When I started teaching at Mt. Blue sixteen years ago, it was a great place to get a solid education. It was a great place to play sports and perform on the stage. It was a great place to attend pep rallies and school dances. It was a great place to drive your snow machine to school and show off your truck in the parking lot.
It was not such a great place for every kid to feel accepted. We had blatant displays of homophobia — often checked, but not always — and the members of our counter cultures — goths, punks, skaters, hippies — often spoke of alienation and disillusionment. Cliques were palpable and as plain as the logo on the main lobby floor.
Sure, there were students who floated between the groups and did so with ease.
But there were many more entrenched in the survival unit and even more who belonged to no one but themselves.
Worse yet? There were even more who belonged to a particular group, but longed to join another, yearned to be more honest with their peers, wanted to be their complete and total selves — yet could not.
How do I know? Because I was one of the few folks — by virtue of my age, awkwardness and general nonthreating-ness, I suppose — to which some of these folks demonstrated remarkable vulnerability. And they seemed keenly aware of one another’s existences though swore secrecy and revealed nothing — even to their trusted, portly, fast-track-to-balding confidant.
And lest ye think this all about gender identity or sexual orientation. Oh no, no I had students confess a love of comic books they wanted kept under wraps. Students quietly admitting they really enjoyed the jazz records I played two days ago and hoping for a copy of the CD. Students wondering what a punk show is like and how to skank in the pit of a ska show. (Ahhh, 3rd Wave . . . where have you gone?) Students saying they’d love to wear x-y-z style of clothing but could “never pull it off” or “but people would think I’m . . . I don’t know . . . I just can’t.”
That was then, as S.E. Hinton would say . . .
I stood in the food court of Mt. Blue today during ninth grade orientation day. It was a typical melange of shorts and t-shirts, skirts and tops, overdressed and underdressed, hoodies in summer and flip-flops in school.
And there was a young woman completely owning her love of particular style of Japanese subculture: lolita fashion. Head to toe. This tends to not be a subtle sort of look and stateside tends to be relegated to the halls of anime, manga and comic book conventions — where I, myself, became familiar with the look. (Well, there and seeing the great movie Kamikaze Girls with my wife at a film festival in Montreal years ago.)
Fifteen years ago? Unheard of. At least, not without visible public ridicule, especially in common spaces.
Ten years ago? Unlikely. Only on spirit days. Hidden in the open.
Five years ago. Maybe. Certain kids with certain established nerd-cool cred.
Today. Right in the middle of the action. Talking with friends, teachers, student tour guides.
Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Perhaps. I mean, it is just clothing after all. We are talking about a very surface feature. Who knows what may lie beneath the surface of any of these kids? Or any of their little-bit-older peers?
But today I saw profound public evidence of the evolution in our school climate and culture. We have a lot of work to do still. We have a lot of undesirable social behaviors that persist, but have gone underground. Bullying and teasing have moved to the digital realms and we have to find ways of being even more vigilant of how this affects our students.
But today? Today it felt good to know one our kids felt safe enough to be her.