In Context XI: “I-don’t-knowing,” by Melinda Tsapatsaris
I tend to adore the little things in life: A text from my mom on her 79th birthday read, “I wish we could hang right now.” When did she start saying that? Closing out a recent workshop in Oakland, a fellow participant invited us to view silently Lyla June Johnston’s video "All Nations Rise" from beginning to end. That ending. Watching native Californians eat a persimmon like an apple. Who knew? Hearing someone comment on another’s ideas as perhaps a little, “spiritually weird.” Note to self: Use “spiritually weird” in conversation at some point in your life. I love and collect miniature moments.
Usually they end there. Moving, charming, or sweet. Sometimes, though, a miniature moment haunts me.
Last spring, I had a quick, miniature conversation with two parents in passing. They briefly shared that they had been wondering about their son, who is surrounded by girls in his family, as well as feminism, girl power, and post “times-up” calls to action. They expressed that all of these are causes and messages that align with their family values. They are hearing from their young son, however, that he sometimes feels a bit left out. They are asking themselves, and they asked me: “How do we raise our son to feel good about himself, his gender, and to be a feminist in this new context of ours?”
What I wasn’t really brave enough to say at the time was, “Wow. I don’t really totally know.” What I did say was, “I’ll get back to you.” This innocent and small moment became big for me. As such, I read whatever I could get my hands on, which I do when something is perplexing me.
As a slight aside, there is a model from Visions Inc., the organization that supports our equity and inclusivity work at Westland, demonstrating the three main ways people approach change. I drew the model in my book I keep with me at all times as a reminder that everyone with whom I collaborate approaches change with one dominant tendency. The diagram also reminds me that initiatives need these three forces to sustain themselves over time.
Cognitive, which is about knowledge building, critical thinking, and concepts à head
Behavioral, which focuses on action, strategies, and results à hand
Affective, which gets into emotions, process, and self-reflection à heart
Head-hand-heart. In retrospect, while I was experiencing the parents’ query on a charged emotional level, my approach to respond (as is typical) was cognitive. The action—writing this blog—came only quite recently after I reminded myself that I don’t have to know it all at the moment. This realization became an important parallel learning that accompanied my learning about raising and educating boys.
For my research, I turned to The Marshall Memo, which is a weekly summary of interesting and important news articles which educator-author Kim Marshall curates and puts out weekly. My research led me to powerful passages. One came from Education Week article, “Helping Young Men Push Back on ‘Locker-Room Culture,’” by Jeff Frank of St. Lawrence University. Frank wrote that recent revelations of sexual harassment have made some men fearful that they will be falsely accused. This fear makes it challenging for them to understand the very small risk of being wrongfully targeted and the very real harm done to victims. “It is hard to educate someone in the grip of fear,” says Frank. “Instead of teaching men to fear #MeToo, I hope that schools have the courage to carve out spaces for men to learn about other possible emotional responses to this movement…To be clear,” Frank concludes, “the goal of this type of moral education is not to take anything away from men. Rather, the goal is freeing them from fear so that they can do the hard work of forming their sense of self in light of what they actually feel and believe, not what they are taught to fear.” This is one of many passages I took from The Marshall Memo. With this one, I particularly liked the idea of interrupting the notion that this moment in time is a “zero-sum game.” This movement is liberating and empowering for all of us. I still asked myself though: How can our boys come to understand this idea? So much of what I read was targeted towards teenagers and men.
I came upon another insight at Ellen’s Human Development Curriculum Evening last fall. At one point in the night, Ellen emphasized the importance of how we should be intentional with the language we use with our children and in front of them: “We have to be mindful about what boys are hearing. They are overhearing a lot of negativity toward men, some women generalizing about men negatively and openly in earshot of boys. We need to help boys know that most men are good, nurturing, and caring. What we are hearing about [in the news] is those that are the exception and disrespect others’ boundaries.” Ellen also went on to talk about something I’ve wondered about for years—that it oftentimes appears that the only available and acceptable emotion to men in our society in stressful times is anger. To counter this limited dynamic, we (and especially men) need to model a range of emotions that aren’t necessarily rooted in anger. Emotions like sadness, disappointment, worry, and even fear.
I recalled a scene from a movie that touched my life when I was studying how to be a teacher back in 1995, The War. It features two siblings at odds with a group of children who acted quite nasty towards them and towards the world in general. On one such occasion, the siblings’ dad caught the tail end of a violent act towards his son. Instead of responding with anger or even protective sternness, the father peacefully approached the scene and offered his son’s perpetrators a recently- purchased (presumably for his son), large, luscious pink cotton candy. I remember at the time thinking that this simple scene was Agape in action. As I think about the moment now, however, I am reminded of the empowering range of emotions available to men—and to all of us.
Ellen reminded us of another option that evening as we raise children. She invited us, from the very start of our interactions with children to model consent by communicating to our children the essential notion: “You own your body.” While, of course, hugs and cuddling run rampant in our family systems, Ellen invited us to use language such as “Can I comb your hair?” for more simple day-to-day tasks. By asking children “Can I…?” we scaffold their understanding of the more weighted conversations to come around sexual consent. (For those parents who have children in the higher elementary grades, sexual activity is just around the corner for many of them.) As I was developing my thinking around all of this in the context of the original question, another parent serendipitously reminded me of a poignant video about consent: Consent, a video that I think is developmentally appropriate for pre-teens.
As I was researching and reflecting, the original parents of the aforementioned boy were also doing grappling and thinking of their own. The father shared with me: “I was listening to NPR the other day. This speaker said (paraphrasing) ‘Climate change and global warming are a manmade problem but that does not exclude women. The solution is going to be a feminist solution but that does not exclude men.’ I thought that was a good way of putting it and puts a more general mentality to a word like ‘feminism’ that allows it to apply to a broader range of issues beyond women's rights. I'm going to take the liberty of explaining to my kids that movements like feminism and women's rights are necessary for the issues for which they directly affect but also fall into a much-needed way of thinking that coincides with equality, fairness, and diversity—more so than a celebration of one type (girls) over others (boys).” The notion that climate change is going to need a feminist solution pushed and expanded my thinking. I was humbled by this radical and expansive notion in my quest to think about how we most effectively raise our boys…and how we raise all of our children.
As a leader, seeking to get comfortable with “I don’t know” is perhaps a small but significant part of a feminist solution. “I don’t know” dismantles a competitive framework of “right versus wrong” and “either/or” thinking. I remember that when John Kerry ran for president, a major flaw oftentimes pointed towards him by his opponents was that he was a “flip-flopper,” essentially that he changed his mind on important issues. I remember thinking at the time that I wanted people in my life who changed their minds on issues. It meant that they were open to shifting perspectives and didn’t dare claim that they knew all that there was to know.
Starting with the parents’ question, I went on a journey where I learned content on how to raise boys in this current context of ours. I also learned an important lesson in terms of my own leadership: I am endeavoring to disrupt an “I have all the answers” expectation that’s oftentimes expected for people in power and in leadership roles. I hope those with whom I interact see me boldly claiming: “I don’t know” with parents and colleagues, just as I know to do with students. “I don’t know” leads us to seek answers together. It leads to deeper knowledge, collective action, and emotional insight. Head-hand-heart. As ever, I am on the lookout for small moments, both of the beautiful variety and of the haunting variety. The power of collaborating—students, teachers, authors, experts, and parents alike – is what makes a school a learning community marked by question asking, knowledge sharing, and, of course, plenty of “I-don’t-knowing.” As such, we are all part of a feminist solution.