also include exploring “Ms.” versus “Miss/Mrs.” and the rise of gender neutral, singular uses of “they” and people’s pronoun preferences.

My broad goals as a professor in all of my courses attempt to meet Sathy and Hogan’s charge that our teaching is about more than disciplinary content and skills, and that our teaching must be for all students, not simply those who already match our biases and assumptions.

For me, then, I seek to raise my students’ awareness, as opposed to seeking ways for them to acquire a set of skills that I mandate for them.

I want my students to recognize that they are always political beings, interacting with and negotiating a world driven by power dynamics (many of which are historically and inherently inequitable).

Women, people of color, and internationals—whether students or faculty—cannot take vacations from who they are and how that status fits into a world normalized as white and male.

Those of us white and male, unless we make efforts to do otherwise, can function as if our privileges do not exist; they can be invisible to us.

I have deep and personal reasons for wanting my students to interact with me in informal ways that include all of us treating everyone with dignity and kindness. I still shudder a bit at “sir” and even “Dr. Thomas.”

Ultimately, I am not asking my students to adopt some mandate or even to take on a veneer with their professors. I am introducing my students to greater awareness about how all humans interact and how those interactions conform to (or resist) conventional assumptions—norms that are likely to be inequitable, likely to perpetuate sexism, racism, and xenophobia unless everyone becomes aware and actively resists those norms.

All of this, I think, speaks to the first “common question” about (resistance to) inclusive teaching answered by Sathy and Hogan:

I don’t teach about diversity. What does diversity have to do with my course, and why should I care? 

Some instructors make the mistake of equating inclusive teaching with introducing current events or “diversity issues” into, say, a math course. Of course you should offer diverse content, texts, guest speakers, and so on, where they’re relevant, and there’s been plenty of talk about that in academe. But when we talk about teaching inclusively, we choose to focus on the teaching methods that apply to all courses.

In short, all students and their teachers are always navigating political spaces in the formal classroom, and all teachers at every level are obligated to teach inclusively because of that reality.

The first-year student often walks, speaks, and writes through their lives thoughtlessly. My role as their professor is to give them the opportunity to pause, step back, and begin again with purpose and awareness—as a human who wants and deserves their humanity dignity and as a human seeking to live their lives in ways that honor that in everyone else.

Breaking the Gender Codes of Dress Codes

A popular meme in the wake of even more mass shootings makes a powerful, if somewhat hyperbolic, point:

Image result for girls clothing in schools more regulated than guns

DAVID MACK/BUZZFEED NEWS via TeenVogue

With most formal schooling restarting now, the dramatic consequences of gun violence is more likely to overshadow the more subtle negative and disproportionate impact of dress codes, especially on girls and young women as well as black and brown students.

When I raise the topic of dress code early in my foundations of education course, where students are required to tutor in a nearby school once a week, the young women invariably respond in ways that confirms what research has shown about the gender inequity of dress codes and how they are applied.

An early-career high school teacher and I were discussing her school and the new year starting with a different principal; she noted that principal is taking a different approach to the school’s dress code, specifically focusing on applying the existing code uniformly and more strictly.

She is concerned about the strictness, knowing that dress codes and their implementation tend to target girls more harshly than boys and perpetuate slut-shaming culture as well as placing the burden of “proper attire” on those girls instead of addressing toxic masculinity and sexism among the boy students. However, the consistency, she thinks, will be welcomed and much better for the students and the teachers.

Her next comment was important for me since she plans to ask the principal to re-examine the dress code next year, stressing that administrators and teachers need to explore the purposes of that dress code as well as the details (including the gender inequity likely in the current code).

This discussion spurred in me a more nuanced way to think of dress codes in the context of both the #MeToo movement and the rise of pronoun preferences and greater gender sensitivity in, especially, formal schooling.

I have always been skeptical of and resistant to dress codes in schools or in the workplace. I find the broad message about clothing to be superficial. But I also have rejected school dress codes because of their sexism and racism, and how they perpetuate blaming girls/women for boys/men being sexist and abusive.

Now, I want to consider if dress codes can be created and designed to work for equity by, as the teacher above suggests, first having administrators, teachers, and students clearly defining the purposes of the dress code, keeping in mind elements of equity and not simply the traditional focus of dress codes on discipline and compliance.

Next, writing a dress code that is gender neutral is an essential step that is also a valuable exercise for administrators, faculty, and students.

While searching to see if gender neutral dress codes exist, I found this from Roanoke County Schools in Virginia and this from Gender Inclusive Schools.

A final element in transforming from traditional dress codes that perpetuate inequity to equitable dress codes must include maintaining data and evidence on how the code is implemented as well as who is impacted by the implementation.

Equity and community not only can be but also must be a part of the codes that govern public institutions; formal education that claims to be in the service of freedom and democracy cannot achieve those goals when the codes and rules work against that freedom and shared ideology.

Breaking the gender codes of dress codes is more than rejecting them if we can agree to create new ones that recognize the humanity, dignity, and autonomy of all students, teachers, and administrators.


Sample Dress Codes

Evanston Township High School’s student dress code

Eastside High School dress code

Boys can wear skirts under Taiwan school’s gender-neutral uniform plan

See Also

‘It’s About Power’: D.C. Students Seek To Remove Bias In School Dress Codes | WAMU

Students Want to Know Why Girls’ Clothing Seems to Be More Regulated Than Guns

NEW: Comic Connections: Reflecting on Women in Popular Culture

In the U.S., Where the Female Nipple Is More Dangerous Than a Gun

Things Fall Apart for Women (Again): Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks

My closest reading friend is a young woman in her 20s, an English major and high school English teacher. Recently, she asked me with a chilling earnestness, “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

The question was prompted about my home state of South Carolina because I was telling her about finishing Red Clocks by Leni Zumas—simultaneously with hearing about the impending possibility of Tennessee passing essentially an abortion ban.

Like nearby Georgia and Alabama, Tennessee is poised to join a movement across the U.S. to overturn Roe v. Wade; South Carolina Governor McMaster has guaranteed to join that movement.

Zumas’s novel has drawn comparison’s to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because of its powerful but disturbing near-future speculative fiction rendering of the U.S. post-Roe v. Wade.

Red Clocks tests readers’ comfort with near in her speculation about the life of women after a complete abortion ban in the U.S., including a Pink Wall that denies those women access to abortion in Canada.

Zumas has Atwood’s gift for incisive language—along with Pink Wall, the Personhood Amendment and the Every Child Needs Two law—and setting the novel in Oregon seems an allusion to Ursula K. Le Guin, who famously sparred with Atwood about labels such as “science fiction” (which Kurt Vonnegut wrestled with and against), “speculative fiction,” and “fantasy.”

Once I finished reading, I felt the most compelling aspect of the work is Zumas’s deft blending of allegory (the central characters and rotating limited narration through the Biographer, the Mender, the Daughter, and the Wife, reminding me of Jeff VanderMeer’s techniques in his Souther Reach Trilogy) with stark relevance to now.

Zumas includes as well a recurring fifth key, although tangential, woman to the narrative, “[t]he polar explorer Eivor Minervudottir”—both a sparsely detailed would-be subject of the Biographer and a representative of the lost women of science (her great work of research eventually published under a man’s name because Sir George Gabriel Stokes in a rejection letter explains it is “a paper which, it is patently clear, you did not write”).

Ultimately, as a reader, I wondered if this prescient work of fiction had presented too sharp a blade for exposing the historical and current burden of simply being a woman, a burden inextricably tied to being sexual and reproductive beings.

Had, I asked, Zumas failed James Baldwin’s litmus test about protest novels?

Along with supporting the politics of the narrative and the work’s relatively overt nudges toward activism, I found the novel a rich and excellent work of speculative fiction because the more I read, the more I was drawn to keep reading. That compulsion was firmly grounded in the characters, flawed often but always sympathetic in a wide range of ways linked to both their unique personal qualities and how they share as well as highlight the many ways the world (and U.S.) remains hostile to their simply being women.

When I stumbled in my reading of this novel, it was the limited third-person narrative that drifts into a sort of stream of consciousness and (like in Atwood’s work) a thin whiteness to the focus that makes me nervous the work can too easily be discounted as the sort of work some white women do that is hyper-feminist to the exclusion of admitting that race and racism cannot be separated from the fight for gender equality.

Zumas and her novel, I think, easily rise above these concerns, again because the politics and prescience are incisive and the narrative and characters are expertly wrought. Above all else, I wanted to remain with these characters because I genuinely cared for their lives and their dilemmas, often intertwined directly but always shared by their womanhood.

[spoiler alert]

The Wife, for example, pulls together many of the feminist thematic elements  in the novel. She frets about her labia, her empty marriage, the possibility of suicide, and her personal ennui grounded in forgoing her law career to be a mother—all while she positions herself to have an affair with a colleague of her husband.

While the affair never materializes (at the pivotal moment when she thinks it will happen, she has to confront, “He does not want her”), the Wife does finally initiate leaving her husband and her marriage, a scene that ends ominously:

The wife kneels on the path.

…She reaches for the black earth.

Her body yearns, inexplicably, to taste it.

Brings a handful to her lips. The minerals sizzle on her tongue, rich with the gists of flower and bone.

…Bright minerals. Powdered feathers. Ancient shells.

And then there is the guilt of being her own Self as well as a member of the tribe of women, the allegiances to both in conflict. While attending the trial of the Mender, represented by a former friend of the Wife from her law school days, she confronts that guilt:

Has the wife become a person who believes all accounts?

Sort of, yes, she has.

She has been too tired to care.

The Personhood Amendment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the calls for abortion providers to face the death penalty—the person she planned to be would care about this mess, would bother to be furious.

Too tired to be furious.

This Brave New World closing in on the Mender, the Daughter, and the Biographer in direct and terrifying ways has, to the Wife, mostly not been about her directly, a wife and mother of two living rent-free in a family home.

Navigating the Wife in this novel was parallel to the bitter pill of a majority of white women voters choosing Trump—sacrificing the good of women for the perceived personal comfort they have in their own lives.

However, the Wife’s fear of change is only nearly paralyzing since she ultimately, it seems, takes the initiative toward a new life, one less secure and more directly jeopardized by the erasure of women’s rights.

The story circles back from the opening focus on the Biographer and her subject to the closing chapter that concludes the novel with the word “possible,” reminding me of Adrienne Rich’s work and Atwood’s framing of speculative fiction:

“I’m an optimist,” the decorated Canadian author explained by phone to Wired.com during a tour for her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, published in September. “Anyone who writes this kind of stuff probably is. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t waste your time writing the books.”

I am afraid, none the less, and haunted by my reading friend’s question: “What happens if we have to move because it becomes too hostile here for women?”

What will any of us do? What are any of us doing now?

The Matrix and the Failure of Diversity

Several years ago, I wrote a confessional and tongue-in-cheek poem about having watched The Matrix a full 13 years after its release.

My childhood and adolescence had been fully steeped in science fiction—including my mother’s love of mid-twentieth century B-movies that often blurred science fiction and horror as well as Star Trek. However, just as I resisted Star Wars, I somehow never gave into the cultural phenomenon of The Matrix trilogy until 2012 when the films ran on my cable service, and I became hooked.

That initial viewing, as I explore in the poem, left me focused on how The Matrix trilogy often has at its core the Hollywood compulsion toward relatively formulaic love stories, but the films also pay homage to nerdom—or what may (dangerously) be interpreted as an endorsement of misogynistic male fantasies often embraced by incels and social media trolls.

As a child and teen, I moved from science fiction B-movies to science fiction novels and then comic book collecting. I have left none of this behind, but I also have had to confront how science fiction and superhero comic book narratives are often deeply problematic in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

The Matrix trilogy, however, may seem at first glance to be in many ways a revolt against these flaws. The Wachowski Brothers, now trans women identified as The Wachowskis, gained their fame for the film franchise. With the racially diverse cast and high-profile women characters, these films may appear to be bold efforts at diversity.

However, as I have been rewatching the films recently, the trilogy remains despite some of the surface features a white savior narrative—sitting among other movies such as The Martian and Gravity.

Image result for the matrix

Despite its iconic place among science fiction films, The Matrix trilogy remains a white savior narrative with Neo as the constant center. (Sygma via Getty Images)

One way to unpack a film’s gender diversity is the Bechdel test, and these guidelines help viewers recognize that many of the high-profile women characters remain merely in orbit around men—notably Neo and Morpheus. Expanding similar tests to race exposes that while the films are visually diverse (consider the slow-motion orgiastic scene in The Matrix Reloaded), the characterizations and narratives remain primarily normative because The Chosen One is Neo as white savior.

The Matrix trilogy proves to be the Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas of diversity initiatives because the films address only empirical diversity (not substantive diversity) while reducing that diversity to the service of racial and gender norms centered on whiteness and men.

Three Types of Diversity—and Why Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

In the U.S. where whiteness and being a man are centered, the first type of diversity is similar to how The Martian and Gravity as films work as if race and gender do not exist in any expressed way. In other words, the centering of whiteness and being a man are not acknowledged and rendered normal, and thus correct or best. Often the mask used in this type is to call a narrative or character “universal.”

A second type of diversity exists in organizational efforts designated as diversity initiatives, such as those commonly found on university campuses. This second type most often resembles The Matrix because the manifestations of these diversity initiatives tend to be limited to rhetorical outcomes (mission and diversity statements, etc.) and superficial goals (hiring or admitting people who can be labeled “diverse,” etc.).

This second type can be dangerous since it does not disrupt the status quo of centering whiteness or being male but seems to be diverse; this second type can also spur open hostility to diversity as well. Those who unconsciously or consciously oppose diversity as a goal tend to confront the superficial possibilities of diversity initiatives by asserting “We can’t just hire/admit diversity for diversity’s sake”—a claim that can seem credible if not fully unpacked (ignoring, for example, the long history of people being hired because they are white or men).

As I noted above, this superficial diversity allows lifting identifiable diverse people, Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, to positions as a nod to diversity even as those so-called diverse people work against the interests of marginalized people. Carson claims racism no longer exists, and Thomas works to dismantle the affirmative action that he benefitted from in his career.

Yet, the Republican Party can point to these men as proof of diversity in the party.

A third type, the elusive type, of diversity in which both empirical diversity exists—we can see black and brown people, and women in roles and positions disproportionately dominated by white men—and their status actively de-centers whiteness and being a man.

During the current 2019 women’s World Cup, we may be witnessing something close to this third type in the person of Megan Rapinoe who is centering being a world-class woman athlete (deconstructing the “plays like a man” narrative and among women teammates demanding equal pay for their performance) and gay:

“To me, it’s literally all the same, insofar as I want people to respect who I am, what I am — being gay, being a woman, being a professional athlete, whatever,” Ms. Rapinoe said in the article. “That is the exact same thing as what Colin did.”

For films, or any art, and organizations claiming to seek diversity as a goal, then, there is much more involved than simple empirical diversity.

The Matrix trilogy remains an iconic work of cinematic science fiction, and much about the narrative breaths life into traditional frames, such as the white savior, in ways that we can enjoy and even praise.

But the success of The Matrix also depends on a lazy public, one awash in the first type of diversity and occasionally tolerant of the second type. There also is a great deal of flash and visual spectacle that makes The Matrix appealing—and ultimately dangerous like Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas.

Even for those of us who have affinity for The Matrix trilogy, and the resurgence of admiration for Keanu Reeves, we must be able to confront the failures in this series in terms of diversity and then admit we can, and must, do better.