‘Could you pick up those pens, Sara? . . . Thanks, sweetie’
Ok sir, I don’t mind getting them
I might’ve dropped them,
but can I be your mate, your pal?
Like Khaleb, Ben and David?
How come they your friends,
when I’m some little darling?
Guess that’s how it is
and it’s not so much bother.
Least you answer my questions
not like some others.
Dad calls me ‘sweetie’ too –
he listens to my brother, but tells me
I ‘won’t get it, go and pester your mother’,
and I go upstairs, find mum’s bag
read ’20 ways to impress your man’.
Sounds complicated, not just the golden rules.
You don’t just tell the truth,
it doesn’t do to be too kind,
and you must never, ever, speak your mind.
So I smile and toss my hair, as I reach beneath the table.
I’m helping my teacher, I’m a good girl, he likes me.
I wrote this after a day in a year 5 class, with a young male teacher. He was unusually not-strict and flexible for the school, and did a few really good things to manage the classroom fairly, and the class clearly liked him pretty well. But he used some gendered term or other on me early in the day, which made my ears prick up, and through the day I observed him consistently addressing girls as ‘sweetie’, ‘dear’ and ‘darling’, only using their names when needed for clarity. With boys, he used their names slightly more, but called them, especially those who were more street – cool, ‘mate’ and ‘pal’. Think he just about stopped short of ‘bro’, thankfully for the race and class dynamics there. It bothered me that all the terms for girls imply a paternalistic relationship, while the terms he used for boys all denoted equality.
I seriously intended to bring it up – with him, or with other teachers/ management. I didn’t get further than casually bringing it up with other teaching assistants in the staffroom. They all disliked how he was informal, commenting that he also called parents by their first names, and also commented the current yr 6 class (causing reverberations in the school with their naughty/teenagerish behaviour) were fine before he had them for a year. They valued formal respect, appropriate to people in distinct positions. Manners appropriate to cross – hierarchy.
Wanting to draw out more of the gender dimension I pointed out ‘these girls are going to expect to accept sexist treatment from their bosses – it’s really not ok. I mean, if [headteacher] were to call all the female teachers and T As ‘sweetie’ and the male ones ‘mate’ that wouldn’t be ok!’. They agreed, but the idea of doing something about this issue was clearly positioned well beyond their power. When a female deputy head started, I felt I would have been able to bring it up with her. But then, in an entirely different story, it came to light that the school had judged me ‘insubordinate’ and ‘not really fitting in to the team’ in my class, and so I concentrated on trying to work out just how this had come about, and never followed up the sexism. Oh, and the male teacher in question got some sort of national outstanding teacher award. Making it even less possible to criticise him as a temporary teaching assistant who ‘really has to be the most flexible person on the team’ as was explained to me by the head.