I ask my students to peer review each other’s papers, but before they do so for the first time, I like to give them a practice round with a paper whose author’s feelings they can’t hurt. Since the first paper I assigned this year was a personal narrative, I wrote my own personal narrative for this purpose. That narrative is below.
Before I get to it, though, let me say a few things about it:
This was a quick first draft. I wrote this in the space of an hour or two, saved it, and did not look at it again before I printed off copies for my classes. I did not intentionally “plant” any errors or issues within it for students to find; it’s an honest draft. My students asked me if I had done so, but that would have been counterproductive. The purpose of the exercise was to give students a chance to practice reviewing and critiquing a draft, just as they would be expected to do with each other’s papers. It’s not a “spot the errors” game.
It’s an autobiographical piece. This incident really did happen, and the main event appears in my memory in more or less the way I have described. As with most autobiographical writing, though, I have taken certain artistic liberties. I don’t remember exactly how old I was when this happened, nor do I remember my teacher’s name at the time. I’m 95% sure that I’m correctly remembering the classmate who said this to me, but it’s possible that I’m wrong. We certainly were never friends, but I very much doubt that he would describe me as a “nemesis” in the way I have described him; that’s a construction from my own head. I don’t remember if I talked to my mother about the incident immediately after it happened. And I don’t know that I was as cognizant then of the implications about gender as I have claimed, but I do know that it’s an incident that has stuck with me and become something of a mental/emotional talisman. It has become very symbolic of my own identity as a feminist.
When I gave it to my students, I told them that a friend of mine had written it. Only after they’d read and critiqued it did I reveal that I’d written it. Some of them had guessed that might be the case, but it did not seem to affect their ability to critique it. In fact, they did an excellent job of reviewing this and had a lot of useful, constructive feedback to give. I wish they could turn the same critical eye to their own writing, though I know how difficult that can be.
When I asked them to assign a grade to it, they offered me a C or a D. Ouch. They should be glad they don’t grade each other’s papers.
In one class, as they read, I overheard two students murmuring to each other about my favorite ghostbuster. “Who likes Egon the best? That’s ridiculous.” Poor Egon. Socially awkward brainiacs don’t get enough love. Velma was my favorite Scooby-Doo character, Egon was my favorite Ghostbusters character.
A number of my students wanted to correct “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” to “I am not afraid of any ghosts.” Apparently a disappointingly large proportion of them had never heard the Ghostbusters theme song.
And now, the narrative itself:
My parents have always told me that I can be whatever I want to be when I grow up, as long as I work hard and put my mind to it. I can be a firefighter or a teacher or a veterinarian or an astronaut or a paleontologist. I know that girls are expected to behave one way and boys in another, but I know this only in the vague way of a child for whom it has never been a real concern. At school, the boys mostly play with boys and the girls mostly play with girls, but there are always some boys who play with the girls, and some girls who play with the boys, and the segregation has always seemed to be based more on interests than gender. I move relatively freely between both groups. I play house with the girls and war with the boys. I have never been told that my gender somehow precluded me from doing something, or if I have, it has never made an impact on me. Today, it all changes.
It is Halloween. I am seven years old.
At school, every year, we hold a Halloween party. Everyone brings their costumes, and when it is party time, we get dressed up and do paper crafts and eat the cupcakes that Katie or Ashlee or Jennifer’s mother has provided.
I am particularly excited this year because of my costume. I know I can be anything I want to be, and what I want to be right now, more than anything, is a ghostbuster. This is my costume, and it is awesome. I have a stylish khaki jumpsuit with the Ghostbusters logo on the breast. I have a PKE meter so that I, like my hero Egon Spengler, can locate and measure the Psycho-Kinetic Energy emitted by supernatural creatures and events. I have a proton pack, complete with a detachable yellow foam proton stream, like a miniature Funnoodle of ghost doom, so that when I find the ghosts, I can bust them. I even have a trap, complete with a foot pedal that opens the hinged doors on top, so that I can hold the spirits until capture and hold the busted ghosts and later deposit them into the containment unit back at headquarters. Who ya gonna call? Me.
The morning drags by. Math, spelling, whatever. We fidget in our seats. The air in the classroom crackles with restlessness, barely controlled excitement. I’m still terrible at reading clocks–their faces, crowded with lines and numbers, fluster me–but I know it must be nearly time. Somewhere Mrs. Marshall has stashed the cupcakes, frosted orange with candy ghosts and sprinkles, that Ashlee’s mom brought in this morning. She must have Halloween candy hidden in her desk to give to us–Milky Ways and 3 Musketeers, and Snickers which, while no good in and of themselves, can be traded to those less discerning classmates for more Milky Ways and 3 Musketeers.
Finally, finally! It is time! We are released into the hall to collect our costumes from our lockers. Some slip them on over their clothes; others go to the bathrooms for a quick change. I suit up. Slip on the jumpsuit, zip it up. Hoist the pack onto my back, make sure the proton gun is securely holstered. Coil the trap cord, carry it in one hand, PKE meter in the other.
Into the classroom I march, head held high. Today I’m a ghostbuster, and I ain’t afraid of no ghosts. My classmates look at me, sizing up my costume. Am I a contender for the coveted prize at the Millbrook Fireman’s Halloween party tonight? I size them up in turn.
Ryan snorts softly and gives me a haughty look. “Girls can’t be ghostbusters,” he says. “Ghostbusters are only for boys.” In the years to come, he will become something of a nemesis to me. Even now, we are nothing like friends. I should not care what he says, but he is, and will remain, one of the stars of the class, whom everyone inexplicably loves, while I am well on my way to being the girl who can move easily enough through the various social circles but belongs nowhere.
“Girls can’t be ghostbusters,” he says, and suddenly everything changes for me. I don’t yet know the word feminist, but I have just become one.
Now everyone is looking at me, waiting for my response. I turn my nose up at Ryan, ignore him. I cannot think of a comeback that isn’t lame. “Yes they can,” or, “You’re dumb,” or “Shut up,” don’t seem to cut it. I am afraid if I say anything I will cry. I will not give him the satisfaction of making me cry. I clutch my ghost trap and my PKE meter and turn away. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.
It is a shock, to find that my gender matters in this way. I know boys and girls are different, they have different parts. I know that my parents did now know my gender before I was born. I know that as a baby I wore mostly neutral, unisex clothes, and that people assumed I was a boy because I wasn’t dressed in pink frills. I know that some things–some toys, some colors–are “boy” things and some are “girl” things, but no one in my household has ever bothered to worry about such divisions. What I did not know, not really, until now, was that people would try to circumscribe me because of my gender. I did not know that people would tell me I could not do certain things, could not enjoy certain things, because I have girl parts instead of boy parts. This flat proclamation–“Girls can’t be ghostbusters”–is mind boggling. What does being a girl have to do with busting ghosts?
Later, I talk to my mom. She tells me to ignore Ryan, don’t listen to him. I can be anything I want to be, and it doesn’t matter if I’m a girl or a boy. I know she’s right. I can and I will be anything I want to be. But I also know that it does matter if I’m a boy or a girl. It may not matter to me, or to my parents, or to my ability to perform any job I choose, but it matters to other people. I don’t understand why. Twenty years later, I’ll still be trying to understand why other people insist on caring which kinds of parts I have. But, at seven years old, I have learned that gender matters, and that knowledge will have a profound affect on the person I become. Because, knowing that it does matter, I can not forget it. I cannot ignore it. Instead, I will confront it. In the future, I will not stay silent and bite back the tears. I will stand proudly in my ghostbusting uniform as proof that girls can be ghostbusters if they choose to be.