As a freshman in high school, I was the type of girl who enjoyed stepping menacingly toward my male friends when they said something that offended me, even though we all knew I would never actually lay a finger on them. Besides, I was too short to be scary. (I’m still short, but I sometimes pride myself on the ability to be menacing when necessary.) Violence was not, in fact, my go-to problem solving strategy.
Still, I knew I would have a hard time not slapping the smirk off P.B.’s face the minute I met him.
We were in English, one of the few classes in which I was not on the honors track because my high school did not have an honors English class for freshmen. While by junior year I could happily spend 75% of the day away from those students to whom I was merely a nerd who took school too seriously, freshman English required me to rub shoulders with people who still stopped at the end of every line, whether or not there was a period, when reading aloud. (The teacher also frequently asked my help spelling things on the board, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his pedantic abilities, but I digress.)
I don’t remember how it started – the teacher must have asked us to have a conversation about something in the lesson with a partner nearby – but somehow I found myself talking to P.B., who was twisted around from his seat in front of me and was draping one lanky arm across my open copy of Lord of the Flies. Glaring, I slid it out from under him so he wouldn’t wrinkle the page. Whatever we were originally supposed to be discussing, the conversation turned to grades and schedules. He bragged that he had a B+ in the class, to which I nodded approval.
I was less approving of his shock at the fact that I had a high A. He began quizzing me on my grades and how many honors classes I was in. At first I didn’t care, but it quickly grew satisfying to see him attempting to process the idea that I was probably beating him in the GPA department.
“Well, I must have a higher grade than you in math,” he said finally, leaning back against the metal bar connecting his chair to his desk. (His arm was still across my desk.)
I rolled my eyes. “I’m in Geometry Honors and you’re in Algebra,” I said, trying to point out that he couldn’t really compare our grades there because we were studying entirely different things.
He smirked patronizingly. “I’m still probably better than you.”
“Why would you assume that?”
“Because guys are better at it than girls. You just aren’t smart enough to think that way.” The most remarkable thing, now that I look back on it, is his tone – there was no malice. He was simply stating something of which he was utterly convinced.
“That…is..the most sexist thing I’ve ever heard,” I said, trying to control my tone.
He shrugged. “It’s true.”
Almost unconsciously, as though independent from my body, my left hand curled into a fist and my elbow drew back as though I was about to fire an arrow from a bow. I had never punched anyone before, but P.B. was about to be the lucky first.
Until my teacher materialized at my side and asked, “How’s the conversation going here?” a little too brightly, having seen it all unfold from across the room. I honestly don’t remember the rest of that class, although I do remember that when we next came to English the teacher announced we had new seats and P.B. was diagonally opposite me, literally as far away as the teacher could physically place us. This was probably a wise move.
This incident, one of my earliest face-to-face encounters with the concept of sexism, sticks with me for several reasons.
One, I had never realized that people could be so certain of something that I found so obviously wrong. P.B. was jeering at me, but he was just as convinced that females were inferior as I was convinced that the earth is round. We had discussed discrimination and assumptions about women’s abilities in my family before (see: weirdest dinner conversations ever), but it hadn’t really dawned on me that there were people – people in my day-to-day world, no less – who actually thought of me that way. It was suddenly and newly personal.
Two, because it was one of the first times I had ever come right up against sexism, I had no idea how to react. I was angry, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to correct him or explain to him why his certainty had no actual support. (Sometimes I wonder, though, if one good punch would have convinced him much faster that girls are just as good as boys…kidding, kidding! Mostly.) And I realized how much I – and all the girls around me – needed to develop that vocabulary.