Last week, the same day that the American Association of University Women released another report claiming that girls are being shortchanged by their formal schooling, my husband and I found ourselves standing in a public-school hallway, studying the first-grade art hanging on the wall. We were waiting our turn to be ushered into our son’s first-grade classroom for a conference with his teacher. Looking through the little glass rectangle in the classroom door, we could see another set of parents nodding seriously and teetering in their tiny chairs while the teacher talked. So we walked in little circles in the hallway, stopping every now and then to look at crayoned pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
In truth, we were nervous. My husband is a schoolteacher, and I spent 12 years teaching school myself, so school is not a scary place for us. But this time we weren’t pacing down a school corridor en route to teach someone else’s sons and daughters how to write a topic sentence or interpret a sonnet; we were there to talk about our own little boyour generous, smart, curious, imaginative, wonderful little boy, the finest 6-year-old boy in all the world. What if his teacher, in the normal bustle of a full and busy classroom, hadn’t yet noticed how generous, smart, curious, imaginative, and wonderful he really is? Worse yet, what if he actually wasn’t any of those things at school? What if his teacher didn’t even like him?
So there we were, pacing the hall and studying the juvenile artwork. Every picture had an identical blue construction-paper border around it, and all the drawings were hung together in a group beside the classroom door. We assumed, then, that the grouping represented the artwork of students in the same class, namely the first-grade class our son belonged to.
The only problem was that half the pictures looked as though they had been drawn by first-gradersat least the sort of first-grader we’re familiar withand the other half looked like the work of an adult. Well, maybe not an adult, but at least a kid in fourth or fifth grade.
“Look at this one,” my husband marveled, pointing to a picture of the Santa Maria all decked out in full sail, with Christopher Columbus himself on board, spyglass to his eye. The intricate rigging on the ship was expertly executed in gray crayon, the billowing waves a realistic combination of blues, greens, and purples. The picture was signed, “Sara.”
“Well, Sara is certainly a budding artist,” my husband remarked as we searched the wall for our own child’s Columbus Day effort. By the time we found it, we’d scrutinized a dozen other perfectly colored pictures, not a single mark straying outside the lines. Every picture of Columbus featured exquisite detail: a feather in his hat, gold buckles on his boots, tiny little fingers on his capable hands. Every ship’s mast was surrounded by pillowy white sails in an azure sky. And every one of the really extraordinary pictures was signed by a girl.
By contrast, the ships colored by the little boys were hastily scrawled things with thick black masts drawn by a crayon pressed down so hard the paper looked embossed. Unlike those done by the girls, details in these pictures were few, though at least two ships featured what appeared to be cannons mounted on deck. Our own son’s picture was the absolute worst of the lot, consisting entirely of a wavering pencil outline and the color brown, spottily applied to the hull of what must have been the ship. No aquamarine waves, no puffy white clouds, no jaunty black boots. It might as well have been a picture drawn by Koko the Gorilla.
We were just beginning to look at each other in dismay and mild alarm when the classroom door swung open and Mrs. Hartford came out, warmly smiling. Instantly we felt better, the way you’re supposed to feel in the company of a first-grade teacher, and from there the conference went very well. The teacher our son adores with all his heart has clearly earned that adorationwith patience, firmness, and high enthusiasm for interesting things like vampire bats and volcanic eruptions. She has, moreover, noticed about our son all the marvelous qualities we love about him ourselves.
It was a relief to learn that Mrs. Hartford wasn’t worried about the time last week when he got his name put on the board for leaping to his feet during story time, or the check he got beside his name for writing on his neighbor’s paper during the phonics lesson, or the check he got beside that one for making an indiscreet noise in the back row during show-and-tell. She wasn’t worried about his Neanderthal handwriting or his monochromatic coloring. “Boys just aren’t as good at sitting still and doing fine-motor activities as girls are,” she said, smiling reassuringly, “and anyway he’s getting better every day. Nothing to worry about.”
Listening to “All Things Considered” on the way home, I considered writing to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) to recommend they take a lesson from Mrs. Hartford. Last week the AAUW’s new study reported that while girls have caught up to boys in science and math, schools are still shortchanging girls, this time in computer skills. This inequity in technology skills, the AAUW argues, is a sign of the continued failure of schools to treat girls fairly.
I don’t know how people ever got the idea that a good school ensures all children are equally successful at every single intellectual and creative task they attempt, but I say the AAUW needs a healthy dose of Mrs. Hartford’s philosophy. If girls lag behind boys in computer skills, it’s probably because they haven’t spent countless after-school hours killing aliens on Nintendo. Why should it be a failure of schools if girls in general just aren’t drawn to machines as a source of entertainment?
In real life, it’s perfectly okay to be good at some things and not so good at others. The important questions are whether our schoolchildrengirls and boysare getting better at what they happen not to be very good at, and whether they are learning new things. In the end, that’s quite enough for any teacher and any school.