Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Girls and Giftedness: A Personal Narrative AKA I am a smart lady and prefer the company of other smart ladies, so what?

To you, smart sarcastic lady friends! Making life worth living since (at least) 1994.

Via Jezebel, I finally made myself check out this story that's been floating around the webernets about how some people are alarmed that there are more girls in New York City schools' gifted programs these days. As in, more girls than boys. Like 12% more, according to Sharon Otterman's NYT piece. I mean, maybe it's because I went to liberal arts college where the lady population was pushing 60% or maybe because I'm a man-hating feminist, but I can't really bring myself to care. Oh no! Girls succeeding! Must be something wrong! Because, I mean, wasn't it like, not that many decades ago that these gifted programs were probably dominated by boys--if they existed at all? And don't they admit that before they put the current testing in place, gender equality required that different (easier) standards be applied to boys?* I know there are issues with standardized testing being used to measure any sort of real-life intelligence, particularly with children who haven't even started kindergarten, sure. I also really resist the idea that little girls are somehow innately more advanced verbally and better at sitting quietly, though the statistics do APPEAR to show this to be the case.** Whatever the reason, though, more girls are testing into these programs.

Maybe one day I'll have a son and care more, but I can't say that some smart little boys having to hang out with a majority of girls doesn't really sound all that detrimental to me. But see, that's what I don't get about all this Christina Hoff Sommers nonsense about wars "against" boys. I also don't really believe that teaching methods really have changed that much since the pre-feminist era. I think classroom teachers have always valued kids who sit still, pay attention, have good verbal communication skills, can work well with others, etc. The fact that girls are now surpassing boys academically in the early years probably has far more to do with not being told how stupid girls are all the time than with any radical change in approach by teachers.  Yes, I do think it is problematic that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioral and/or learning disorders, to not finish school, etc. There really should be no measurable gender difference when it comes to these things, and I'm not denying that these issues deserve attention and solutions. But not at the expense of girls.

Because guess what? I was one of those well-behaved, advanced-reading little girls and not only did our school district's gifted program help make easy, easy elementary school bearable, it also put me into contact with lots of other awesome, smart, weird little girls--some of whom I'm still friends with today. That's where I learned that female friendships beyond the fourth grade could be about more than playground boyfriend dramas and more about making up crazy stuff together. Sure, there were boys at EXCEL (a once-weekly pull-out program for third through sixth-graders) but there were always at least a few more girls in each class. For the most part, the boys were pretty socially awkward. I don't remember ever having a crush on anybody from EXCEL, though I had plenty on boys from my regular school. By the later years, fifth and sixth grade, we mostly just ignored them. I started to build up a group of girl friends who were AWESOME. We spent our recesses enacting commercials for ridiculous fake products or dressing up in wigs and costumes and holding meetings of the "Grandmas' Club." Or during class, when we were all probably high off of all the rubber cement we used to put together or own newspapers, we made up elaborate stories about how I was dating Albert Einstein or we'd (mostly) good-naturedly make fun of our one friend who was still wearing patterned leggings in sixth grade. In some ways, we were just the most socially adept kids there, so we gravitated towards one another. But at an age (pubescent, I suppose) when girls at school and on the soccer team and even at church were getting meaner and meaner to each other, we found in one another a place where we could just be silly and too smart for our own good and being at the top of the EXCEL social ladder (not that there was much of one) meant that nobody would be making fun of us. (Though we may have made fun of some of them behind their backs. There were a lot of WEIRD kids, there, people.)

At the height of our EXCEL group's awesomeness, I was rejected by my former best friends back at my regular school. I had other friends, don't get me wrong, but it still hurt. I started hanging out with other nerdy smart kids from my own school in the library during recess, avoiding all the interpersonal dramz of the other kids and playing Scrabble and helping decorate the seasonal bulletin boards. Though I did morph into a big bitch during seventh grade like I'd been infected by a virus on my thirteenth birthday, I always stuck with the nerdy kids. By eighth grade, I'd embraced an unabashedly weird and nerdy persona--wearing my parents' old clothes from the basement, putting tootbrushes in my hair for decoration and pretending with my one friend that we were aliens from another planet with X-Files character nicknames. (I believe I was "Chupacabra.") Anyway, I acquired guy friends along the way (a number of whom eventually came out), though most of them didn't stick. I didn't really date until college, but in some ways I didn't really mind. Sure, I wanted a boyfriend and had crushes, etc. But I also developed a core group of wacky, smart, hilarious girl friends whose company was better than anybody else's I knew.

This is all to say that while it is unfortunate that there may be boys falling through the academic cracks, there's not actually anything wrong with there being more girls in a gifted program. Learning to develop strong female friendships that were far more focused on fun than on boys in a low-pressure social environment like EXCEL was for me (as I remember it, anyway--Julia and others may beg to differ) completely integral to my eventual feminist awakening. I long knew that I preferred the company of ladies, especially a certain type of quirky, smart lady, but it wasn't until I became a feminist that I realized a big reason we were friends was not just because of our devastatingly awesome levels of sarcasm, but because we were all girls who knew what it felt like to be the smartest person in the room, to resent other girls who sacrificed being interesting for being attractive, because we were all little proto-feminists and we didn't even know it. I've lived in a few different places in my life, and I always feel most comfortable once I've established a network of awesome lady friends. Ones who I can be relaxed around, mock movies with, and compete to be the funniest, not the sexiest. A girl-heavy gifted program experience was an early lesson that girls didn't have to all be the same, and we certainly didn't have to be, you know, "that girl."

*OMG, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. BTW, Jarzen has feelings about "special rights" that shall be conveyed in video form very soon. As in, as soon as I get around to editing it.

**Obviously, I know girls mature faster by the time puberty hits, but I can't help but wonder that perhaps this apparent disparity of studiousness between genders at ages 4-6 could be caused by parents and caregivers encouraging certain behaviors. If a boy roughhouses and a girl wants to read a book, those activities are praised or at least tolerated. The other way around, adults start getting nervous and give off signals that the behavior is perhaps gender-inappropriate, even if they don't explicitly say so. This may turn what could be a small difference in general gender-based temperament (still skeptical on this one, but then again, I don't have kids which apparently disqualifies me from having opinions about parenting or children or the cultural representations thereof) into a very real gap by the time they start school.

1 comment:

  1. I wish there was an EXCEL for 20-somethings.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane (yes, I said that)

    - Your one friend who was still wearing patterned leggings in sixth grade