I chose not to give a valedictory address when I graduated high school.
This was less of a break with tradition than it might initially seem: unlike most high schools, my school didn’t automatically tap the class valedictorian to give a commencement address. Instead, individuals wanting to give a speech at this event were asked to submit an application in hopes of being selected for the honor.
Obviously, there were many years where the speaking line-up demonstrated how the sort of go-getter likely to become class valedictorian was also the same sort of go-getter likely to want to make a graduation speech.
But not every year. And not my graduation year.
When I tell the story now, I jokingly say that by the time I got to high school graduation, the only message I would have wanted to share with my classmates was something pithy like Fuck off, all of you. And, as I have rehearsed the explanation nowadays, however brassy and outspoken my parents were, I thought that level of candor might have gone beyond their comfort level and thus decided that silence would be the better part of courtesy.
It’s not as if that narrative is too far off the truth.
I recall my high school years as miserable ones. My teachers were good, and I’m not going to be so hyper-dramatic as to claim I was entirely friendless or outcast. But the prevailing tone I recall from those years is the unceasing, oppressive cultural message from my peers that I was too smart for a girl, too ambitious for a girl, and definitely too outspoken for a girl. And despite all my “inappropriate” displays of intelligence throughout my high school career, I think a good number of my peers were shocked to have a girl come out with the #1 class rank, simply on account of my gender.
So yeah, by the time graduation rolled around, I was in no mood to say a fond good-bye to my high school class. Instead, I was ready to close that door and get on to the next stage of my life, in hopes that my intelligence wouldn’t be so scorned and devalued in my college career.*
And yet I know that underneath all the teenage bluster, all the self-protective layers of scorn and judgement I held for my BMW-driving, Reagan-loving classmates, was also a part of me that didn’t want to risk making a speech from a place of fear and exhaustion. Fear of becoming a target again, of being snickered and whispered at. The exhaustion of feeling as if I was swimming against the tide during so many minutes and hours of my existence. Yeah, I was ready to close the door and move on, but I still can’t tell you how much of that feeling was rooted in a sense of victory and how much in defeat.
My recollections are prompted by a post today on Everyday Feminism titled 5 Ways Girls are Taught to Avoid ‘Smart.’ The author, Kelsey Lueptow, begins by stating “I started censoring myself in the seventh grade.” She then goes on to outline the cultural mores and messages that help encourage her, and me, and however-many bright, ambitious girls besides, into the habits of self-betrayal and self-suppression.
The list hits some of the highlights you might anticipate: the cultural value placed on female attractiveness, the primacy of the marriage plot as a goal for women’s lives, and the social enforcement of passivity — both through the positive reinforcement of “ladylike” behavior, but also through the negative responses to female displays of intelligence (everything from the infamous “bossy” label to more overt verbal/physical aggression).
It all reminds me of this recent PSA by Verizon that got some airplay a couple months ago:
As Amanda Marcotte analyzes in Slate:
This ad gets a couple of things right. The first thing is that the ad focuses on the parents and not the girls themselves. So much of our efforts in trying to encourage girls end up treating them like they’re the ones who are screwing up, either with too much “body talk” or being lame for playing with certain toys. This ad shifts the focus, arguing that girls are born fine and it’s the rest of us who screw them up.
Just as importantly, despite the punch line of lipstick over science, most of the ad is not reductively focused on body issues and beauty. It’s all too easy to fall back on the notion that the focus on looks alone is what’s holding girls back, in no small part because it allows liberals to hand-wring about the “beauty myth” while simultaneously allowing conservatives to scold about the evils of female vanity and sexuality. But this video tackles a much more insidious force holding girls back: the general pressure on them to be, for lack of a better term, more ladylike. It points out how we not only value beauty, but also prioritize neatness, quiet, and safety in girls while encouraging risk-taking and confidence in boys.
I don’t regret skipping out on the notion of giving a valedictory address. We all make the best choices we can at any given moment in life, and I don’t have the kind of time and energy it would take to start second-guessing this decision and all the other human, possibly-flawed things I have done in my 45 years on this earth.
But I do find myself wondering about the level of self-silencing that existed within that choice, and wondering, as well, how these cultural messages against female intelligence cause me still, even today, to silence myself.
* A hope that, fortunately enough, came to pass. Yay for women’s colleges.
Image credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1357755/Why-DO-smart-girls-dumb-men.html