The longer I work in a secondary school, the more I realise how much the public image of a school matters. I’m really fascinated at how diversity fits with a schools image. Many schools report they ‘value diversity’ or ‘celebrate diversity’. More often than not they mean cultural diversity, actually I would say almost exclusively (thanks to the New Zealand Curriculum statement) diversity really just means ethnicity. But this is where things get interesting and a little perplexing.
Alongside this schools are charged with supporting young people to develop a strong sense of their identity. Again this seems on the surface to be just fine, except when other forms of diversity start to ‘contaminate’ the pristine, clean cultural definitions. This is the most popular image used in school advertising across the county, a picture of smiling faces of various ethnicities. For simplification, the rhetoric goes something like this:
We love diversity – so you need to all wear a uniform, and wear the correct one for your assigned sex, oh and no other outward signs of individuality like piercings or hair colour, style, length…but we want you to be yourself.
We celebrate diversity – but not pride week, no you can’t have an LGBTQ+ group – people might object and that would make the school look bad. But we will do pink shirt day because being anti-bullying looks good for our image.
We value diversity – but let’s make sure students with unique needs are siloed off so they don’t disrupt the learning of others.
We are inclusive of diversity – but our common room isn’t accessible.
We encourage diversity – so long as you’re not failing NCEA and making our stats look bad.
We welcome diversity – but we are a single sex school so you have to have the right body parts to attend.
We embrace diversity – so long as you manage your anger, fear, sadness and frustration and behave the same as everyone else.
We recognise diversity – but if you are bullied for being transgender this might not be the school for you, you’re asking for special treatment and it’s just too hard for us to adapt to the 21st Century, bathrooms have always been this way, actually we’d prefer not to know you exist at all.
We support diversity – only if you behave in ways that keep everyone comfortable, so don’t be too gay…
Basically – we accept diversity – so long as you’re not different.
None of this is ever blatant, it is a quiet dismissive attitude, an omission in policy, an intentional avoidance, an awkward silence, or a flustered defensiveness. Because schools are now brands with an image to uphold (sounds a bit like political parties). Diversity is messy and complex and while education is locked into the neo-liberal politics of advanced capitalism, a schools image will often be prioritised at the expense of a fuller definition and recognition of diversity.
I’m in this fluid space, where fluidity is contained and made safe. A place of becoming aquatic mammals, bodies directed into rooms to transform, emerging and submerging revealing skin and hiding eyes behind artificial lenses, protected and vulnerable. Directed and patrolled spaces of chaos. A warning light and siren but no one is afraid a groaning, yawning mouth transforms the liquid medium into a new force, a slow moving wave, bodies scatter and flow into new territories. New flows, surface tensions break there is laughter and screaming, delight and concern a new uncertainty. Tossed, jumbled, scattered at the mercy of surges and flows both visible and invisible densities changing. Silence, the mechanical maw closes and order returns.
Through the door lines and lanes define spaces a clock is marking time. Lessons to learn bodies talking the unfamiliar with new movement, new patterns. Order and purposeful disciplined and regimented repetition with variation encoding technique. Separated and segregated together under the watchful gaze of instructors.
A strange disjuncture on the other side of the glass, an empty space, no water. Concrete and tiles dry, framed in fencing. A disabled space, functionally impaired now without a purpose, closed to the public and hidden from view awaiting to be rehabilitated, to be use-full again. Without the refraction of water I notice the slope of the floor beckons a flicker of recognition – 1970’s California drought and the birth of pool skating, a moment in time that ruptured and broke free enabling new movement to occur, deterritorialised and re-territorialized, this concrete cousin born after that time will never feel rolling urethane. I glance at the diving platform and the chasm below suggestive of an abseil tower. What it could become but will not. Out of order.
Yes I was at the pool today and I didn’t swim but I was fully immersed in my thoughts with Deleuze and Barad keeping me company in a strange exhilarating intra-action, or maybe it is just the chlorine fumes.
I’ve been waiting for the media to respond to the recent school uniform hysteria with Henderson High School’s unfortunate justification for the enforcement of knee length skirts. I was interested to read a response today and while it touched on some of the issues I was going to raise I became more interested in the comments from the public. It fell into a predictable pattern of ideas about sexual differences between males and females based on their physiological materiality, notions of responsibility and choice as a result of the inevitable outcomes of ‘natural’ male desire and the role of schools to police young bodies in order to mute or eliminate this contamination of learning environments. I have four challenges or provocation to put forward:
First a reality check – all teenager are sexual beings. Schools need to accept that cladding bodies in a uniform will not prevent young people seeing each other in these ways, they will be attracted to each other, and it won’t just be opposites attracting. Sexuality is always present, not at a particular year level, not when certain body parts develop, its part of being a human – even in accounting.
Second – schools emphasise sexual difference through clothing deemed appropriate for males and females. If schools are serious about de-sexualising young people as best they can they would all be in long pants or long skirts – or skirt like attire. There is also the issue of female bodies and breasts – will a school dare to say over a certain size they must be bound or that an over garment will be shapeless and baggy like a sheet. But we might not be able to stop there because people find lips, necks and hair sexual – so we might need to cover them as well (hang on – I have a familiar image entering my head).
Third (and perhaps my most provocative point) – of course teens are experimenting and taking risks sexually and experiencing desire with their bodies. Figuring out sexuality however doesn’t begin and end at high school. High school are places where lot of sexual beings exist, including adults – and some teachers are barely out of high school themselves. Schools and teacher training institute need to be more proactive in talking about the very real phenomenon of teacher-student attraction without fear of it dissolving into a moral panic. Our shame about sex and sexuality in general as well as the real power imbalances between adults and young people should be more open to discussion. However I fear we’d rather maintain the institutional paranoia around sex that maintains silence and gendered assumptions which make the teaching environment a vulnerable space particularly for male teachers who’s interactions and behaviour will always be under scrutiny for ‘inappropriate’ interactions.
Finally. Rape is a violation – a violation of respect and is often an act of extreme violence with traumatic outcomes for survivors. But we need to stop linking uncontrollable sexual desire in men and the sexual provocation of women to some predetermined natural outcome of sexual difference that rape is part of. It enables and maintains justification of date rape, sexual conquest a a right of passage and a ‘scoring’ of masculinity points. While sexual difference has largely focussed on male desire, female desire and sexuality has largely been ignored or misrepresented. Finding out more about how male and female bodies are similar in spite of the more obvious differences will not stop rape but might begin to open space for challenging the assumptions that support rape as a natural outcome of sexual difference.
It is time to stop skirting around the bigger questions and for educators to boldly step into a genuine critique of the purpose of uniforms and what ides schools hang onto in order to justify their continual gender normative policing.
I was there at midnight to see The Force Awakens with all the other generations of Star Wars fans. I remember 1977 (just) – Paeroa, 5 years old and being awestruck with the story jolting some philosophical curiosity lose. Returning in my 40’s with my storm trooper t-shirt I felt right at home, like my tribe had converged from all walks of life. The approving nods, one liners that offer a secret hand shake of sorts. My expectations were muted and whilst I enjoyed the sense of nostalgia my heart wasn’t moved, it was a little too deja vu. No spoilers here but perhaps what I do feel sad about is the mystery of The Force. I’m also a bit perplexed about this galaxy far far away and it’s parenting practices. If there were social services of any kind they should have targeted that skywalker line and done some serious family therapy. Perhaps a family group conference for the Solo/Skywalker clan is needed with a few ghostly ring ins – Qui Gon, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and maybe Anakin – if he is over his whining. Hollywood could do with ending its dependence on Freudian psychoanalysis to develop its plots and character development. Actually there was a character played by Max von Sydow who looked remarkably like Freud…but he was shafted by a blade of light.
It’s a bit of a romp down memory lane, like a high school reunion of sorts. Where memories of the past are jumbled with the present but the familiarity is comforting to a degree. But here are a couple of strengths of star wars that are worth mentioning:
Diversity is the norm – people don’t question each other if they seem to be able to understand another species or even a droid/robot.
Age is a relative thing – some live thousands of years others much shorter and there aren’t long winded lectures to young’uns about it.
Difference is expected but if you are at the pub – respect the rules and the patrons or you will be out on your ass – or asses.
Technology hand-me-downs are ok – light sabres for example seem to be fine – no-one says ‘are you kidding? I’m not taking that old thing’.
My new hope is to recapture that mysterious wonder for The Force but maybe it will be about awakening my own senses and perhaps returning to my inner Jedi.