Coming of age – the journey from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood—has never been easy.
The search for companionship, fellowship and love can be complicated by issues of gender identity, sexual orientation and sexuality.This particular time in our society (that of the American coastal urban elite), makes this process both easier and more difficult at the same time. Young people are left no less confused than their parents were, but they are facing a different set of conflicting signals. Schools have to decide what our role should be in preparing these young people to become adults who are ready to have healthy and fulfilling relationships with confidence in their gender identity and sexuality.
Let’s start with the good news. No previous group of young people has had a better environment in which to realize their gender identity and sexual orientation. From an early age, this generation of children have heard from family, school, and even the society at large that gender identity is not binary, but rather on a spectrum. They have friends with same-sex parents. By the time they get to high school it is normal to know someone who is transgender in school or a peer group. And while there are powerful forces that still insist that binary gender identity is “normal,” the structures of these adolescents’ lives are primed to be supportive of their desire to be who they really are.
We have recently entered an era where those who use their power to abuse and exploit people sexually are being held to account. #MeToo has inspired people of all ages and genders to say, “Enough is enough.” Young women and men can increasingly see more examples of people being supported when they stand up and say “no more.” These adolescents are coming of age at a time in which a substantially different rulebook for acceptable behavior is emerging and this is where things start to get confusing for them, as well as for their parents and their teachers. The good news is that the rules protect us; the bad news is that no one is quite sure what the rules should be.
The Internet and social media add further complexities. Just as the open rules of life have become more affirming of individuals and their rights and choices, the private life of the Internet and social media have become more fantastically erotic and sexually exploitive. Pornography in its most graphic forms is accessible to boys and girls before puberty. Social media, with its ability to disinhibit, has become a place where kids of all ages expose themselves, both literally and figuratively. No previous generation has come of age having seen and done what this group has. It is no small wonder that they are confused about what their roles should be and how to develop healthy loving relationships.
How then should a school respond? Schools like ours have always had a character/values mission, so there is no question that we should be responding. The bigger question is how the school should craft a program over a 14-year period that will be relevant in the lives of our students as they become adults. We must first distinguish what is eternal in the human condition and what is part of the ephemeral mores of contemporary culture. Second, we should also distinguish which elements should be taught by way of maintaining a healthy community climate and modeling, and which should be introduced in class and developed over years, in a spiraled curriculum, as the students mature. Because the school does not exist in a vacuum, it is important to recognize that the ideas we espouse can seem counter-factual to the very people we seek to educate (in a way that nothing else the school teaches seems) and therefore, we cannot rely on the accepted moral authority of teachers’ influence on students.
The relatively easy part of the exercise is maintaining a healthy community climate. From an early age, our students see positive gender models that run counter to stereotypes. We are blessed to have a core group of men in the early years, who are both superb teachers and great role models for both boys and girls. They also see strong women in positions of power and responsibility at every age. The Board of Trustees is led by a woman. Three of the four Division Heads. Four of the six Deans are women. The way the men and women of Grace treat each other-- both in front of, and away from, the students--affirms that all of the professionals accord each other great respect. And in those rare instances where this is not the case, we are a community where the appropriate person feels empowered to step in to stop it or change the circumstance. We know that this is not true of every community, but it is, as much as possible in a community of 200 normally flawed human faculty and staff, true here. Even with the climate we do have, we strive to do better; all of the faculty and staff will attend a specific training on anti-gender bias during the next three years, so that we are all operating with a shared knowledge base and vocabulary. This has the added benefit of demonstrating to students that we practice what we preach.
We have developed an extensive program for our students that explores a range of topics from developing a positive identity to choosing healthy relationships as part of their classroom experience. We give over the most precious currency in a school — time — to help our students develop a strong, positive and affirming moral code. This is time we could otherwise give over to any of the important academic subjects we teach, but we believe that this is of much greater and enduring value to every student. If we had to pick a spot to identify the beginning of the program, it would be with the small groups in second grade who meet with the counselor beginning in the spring. The next step is “Roots of Empathy” in grade four. The Health and Wellness program begins in earnest in fifth grade, and by grade six we move to helping students establish clear personal boundaries and understand what constitutes harassment. In grades seven and eight, we bring in a partner organization called Hallways to help us, in the belief that they add credibility to the admonitions about issues with the Internet and social media. While it is a fact that middle school girls commonly share naked or scantily clad pictures of themselves on social media and middle school boys post misogynistic comments, that fact does not make it good or normal. An outsider can more effectively deliver this message than a familiar face from a “clueless” older generation like the millennials. That these behaviors occur widely does not make them right; an outside witness helps make that credible.
High school takes place at a time in life when only a century ago most young people were already marrying and procreating. Sexual desire is a normal part of human life. As a society, we have extended childhood in the post-industrial age, but we have not turned back the clock on human development. The complexity of the students’ feelings and experiences moves to a new quantum; all the while we are trying to keep teaching, mentoring and directing. In ninth grade, we partner with “Prepare,” that conducts a 12-hour program with every ninth grader on how to recognize the difference between a healthy and an abusive relationship and how to deflect or resist unwanted sexual advances. The Health and Wellness program continues through twelfth grade and culminates with a course in college life skills in the spring. Throughout the years, at the heart of the program is a discourse about what is healthy and contributes to a positive self-concept and how to recognize what does not.
The tone between the students and the school, particularly in what is seen to be tolerated or prohibited by the school, is the most important part of the students’ experience. The answers we seek as we navigate the fuzzy lines between creating a safe space absent of objectification and allowing students the freedom to express their gender identity, rely on a continuing conversation between students and adults that is based on trust and mutual respect. I believe that we have that in this community, and, because of that, we are sending students on to the next stage better prepared to step confidently into adulthood.