…and some boys, too, but I got a bigger kick out of watching the girls hear Ani for the first time (and Dar Williams and Amy Ray).
It was a lesson on annotating literature, but I used music instead. The kids listened to a CD, reading the lyrics as it played, and wrote down their reactions. I threw in some not-mysogynistic-if-not-totally-radfem Kanye and Jay-Z amongst the lesbian icons, then sat back and watched everybody listen and jot.
Those who grokked Dar’s When I Was a Boy really grokked. The guy star of our dance troupe got tears in his eyes and said, huskily, “I love it.” The lesbians seemed pleased, as did the militant bisexual, but they were shy and no one said much beyond, “She was, like, a tomboy? And she wanted to climb trees? But then she grew up and had to look good all the time?”
One of the football players asked, “Is she, uh, a transgender who’s gonna become a man now?”
“Probably not,” I said, “but you’re in the right ZIP code, if not the neighborhood.”
Then I asked them to look at some of the lyrics more closely:
When I’m leaving a late night with some friends
And I hear somebody tell me it’s not safe, someone should help me
I need to find a nice man to walk me home
So I tell the man I’m with about the other life I lived
And I say, “Now you’re top gun, I have lost and you have won.”
I felt like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, trying to get anything out of them. Everyone was suddenly shy. So I asked the boys to search their memories for a specific occasion.
“Think back to the day someone told you to stop skipping and picking flowers and helping your mom bake cookies,” I said. “Think back to the first time someone told you to be a man and not cry. Try to remember who told you, and how you felt when you saw that if you didn’t behave a certain way, there’d be trouble. You’d have been somewhere between the ages of three and seven.”
A few of them nodded in recognition, except for Sensitive Romantic Poet Guy. “I cry all the time,” he said, and looked around to see if the girls liked that.
Then I asked the girls to remember the first time they realized they couldn’t do something they wanted — walk in a certain neighborhood late at night; wear a short skirt without being catcalled on the street; date more than one guy without being called a slut — without suffering consequences. Then I listed more things because my head was flooded with them: Remember the first time someone told you not to act too smart around boys; that girls suck at math; that there should be three diamonds of open air between your legs when you stand up straight, or you’re too fat.* Remember the first time your best friend started ignoring you because she met a guy. Remember when you realized that your mother worked and did everything around the house, too.
I told the girls there was another day coming: the day they got so used to doing a split-second evaluation of every man they got close to that they’d forget they were doing it. I didn’t use the term Schrodinger’s Rapist, but I narrated my own internal evaluation: Is this guy OK — not just “nice,” but safe to be around? Does he mean me any harm? Can I be alone in a room/an elevator/a parking garage with him, or not? All these questions, I explained, would become as unconscious and as natural as breathing. Because they are about survival, as a woman, in this world.
The only girl who claimed not to feel that way was the militant bisexual. She’s a bit contrary. Also, SHE HAD NEVER HEARD OF ANI DIFRANCO. I set her on the path of punk-folk Righteous Babe-ness via Google and await the results with great interest. I give it six weeks ’til the first tattoo.
*October, 1988. Girls’ bathroom just off the high school cafeteria.