Eighth Grade Girls

They were lined up outside of the library in their khaki skirts and Camden Forward School shirts, not returning my smiles and clearly bored with life. When I told them we were going upstairs so I could spend some time with them I received looks that only eighth grade girls can deliver, and a couple of “well what if I don’t feel like it?” replies. “That’s the funny thing about school,” I quipped, “sometimes you just don’t have a choice! Now up you go…” And up we went.

Eighteen of them in all, some sitting upright and attentive, some with backs to their desks with the message – I am NOT engaging with you! – as I handed out a questionnaire about boundaries. One girl sat right in front of me, face like stone. One of the compliant ones read the first paragraph: “Countries have boundary lines for which you must have permission before you can cross. People have boundaries, too…” The questions that followed asked for examples of school boundaries (aka rules), boundaries others set, parent boundaries, differences in boundaries by gender – about 10 questions in all. As they completed it (or ignored it) I wrote some categories on the board.

First I asked about school boundaries – BIG mistake. They are in eighth grade, after all, and SO DONE with this school. “Uniforms – can’t wear pants!” “Can’t touch ANYONE!” “Can’t sit near a boy” “Adults can get in our business but we can’t get in theirs”…whoa! Enough with that! I felt I was losing control, but at least interest was blossoming on faces.

Next – “How about boundaries others set for you? How do you know if it is ok or not to interact with someone?” Now the hands were going up faster than I could call on them and attitudes were dissolving. We discussed nonverbal cues, including the messages they give with facial and body positioning – so crucial to understand as they prepare to attend different high schools in the region.

Of course, the question that generated the most interest – no heads down now, faces fully animated – was that of gender differences with boundaries. That’s once I gave them the prompt to talk about what happens at home or on the street, rather than at school. “I have clear rules about who can and can’t do something. And I say it,” asserted a few. I countered: “But what about the latest research I read? It said that some girls who may be the most assertive in school, or with their family and friends, often go silent and don’t speak up for themselves if it’s with a boy they like. They become submissive and allow things to be done to them that feel wrong because they so desperately want to be in a relationship.” This struck a chord. Heads nodded, stories were shared that illustrated this. The room was quiet for the first time.

“The question is, do we love ourselves enough to speak up for ourselves? Do we know that we are valuable regardless of whether or not we are in a relationship?” And just then it was time to go. I left not knowing for sure whether I connected with them.

It was tempting through the 45 minutes to bark at them, demand attention and indeed to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” But I remembered to ask the better question – to myself – “What’s happened to you?” This is an age group that is preyed upon by gang members. Men in their early 20s whistle and cat call at these young women with their rapidly maturing bodies. When a girl of 13 or 14 receives positive attention like this, especially if at home she does not, saying yes to a guy is not difficult to imagine. Again I found myself wondering what their individual ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) scores (see previous posts) would be.

I received a text from principal Mrs. Baker later that afternoon – “They loved you!” she wrote. “They asked when you will be back!” OK, I’m in. What messages can I get across in the short time I will have with them this week and next? I had better make it good.

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