Last term at my kids' school, the grades fives and sixes were talked to by their teachers about 'boyfriends' and 'girlfriends'. In line - most likely - with most primary schools, the official position was that primary school students are too young to have relationships. While the rule is mostly around public displays of affection, it seemed to Una that the rule was too broad and applied to all definitions of 'a relationship' (remember in primary school 'going together' didn't necessarily mean touching), and she came home and wrote this letter. She's given me permission to post it here.To Mr T____,I very strongly believe that H___ Primary School students should be allowed to be in a strong relationship with each other. This, in other words, is having a boyfriend or girlfriend.A lot of boys and girls in our school have a boyfriend or girlfriend. However, teachers spoke to their students about us not being allowed to anymore. I think this is outrageous! I have some reasons to support my thoughts.My first reasons is, I think it helps us practice handling big emotions. When we are older, we will become more serious about it, but in the meantime, we should practice. We need to know what to do with them. No teacher expects a prep child to be able to read in a day, right? They need to PRACTICE! And so do we with big emotions like the ones some of us have!My second reason is, love is, of course, a normal part of life! Almost every human being loves someone at the very least ONCE in their life! And so children at H___ Primary do too!And my third and final reason is that it is certainly not necessary to feel ashamed about the emotions you have toward someone else! I think it is disappointing that our lovely school would turn down something like that!Concluding, I hope that you will agree with me and make sure we take away this terrible rule.Sincerely,Una
One of the unintended consequences of this rule, is that a while ago (before the teachers had the Talk with the students), Una did tell a boy how she felt about him. At first, I tried to discourage her - once that information is out there, I warned her, you can't put it back in the box. But at the same time, I didn't want her to feel that her emotions were something shameful. It's brave to tell someone how you feel, especially when you don't know how they are going to respond. Unfortunately this boy, who previously had been a good friend of Una's, has not reacted well. She thought the risk was that he wouldn't return her feelings, she thought she was risking rejection. But it's been far worse than that. Since finding out, he's basically trolled her. He makes faces at her, pushes past her, calls her names, like Stiffball ('That doesn't even make sense,' says Una, 'that's not even the part that gets stiff!') and Wank.
One of the old fashioned ideas that still seems to drift around in society, is that "girls mature faster than boys", and so boys are "put under pressure by girls". Sure, and maybe that's even what's happened here. Una has eloquently told a boy her feelings and he's been made uncomfortable because he doesn't know how to respond. But what's wrong in our society - the gendered violence, the hatred towards women, the denigrating, misogynistic online culture - none of this is caused by girls having feelings. Girls expressing their feelings isn't the problem. But girls being told that there's something shameful about their feelings and about expressing those feelings helps create a culture of violence and acceptance of violence.
Because now, Una doesn't want to deal with this officially. She believes that, since she's broken the rules by telling him how she feels, she'll be the one to get into trouble. And so it's possible that, unless I find another way to intervene, this boy will never learn the vocabulary to negotiate this: 'I don't really want a girlfriend', 'Thanks but I don't like you that way' or 'Let's just be friends.' He also might never learn that she's done nothing wrong but he has. And meanwhile, I fear no matter what I say, Una has internalised her feelings for this boy as something embarrassing and shameful, especially now he is responding with such vile and graphic language. 'Liking' him has been a habit for so long, that, just because he's turned on her, she can't just switch off her feelings. Liking him is a wound she can't help picking at, even though it hurts.
In all honesty, the teachers tried to respond sensitively to Una's letter. The principal felt he should have a female teacher in the room with him, considering the content, but unfortunately Una saw it this way: the Principal and her classroom teacher, keeping her in at lunchtime, to give her a talking to. It sounds a lot like what happens to the naughty kids. She feels - mistakenly but understandably - like she was getting into trouble (another reason she doesn't want to talk to them about the way this boy is treating her). I talked to the Acting Principal today and I feel sure that he meant well and didn't intend to give off this vibe. But where does that leave Una?
I think back to the Una who wrote this letter, who came home so determined, so sure of what was right, so proud of the words that flowed from her pen. And that's why I wanted to share them here, with you. I don't want her to become jaded, a little more broken hearted, a little less likely to speak up and speak out. I want her to keep writing, keep fighting. Change the rules. Change the world.