I want to start by, once again, talking about gender. On Thursday, one of the teachers I work with led an oragami activity during an amount of time designated for art. While the teacher demonstrated each step, I followed along with my own piece of paper and helped kids figure out the folds. At one point, I understood that we would be making a dog. After many steps into the supposed orgami dog, I noticed that the teacher was focusing on something else and that my paper, along with with all of the kids around me, didn't look anything like a dog. When I asked him what we missed, he told me that what we had made was a 2-dimensional vase and flower, not a dog, para las niñas (for the girls). The dog would be next.
I couldn't help but think, ''Seriously? Do girls not like dogs?''
This particular manifestation of inscribing gender roles strikes me as particularly absurd, but does a good job of illustrating how reinforcing gender roles can become second nature. There's no reason to indicate who should choose which oragami project -- other than the assumption that girls will like one thing and boys will like the other. This is, of course, not the case, but the teacher seemed to designate the different projects by gender without needing a reason why to do so. I don't think anyone would deny that plenty of girls adore dogs and would love to make an oragami dog. But this format invites girls to think that they aren't supposed to want to make a dog -- and none of them did. It's a subtle message, but it's a powerful one, especially when repeated over and over in different ways during childhood.
On Friday, the afternoon was devoted to physical education. This essentially meant that all of the kids would run around, most of them playing soccer or volleyball or switching back and forth in a disorganized manner, while Julia and I supervised. Camille was teaching. I don't know how this happened, but during the beginning of the period, Julia gathered a huge group of children together -- boys and girls -- to play a huge, co-ed game of soccer. Julia is a soccer player, so a few days ago she asked the director if it would be okay if she played soccer with the boys. He said it would be okay, but that the kids might think she's kind of manly. Without hesistation, that was fine with her, and I couldn't be happier about it. Creating a somewhat charming and unusual picture for this school, we played a giant and crazy game of soccer, including any girl that wanted to play.
Since girls rarely get the chance to play, the boys are much more skilled at soccer than the girls. But the girls didn't hesitate to kick the ball with all of their might when it came their way. They were having a blast, and I hope that seeing Julia playing with finesse and experiencing their own participation in the game demonstrated the possibility of participating in activities that fall outside of gender boundries.
We ran into a problem when one of the boys kicked the ball and a girls head happened to be directly in its path. The ball floored her and she immediately began to cry. As boys and girls crowded around, Julia came over and picked her up to comfort her. We quickly discussed whether we should play a different game, given the apparent risk of injury. I think we made the right decision by continuing the game. If we had stopped, we would have been supporting the idea that girls can't handle playing soccer and given the kids the impression that we had made a mistake by allowing girls to play. After the injury, I did take the girls who were interested to play volleyball. Since Thursday, I've generally played volleyball while Julia plays soccer, in what I hope is an understandable demonstration that men can play volleyball and women can play soccer -- both without hell freezing over.
Moving away from gender, the soccer incident was only one of many injuries and health risks. As you might be able to see from the pictures in the previous post, there are two large play areas that are simply empty rectangular patios of concrete. The two are directly next to each other and a garden separates them. There is a footpath that connects the two and a fence that runs along one of the patios' borders that is made up of wooden posts connected by two old, rusty wires. When the volleyball net is set up, one of the loose wires is tied to the volleyball post to keep the net taught -- which includes keeping a long, sharp, and rusty wire taught across about 7 feet of the play area. Sometimes, the kids 'limbo' under this wire, causing Julia, Camille and I to cringe and tell them to stop. But anyone who works with kids knows how deaf they are to warnings of danger. On Friday, one of the kids' limbo attempt didn't work out so well, and he cut his neck on the wire.
Luckily, it didn't cut deep enough to necessitate panic. It did cause bleeding, which means the wire could have been in contact with his blood stream. I don't know whether or not it's true that you can get tetanis from a rusty nail, but either way, this was frightening. In a place where it's unlikely that the boy has any immunizations or access to reliable health care, this kind of injury makes your heart pound. The director cleaned the wound with alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, so hopefully the kid will be fine. But after talking about it, Julia and I agreed that the fence is way too dangerous to stay there. While there is a path between the two play areas, often the kids just climb between the two wires to cross the fence. Or, when a soccer or volley ball goes astray and into the garden, they run right up to the fence to grab it. With so many nicks and twists and with so much rust, the fence poses obvious danger.
I asked the director whether the fence needed to be there. We could cut and remove the wire, I suggested. He said that they needed the fence, since they intend to preserve the garden and ask to children not to run through it (something they frequently disobey by climbing through the fence). I suggested that we replace the wire with rope and he responded that they didn't have the money for that. Julia, Camille, me, and the organization we came here with do have money, so Monday we will be replacing all of the wire with rope.
I had another clash with the director when at a certain point during physical education, he wanted the volleyball and soccer teams to train, while the others were left sitting on the sidelines with nothing to do.
This brings me, finally, to the issues indicated by the title of this post: judgment and paternalism. In the case of orgami, sports, and gender, I am caught in a somewhat awkward position between my radically leftist views, reinforced by my highly privileged education, and the desire not to paternalistically impose my views on others. I believe, amongst far more radical views, that gender is socially constructed and that rigid gender dichotomies are harmful. I have no doubt that many girls suffer from their squelched desire to play soccer and that many boys suffer from bottling up interests that may paint them as ''feminine.'' I also believe that the fence poses such an obvious and considerable danger that I wouldn't hesistate removing it for the sake of the kids, even if the garden it protected was the garden of Eden. I also would rather have every kid play whatever sport they wanted during the physical education period than have teams at all.
At the same time, I believe that considering myself both qualified and obligated to impose my views on others, especially in this situation, is problematic. What comes to light is the seemingly cliche conflict between moral convictions and relativism -- or maybe moral convictions and anti-paternalism. I'm not going to volunteer at a Peruvian public school for a month, or possibly two, and change it into my ideal elementary school. But how should I deal with this conflict on a practical level? What can I do with my tendency to judge decisions like the designation of gender roles when completely unnecessary, the unaddressed exclusion of children from paricipation in activities, or the insistence on preserving a health risk to children in order to preserve a garden? How aggressively and frequently should Julia, Camille, and I transgress the norms of the schools' activities in ways that challenge the kids' conceptions of gender -- or any other issue?
It seems to me that our task is to assist the kids in their learning and make sure that they enjoy themselves, no matter what activities serve that ends within reason. But even appealing to that conviction with my every action would be entitling myself to defining the school's mission and which action best serves that mission. I'm a volunteer, not a staff member, nor a stakeholder in the organization, so my responsibility is to work cooperatively. I don't have experience in the Peruvian Public School system, or experience working in any school system, and I don't understand how this school functions and the issues they face.
If what I wanted or needed was to put my idealism and insistence on practical, progressive action in perspective, to compare my knowledge of sometimes-utopian radical theory with sober reality, I couldn't possibly ask for more.