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When I was a younger, small(er) person, I helped my father hang French doors in the doorway leading from the foyer to the living room. For years we had had a ramshackle system of homemade gates designed to keep kids and dogs out of the living room and away from the musical instruments and breakables. Finally, we installed real doors, which had the advantage of keeping humidity out (instruments no likey humidity), letting light in, and sealing dogs out (instruments no likey dogs). My father handed me a hammer, a chisel, and a small ladder, and showed me where to carve into the virgin doorframe. Obligingly, and with utmost care to detail, I carved 4 perfect mortises (you come to this blog to learn vocabulary, right? A mortise is the rectangular inset in a doorframe where the hinge is attached, so as to make it flush with the wood. And now you know.) for the doors. I was called “The Mortician” for longer than was funny. I was 14, or 12, or 10. The age goes down with each retelling, the point being that I had accomplished this most difficult and adult task while merely a young child.

And a girl at that. The latter point being one of my own making, I was brought up without regard to “boy tasks” or “girl tasks”, and believed I could do anything presented to me, in spite of the model my parents set in their traditional roles. Mommie cooked, and Daddie took out the trash. Mommie sewed the clothing, and Daddie changed the oil in the cars. Daddie mowed the lawn, and Mommie picked out the wall color. Mommie stayed home with the kids while working part-time, but Daddie’s paycheck kept us in our home.

Yet I grew up learning and doing without regard to gender roles. As often as I’d raid my mother’s fabric scrap heap to sew quilts and clothing for my dolls, I’d raid my father’s supply of scrap wood to find boards to cut jigsaw puzzles from. I loved mowing our huge lawn, because that was a $10 chore; nothing else compared. I was even given my very own jigsaw as a birthday present. While my brother was perched on the counter baking cookies with my mother, I was in the basement with my father hot-gluing shingles onto a dollhouse. I seemed to feel equally at home doing both mommie and daddie things.

Even into adulthood, I see my parents’ view of me as one without gender roles. My house-warming gifts from them have included a Black & Decker power screwdriver, a sewing machine, a circular saw, and an ironing board. I feel as though they instilled in me a sense that I could do anything, that Girls were not limited to pink or dolls or the kitchen.

Now, though, I struggle internally as I see, again and again, the girls slink off to their corner to let the boys do “man stuff”. When it’s time to build a set, or take one down after a play, I see the boys leap into action, grabbing screw-guns and tool belts, and the girls retire to organize the costume racks, to inventory barrettes, and to wash stinky tights. As girls, and even teens, we struggled to appear competent and willing to pitch in for any activity. In college, as upperclassmen, we shared the burden of moving over-packed freshmen into their dorms with Suburbans full of stuff. And now, these same women, of my generation (they who wielded hand-trucks in the quad), gravitate towards costumes, make-up, and cleaning and stacking chairs while the men grab screwdrivers, don work gloves, and load up the trucks.

Am I now at a stage of life – wizened as I am at 28 – that I have nothing more to prove in this matter? I know that I can help out as willingly as any man, but do I care if anyone else thinks I can? I guess I can choose now not to. I now have excuses, if I choose to use them: my wrist has tendonitis which is aggravated by heavy lifting, my left hand never quite recovered its stamina after my brain surgery, so I lose my grip, and my acid reflux flares up when I strain to move scenery or furniture. I don’t use those, though. I need to be content that it’s my choice, not my ability, that has me scrupulously categorizing foundation and eyeliner during a set strike.

At home, we help each other with everything, Mr. Apron and I. We don’t share all home tasks 50-50, because things don’t work out that way. He likes playing in the sink, so he does the lion’s share of the washing up. I prefer to guard my delicates against the mean face of the dryer, so I do more laundry. I hate fueling up my car, so Mr. Apron helps me out when he can. Tonight, we were on the way back from rehearsal, and he made a point of stopping for gas, just because he knows I will need it in the week to come. Neither of us vacuum until we’re disgusted with the state of our rugs; it’s very balanced, you see.

I think this all relates back to feminism. You can call it post-feminism, you can say that feminism is simply refusing to be treated like a doormat, you can say my husband has a bridge-brain. Whatever. My brand of feminism, or whatever it’s called, means that I know how to check my oil, and add a quart. I know how to change a flat tire single-handedly, and I own my own air compressor. I can tell a ball peen from a claw hammer from a mallet. But…I’m just as happy to let Mr. Apron check my oil, call for roadside assistance if it’s 40 below, and let my mechanic top of the fluids in my car. I’d rather bake brownies to thank the man who fixed our lopsided bed. I’d rather bake brownies, period.

If you think that means I’m still not liberated from the shackles to the stove, I don’t believe you. It still pisses me off to watch women skulk back to their defined 1950s roles when the power tools come out, but I suspect there’s a good deal of social loafing going on. Or maybe they’re just exercising their preferences. Regardless of what we women choose to be doing, I just hope we’re all secure the knowledge of what we could do.

It can be hard to be the smart kid.  It can be hard to have the answer each time the teacher asks the question, to painfully wait until the dingbat she wants to answer finally mumbles some unintelligible, yet probably incorrect, reply.  It’s also hard to understand why the teacher won’t call on the smart kid each and every time.

She’s a 5-year-old African-American girl in one of the head starts I visit.  Seeing as she’s the smart, assertive, clear-spoken kid, she’s not actually on my caseload.  Boy would that be weird.  Week after week as I sit in on interminable circle times, as the teacher threaten to make the circle last longer and longer until all the kids sit on their circles with their legs criss-crossed applesauce (no more Indian-style, folks), or else they’ll take away the promise of recess, which would actually be an antidote to all the sitting still and drilling numbers, letters, and animals sounds, I see this girl.  She always knows the answer.  And quickly.  The child I’m seeing needs extra processing time.  Count to ten after you ask him a question, and he’ll begin “umm”ing.  Count to ten again, rephrase the question, and give him a starter phrase, “I know that cows…”, and he might just give you a short, simple answer.  This other kid, however, has not learned about “bubblegum lips” as some other classes institute, and so she calls out each correct reply.  The teacher lectures her: “How do I know if Nasir knows the answer or if he’s just copying you!?”  and time after time, she goes to time out, sometimes multiple times in one circle.  The first time, she’s usually just bewildered.  Why should she get punished for getting the answer when other times, the teacher tells her to “give your brain a kiss” for having the answer?  As the time-outs pile-up, she gets tearful, withdrawn, upset.  Over time, no doubt this will have a damaging effect on her self-image.  I think she’ll stop calling out, stop raising her hand, stop trying to get the answer. 

Maybe she will learn to keep quiet.  Maybe some gracious teacher, trying to find a way to keep the kid’s trap shut, will tell her about bubblegum lips.  Maybe a compassionate teacher will sit her down and explain in real words how wonderful it is that she knows the capital of Uzbekistan, but that it’s equally important the other children learn as well.  Maybe she’ll find a role as a mentor in her class, tutoring other kids who don’t quite get it.  Or maybe she’ll just learn to shut up.  I wonder at the messages — tacit and direct — some teachers are sending the smart kids. 

Okay, I was  am the smart kid.  I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.  Even in grad school, I cringed, groaned, rolled my eyes — discreetly, quietly, under my breath — as professors asked questions no one would volunteer to answer.  The good instructors would engage us in discussion, not relying so heavily on fishing for predetermined answers, but there were always those deadly silences, those periods of time that stretched on and on, when I wished I could just answer the question so we all could be released from that purgatory.  In middle school, I did the hand raised high, “Oh! Oh!  Me! Me!”, clamping my lips together because I was just bursting with knowledge (except in history class).  Which did wonders for my social status.  In the intervening years, I’ve learned a little about restraint.  In grad school, I was worried about making my first impressions as an insufferable know-it-all, but it happened all over again.  This time, instead of being surrounded by people who hadn’t done the reading, or who had just rolled out of bed, I was instead in the midst of a sea of girls.  Say what you will about gender differences.  Who does all the question answering in classes?  Boys.  Especially in physics.  It’s just the way of the world.  I’m not saying teachers call on them more, or favor boys, or fondle boys, or any of that.  I’m just saying girls develop a wall flower mentality about showing off smarts.  And here I was in a “class” of 29 girls, and one 62 year-old man pursuing a 2nd career.  The insufferable know-it-all boy arrived the next summer, and immediately took all the scorn I’d perceived would have been directed at me. 

It doesn’t change really, from age 5 to age 25.  It’s still a delicate balance between wanting to earn your “class participation” points, needing to demonstrate your knowledge, and trying to mold your perception of what your peers think of you.  I hope this little girl finds compassionate people who encourage her, who help her develop her skills and her interests, and push her to keep raising her hand.  Middle school doesn’t last forever, and there’ll always be someone more annoying than you in college.  Usually it’s the kid who’s been told, “There are no dumb questions,” and believes it.  He’s the one who asks the dumb questions, and you’ll be able to turn your insufferable know-it-all face to the girl next to you, and roll your eyes in a knowing way.  She’ll roll her eyes back at you, and you’ll get the same satisfaction as if you’d answered all the questions yourself.

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November 2020