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A Collision of Pretty

Sometimes my worlds collide and I'm not even paying attention when they do. Things will be happening, life will be moving on as it does, and then I stop for a brief moment to realize that it's all really an amalgamation of the very same theme. When they fuse and I actually pause long enough to say to myself, "Hey, self. This is what is happening in your life. Are you paying attention?" It happens to us all if we're cognizant of the world, the universe, and all things in life.

Not long ago I started an informal lunchtime group of girls who were having trouble. It was difficult to figure out what the real problem was at first because when you're talking to 8 junior high girls about their problems you must wade through an enormous amount of deceptive nonsense first. We're friends. We're not friends. I don't like the way you treat me. I don't like the way you treat her. She's always talking about people. I can talk about people if I want to because that's just who I am. The topics are surrounded by what happened last weekend and who didn't invite who to a party or a sleepover and who talks smack on Facebook. You must dive deep when talking to these girls whose faces and names change but whose problems and issues are exactly the same from year to year.

Junior high students weren't my first pick. As a college senior I determined that high school was the way to go and that I would stand before perfectly straight rows of desks with eager students who would listen to me expound on the writings of Maya Angelou and Shakespeare and Nikki Giovanni and Harper Lee.

I was the dumbest college student ever to have believed it would play out that way.

My time teaching at a high school was short and I was immediately transferred to a junior high the following year where I wondered, prior to meeting them, what in the world does a 7th grader even look like? Could I identify them at the mall and differentiate between them and a 10 year old?

These girls. They have problems, y'all. They will tell you if you are willing to listen and not offer too much advice. That's the trick, isn't it? Don't tell them too much about what you've already learned in life and what you yourself have experienced. Don't tell them that boys their age are stupid and immature. They know this. They live and breathe this. What they want to know, I have learned, is that you can take their problems and help them. Can you, as an adult, a teacher, an experienced life person teach them something about themselves without making it too painfully obvious?

After a few sessions of real talk (they use that term, not me) the girls began to stop me in the hallway. "Can we have another meeting? We got some problems again." They are, as adolescents go, figuring out who they are and what they believe to be true but they are also struggling with having their lives right out in the open on their social networking sites and I cannot imagine having to contend with the issues that Facebook brings about for them. It is a toxic playground and when they play out there they play out ugly.

I brought in my friend Karen Walrond to help. Karen didn't know this. She just innocently sent me a copy of her book "The Beauty of Different" and I realized, my worlds colliding, that they needed to look for something different and outside of themselves. We have read chapters or summaries of those chapters and I tell them stories about the people in the book. What I didn't expect was that I would want to turn this book into something resembling curriculum because the beauty she talks about is defined so differently than what society tells us is acceptable. She knows, my friend does, how powerful the stories are and I have referenced the chapter on Jenny Lawson on more than one occasion to a student. I have to tell you: talking about mental illness is not on the required reading list for many middle school students, but it is there. It is there, people. They are dying, literally sometimes, to talk about it an make it a justifiable topic of conversation.

As if I need reminding, these girls are concerned with a lot of things. Being popular and being accepted and being pretty seem to top the list most of the time. I have had more than one female student in my teaching career not attend school because she was getting her hair done. It is painfully obvious to me when my black students miss school and return with a head full of braids just what it is that is important to them. Once, I was talking black hair with my teacher friend Laura and I mentioned the number of times I had my hair pulled as a child. "You think you're better than me with your hair." This only ever happened after I got it straightened with a relaxer and I made the grave mistake of flipping my hair around. A wiser Kelly would have told them, "No. I think I am accepted with this hair and not the kind that makes people say the words 'kinky' or 'nappy', but no. No. I do not think I am better than you with this chemical nightmare on my hair." After that conversation Laura told me that she would never again get irritated when her little elementary female students would fall asleep at school with their new braids. She knows how long it takes to get that kind of hairstyle done. Call it cultural or call it vanity. Either way, those little black girls want to be pretty, too.

The finality of my worlds colliding happened just today when I put a call out for good, clean Poetry Slam videos that a teacher in my building wants to use for her upcoming unit on poetry. Fortunately, someone linked this one for me featuring Katie Makkai. Unfortunately, it uses the f-word so I know the teacher can't use it, but it is no less a great message for girls, black or white.

Thank you, Robin, for finding this and linking it for me. I got the same chills you described when I watched it.

These are the things I want to teach those girls and the things I hope I have taught my daughters. Be pretty intelligent, be pretty creative, be pretty amazing.

Hardest lesson plans I have ever had to write.

« Moving and Shaking | Main | On Being Black »

Reader Comments (26)

I saw that video on Facebook a while back. It is powerful, for sure!

Your post brought me back to junior high and those ugly feelings (feelings of not wanting to be perceived as ugly and seeing the ugly inside of other people). I cannot fathom what the world must be like with the social fabric woven into young people's lives. You have a hard job but you do it well and I'm so proud to *know* you and that you are making a difference.

I'm sure I speak for many when I say that I wish I had someone like you when I was that age.

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSondra

When I think of the pressures my daughter will have growing up it terrifies me. Thank you both for the pointer to this book and for posting that video.

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNeeroc



February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren/Chookooloonks

I know I missed the call for poems, I am sorry you know I am your poet.. but - some of them might not make the cut, but you should tell her to lok up EVERYTHING from brave new voices on HBO.. they are teens talking they will love it

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRaquita

Thank you for taking up this call. I'm willing to bet that more than one of these girls will grow up, take your message with her, and pass it on to others. That's beautiful.

February 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Sugarpants

What a wonderful thing you are doing for these kids. Even when we have loving parents and families who tell us we're wonderful we don't always believe it, after all, that's their job. To have someone to whom we look up listen to us and take us seriously that gives such confidence. These girls are fortunate to have you in their lives and in their education seeing beyond the first impression, and the school set texts, to the important things underneath.

February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPenbleth

Great post Kelly. I keep thinking about how to use Karen's book to teach my girls about *real* beauty and I think this is it. It's definitely going to be my bible when middle school swings around.

February 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Off topic: I've been out of internet connection and want to go back and read some earlier posts. How do I get to them these days? My screen doesn't show an "older" link.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermommela

I can't imagine how strong you have to be to do this for young girls. Good for you.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy in StL

AWESOME. Thank you for sharing, and kudos for being that voice to the girls you work with every day.

February 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterD.

Mommela, I am still working on getting my blog redesigned and when I have a moment to play with it I'll put the earlier posts back up. I wish I could farm it out to someone, but I barely have time to make THAT happen. See how long it took me to answer you? Oy. Sorry about that.

I'm a work in progress, just like this here blog. :-)

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMocha Momma

This subject is good to bring up on something like career day when you have the students attention! Our PTO is going to talk about cyber bullying and adding self-image definately wouldn't hurt! Of course, parents are also coming in to talk about their careers. Kel, anything else you could suggest would be a great improvement. PLEASE, PLEASE - - (in my begging voice) give suggestions.

March 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngie

[...] thanks to MochaMomma and Robin for sending this video into my [...]

No worries! I just wasn't sure if I was missing something--an event that all too likely. For you, I'll wait!

March 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMommela

That's so encouraging that you not only managed to reach these girls, but that you managed to get them to open up, and now they are actively looking to include you in helping them... That's amazing. Good for you. I'm very impressed and wish you the best of luck as you continue to make a difference.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen Green

So... 2 things...

1) That was amazing! I'm going to pick which pretty I am!

2) My best way in making someone realize the hair thing was taking the back of their head and doing some pinch braids. After about 15 mins they realize while it takes 6, 8, 12, 15 hours... want it done fast or want it done right???

March 8, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterdelami

Makes me sad to think my daughters will grow up and think like this. Makes me hopeful I can figure out a way to raise them with a different attitude...

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick

Just made my daughter watch this.

Thank you.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRedneck Mommy

Your post is so full of insight that I think so many don't get about middle school girls. I will be showing my daughter the video. Athough she's a Jr I've spent her life teaching her just this.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCrystal

Wow. And by the way, those girls are so unbelievably lucky to have you -- you are shaping them in all ways amazing -- in ways you do and do not yet realize.

March 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBOSSY

I saw that video a while ago and it's awesome. How wonderful that you're facilitating those important conversations for young girls--no doubt you are making a profound impact on their young lives, as they get to have the experience of being seen for more than their outsides and heard for what they feel on the inside.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPauline

I'm feeling really glad I stumbled across your blog--so thoughtful and well written. Particularly, I like the moment when you note that middle school girls don't want to hear us expound about what we learned; the point is to erase ourselves and listen to what they're learning. And then, before you know it, they can see you and ask how it was for you.

March 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJocelyn

I can't even begin to imagine, as you said, what it must be like for girls to navigate their way through the horror of adolescence in the age of social media. It was hard enough when they were just passing notes about me in the classroom.

They're so lucky to have you, Kelly.

March 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

[...] was reading comments on a recent post on the issue of “pretty” and this one seemed nice until I followed the link back to this man’s site. I guess it’s [...]

Fabulous. How lucky those young women are to have you. And, I just watched Chris Rock's "Good Hair" last night. So fascinating.

March 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAl_Pal

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January 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterClick Here

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