On Monday and Wednesday afternoons, just before dinner, I teach a karate class. It is a small class of rambunctious 4 and 5 year-olds that keeps me on my toes and often stretches my patience. But it is usually the highlight of my week.
I've been teaching this class of small children for two years, and it has been overwhelmingly populated by boys. I don't know if it is because more boys want to learn to punch and kick with skill and authority, while maybe their female peers are wanting to dress in pink tutus and learn to pirouette. Maybe it's because the mothers of boys desperately want an activity that will burn off some of the excess energy that drives their sons to climb walls, knock over furniture, and ride the cat.
I don't know. But for whatever reason, until very recently, my class has been almost entirely boys.
And then in walked one little girl and like a dropped domino two more followed her. Now there are three girls forming a minority at the end of the class line-up.
I don't treat them any differently than I do the boys. They get high fives when they succeed, are encouraged when they don't, and told to "suck it up" when they get hurt. As far as I'm concerned, there is no gender on the training mat.
Last week, we were working on forward rolls, a skill that the little boys who've been around a while can mostly execute with an amount of clumsy confidence. But one of the little boys seemed concerned when it was the newest girl's turn.
"But she doesn't know how to do it," he said. Whether to me, or himself, or the boy next to him, I'm not sure. Then he added...
"Well...she's just a girl."
Just. A. Girl.
As if to dismiss her or excuse her potential failure. Do even small boys expect less of their female peers?
Three little words from a boy who has yet to reach 3 and 1/2 feet tall. And yet the weight of them fell heavy on my soul.
I reminded him that I was "just a girl." And that my younger daughter who helps with the class (and regularly mops the dojo floor with grown men when she spars) is also "just a girl." And then I told him that he was, in fact, "just a boy."
And then that new little girl executed an almost perfect forward roll in front of the entire class.
Thank you, Universe for your well-timed poetic justice.
She got a high five.
I know that little boy didn't have any feelings of ill will toward his female classmate. He didn't say those words to insult or demean or ridicule, at least not intentionally. It was likely an innocent observation. But his choice of words has hummed around like a swarm of angry irritated bees in my brain for days.
Because this sweet little baby-faced boy is only five. He has yet to be subjected to the mind scrub that is public school. Too young to understand sexist programming, or gender stereotypes, or to see women as mindless objects. He must still think his mother is a super hero.
And yet somehow, it seems to have already crept like some dark scourge into his young and impressionable mind. To so easily dismiss someone's ability to succeed because they are female seems like it could have long-reaching effects, like the creeping tendrils of a pesky choking weed. Who is to blame? Parents? The media? Other children? The evil marketers of children's toys? How is sexism passed on into the subconscious of nursery school children?
There is a good possibility that I am over-reacting. Preschool children are just beginning to understand their own gender identities. And since small children tend to think in rigid terms of black and white, it makes sense in their developing brains to compartmentalize males and females and what they are capable of doing.
As they mature, children's thinking tends to become more flexible. Chances are good that he will grow out of the strict stereotypical views that he now holds in an innocent attempt to make sense of a confusing world.
And just to be on the safe side, I think I'll kick the bag extra hard before class. Because that's how I plan to fight sexism. One powerful roundhouse kick at a time. Powerful role models are the only thing strong enough to combat both the subliminal and the overt messages our children are pummeled with relentlessly.
I'll do my best to be a good one.