…because some thoughts are worth remembering
There are things that happen that are so emotionally powerful we can’t digest it all at the moment they happen, like a death of a close friend or a birth of a child. Some emotions are also complex, so much so that they are hard to grasp even intellectually.
As I get older and learn to articulate my beliefs and develop ideas, I start to remember things that I couldn’t comprehend at the time, and was too young to realize that they were something that could be understood given time.
Being in Silicon Valley, being an advisor for Astia.org, an organization that advocates for women entrepreneurs, and reading the troubling trends in lack of gender diversity in tech companies, I recalled a day in elementary school.
I attended an international school but being in Japan, they also tried to accommodate Japanese practices, such as having a graduation ceremony. Usually, two top students are given the opportunity to address the teachers and the families, and then fellow classmates. In my year, a Danish girl was the valedictorian, and I was the salutatorian. But our teacher announced that there should be a male student speaking also, so a special title was created for the top achieving male student. He was given the title class representative.
Even as a child, it didn’t sit well with me. I remember going home and relaying the information to my mom as a point of information. I think their response was something like, “Oh, the Pakistani boy”. I don’t think I knew that I was upset about it because why would I be upset? I just felt funny. Not funny like “ha, ha” but funny like “it’s strange, isn’t it?” but no one else thought it was strange. To this day, when I remember the elementary school graduation, I think more about the day when the teacher made the announcement for a class representative and not the actual graduation day.
It was much later when the memory was accompanied by a followup question, “would the teacher have created the class representative position if the top two slots were occupied by male students?” Then I would venture a guess, which was “probably not” and then I would try to recall the graduation ceremonies I remembered from a year before and after mine.
After leaving Japan, I wondered how much of the decision was influenced by the Japanese social norms (i.e., if the school were not in Japan, or if the teacher were not of Japanese nationality, or if there were no Japanese parents the teacher had to deal with).
When I started teaching high school, I read research that showed that teachers asked factual yes/no questions of female students and reserved the more challenging and exploratory questions of male students, regardless of the gender of the teacher. My memory was then accompanied with another follow up question: “if the teacher were female, would it have been any different?” It’s a hypothetical question I can’t verify.
As I read through “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, who advocates that women who have achieved power to exercise that power to challenge and improve the existing institutional frameworks, I sure hope that if I were the teacher, I would think long and hard about what I would do, and if creating a class representative position would be helpful and if the decision would be the same whether the two top students were male or female.
Photo: Flower on Route 66 (Arizona, I think).