Maybe you’ve already seen it by now. CNN.com recently ran a story about Katie Goldman, a first-grader (7 years old) who likes Star Wars and who was teased at school for it. It wouldn’t be a newsworthy story, except for the curiosity of her mother, Carrie Goldman, who asked Katie about it until she finally got an answer. Carrie’s post on her blog entitled Portrait of an Adoption tells more of the story. I quote in part:
[A] week ago, as we were packing her lunch, Katie said, “My Star Wars water bottle is too small. It doesn’t hold enough water. Can I take a different one?” She searched through the cupboard until she found a pink water bottle and said, “I’ll bring this.”
I was perplexed. “Katie, that water bottle is no bigger than your Star Wars one. I think it is actually smaller.”
“It’s fine, I’ll just take it,” she insisted.
I kept pushing the issue, because it didn’t make sense to me. Suddenly, Katie burst into tears.
She wailed, “The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle. They say it’s only for boys. Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it. I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle.”
Is this how it starts? Do kids find someone who does something differently and start to beat it out of her, first with words and sneers? Must my daughter conform to be accepted?
Carrie closes her blog post with a call to action for other female Star Wars fans, and a reminder that it works the other way too (of course, it’s much easier to see boys getting teased for the pink water bottle). The CNN story goes on to mention Jen Yates’s entry to her blog epbot.com, a comment from Catherine Taber who voiced Padme Amidala in the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and the school’s first Proud To Be Me Day, to be held tomorrow (December 10).
My reaction to the story is multi-faceted, since it touches on a lot of things I have a strong opinion of. But first, a bit of background.
I was quite into Star Wars when I was a kid; the original theatrical releases of the first three movies (which are actually Episodes 4 through 6 in the sequence). I endured my share of teasing and bullying growing up. Even though I was at a private school through my elementary school years, little was done about it. (Remember, this was the early 1980s; if there were any communities they were bulletin boards on dialup modems, and the Internet was still primarily for research and would not open up to the public for a few more years. There were no websites or mommy blogs as we know them today.)
My ordeal with bullying and teasing eased up some after I transferred to a public school and moved in with my mom between my fifth and sixth grade years. It was still difficult to deal with some kids who just didn’t want to accept me for who I was. It was hard for me to make and keep friendships, a problem that has followed me well into adulthood.
First, Star Wars. Having grown up with Star Wars, it was a shock to me that anyone, any age, would ridicule another for showing off their support of George Lucas’s best known work. My interest in science fiction in general is not what it once was, but were George Lucas to change his mind and make Episodes 7 through 9, I’d probably still make sure I saw them in the theater during their original theatrical run, just to say I did. (Which, unfortunately, I cannot say for Episodes 1 through 3, which I only saw on DVD.)
Second, the (perceived) gender stereotypes upon which Katie’s bullying was based. Somehow and somewhere, these first-grade boys got it stuck in their heads that Star Wars is only for boys. These same boys probably also have it stuck in their heads that pink water bottles are for girls, and would undoubtedly ridicule a boy who had one the same way they ridiculed Katie. (It would not surprise me at all if Katie knew this and went straight for the pink water bottle thinking “the boys will never tease me for drinking out of this one.”) This disturbs me greatly. I’ve never been the most “macho” boy of the group; whether or not this was the root cause of some of the bullying I endured is up for debate. Either way, I honestly think it is not good for our generation to have such strong gender-based stereotypes at the tender young age of seven (there’s plenty of time for them to learn that, particularly post-puberty), and I think it would behoove us as a society to figure out where our kids are learning these things.
(Sidenote: I recall one instance of bullying against me where I was criticized for wearing my pants “low like a (female dog).” So I pulled them up as high as I could for the next few days. I was later criticized for wearing them “high like a (female dog)” which, unfortunately, was not far what I expected; my response was “Which is it? Because you just said ‘low like a (female dog)’ a few days before.” That shut them up for a while.)
Third, bullying in general, particularly among elementary school kids. We know school bullying has gotten more publicity in recent years. I’m not sure if it’s just that we know more about it now that the Internet has brought us all closer together (meaning that the bullying problem was this bad all along, we just didn’t know), or if the problem is a new one that happens to coincide with the Internet era. Either way, Katie’s story is a call to action. The kids that are in school today need to be taught in no uncertain terms that bullying is not okay.
Fourth, individuality (and some of this goes back to gender stereotypes as well). Everyone is different; no two people are exactly the same. The sooner in life people learn this, the better the world will be. It’s okay to be different, in the minority, to be the one girl in the class that likes Star Wars and playing football, to be the one boy in the class that likes pink water bottles and playing with dolls. While some professions are dominated by one gender over another (when I was in elementary school most of the boys thought it was odd that a boy wanted to be a teacher when he grew up), almost every career has at least some of both. It goes the same for a lot of things, including medical conditions. Not everyone is born or grows up in perfect health; I was underweight through a good portion of my childhood (you would never know this looking at me today).
Fifth and finally, the spectacular (if not first-rate) parenting skills of Carrie Goldman, without which this entire story as it happened would not have been possible, and also without which the result could have been disastrous at some point in the future. I wish there were more moms (and dads) like her out there, with strong and finely tuned instincts (would I be that wrong to refer to such instincts as “The Force?”), that know there’s more to the story than the water bottle is too small. This is an example of parenting every mom (and dad) can learn from.
In closing: To Katie, Carrie, and young bullying victims and their parents everywhere, may the Force be with you. Remember that you’re not alone.