On December 7, I was slated to give another TEDx talk at Cape Elizabeth High School (CEHS) in southern Maine. This was a fabulous TEDxYouth event, and I was so honored to be part of it and to get to be the last adult speaker at the end of the day. The entire junior and senior class at CEHS attended, and loving teenagers as I do, I decided to join them for lunch.
The speakers were all provided with box lunches, so I grabbed mine and headed to the cafeteria. The students were just lining up and the tables were empty, so I sat down in the middle of the cafeteria at one of the round tables that seated eight. I figured students would get their meals and some would join me. I was wrong.
The tables around me all filled up. Some were all boy tables; some mixed, and the one directly in front of me was all girls. It was full, so a couple of girls asked if they could take one of the chairs at my table. I said sure. As I watched them squeeze into the now overfull table, one girl came up and asked if she could take another chair. There were four left at my empty table. I said “sure” again, but added with a smile (not in any guilt-trippy way, I promise), “No one’s going to sit here anyway.”
Moments later, I saw that girl lean over to talk to a couple of others. The next thing I knew, four of them picked up their trays, walked over to me and asked if they could join me. I was so happy to have their company. Kira, Haley, Sammy, and Casey sat down and introduced themselves. They didn’t know who I was, because I hadn’t yet given my talk, but were eager to learn about humane education. They were lovely. They were poised, friendly, compassionate, and bright. They spoke about their school in such positive ways. They talked about the lack of clicks and bullies. They talked about their dreams and interests.
I told the girls who joined me how glad I was that they did. I shared that I was finding myself wondering if I was getting a taste of what it’s like to be an ostracized girl, someone no one will sit with in the cafeteria. We commiserated about what that would be like. One admitted that she has a lunch period each week during a time when none of her friends have lunch and so she spreads her books around her and does homework, ensuring that at least she doesn’t appear ostracized.
Middle and high school girls have a reputation for being mean and gossipy. TV shows like Gossip Girl reinforce this stereotype. I well remember those girls in my own school who fit the stereotype. Even worse, I recall a couple of times when I was truly unkind, too. But this stereotype may have the unintended consequence of reinforcing itself, as it did in the Gossip Girl series when the new Queen Bee of the class felt compelled to be mean, against her desires and nature, to maintain her status. But as often as not, high school girls – like all of us – are kind, and this is the stereotype we should be reinforcing.
My conversation with these girls made my wonderful day at TEDxYouth@CEHS even better. And it reminded me that these lovely young women were not only already making a difference but were also poised to do great things in the world.
Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDxConejo talk: “Solutionaries”
My TEDxDirigo talk: “The World Becomes What You Teach“
My TEDxYouth@BFS “Educating for Freedom”
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