by Jess Hill
Whenever I tell someone in the community that I work at an all-girls school, I often see their head tilt a bit, as if they have just heard a high-pitched noise. The reaction can be disbelief coupled with curiosity, wrapped in a world of assumptions about “mean girls” and a need for boys to be in the mix. When I meet this reaction, my mind swirls with all the things I would like to say in defense of an all-girls environment. Most of the time, I simply say that the students and community here are incredible, and I hope they will come and see it for themselves.
Girls are not yet fully formed in the years between 10 and 18. Can girls do insensitive and thoughtless things, i.e. “be mean?” Absolutely. Can boys do the same during these years? Absolutely. We are here to build a community of girls, however, that discourages that behavior and keeps a close watch on the motivation that causes it and the lessons that are learned from it. We never meet these challenges by saying, “girls will be girls” or “that is just the way 13 year-old girls are wired.” Not so – we dig deeper for the causes of the behavior, and we create opportunity for counter examples to combat those assumptions every day.
Last week, I spent 40 minutes of pure delight watching our 5th Grade Talent Show. Girls sang, danced, played the ukulele and violin on center stage of the theatre. Some were in groups and some were alone. The performances were wonderful, but the best number belonged to the audience. The entire middle school student body and faculty cheered and gave an immediate standing ovation after every single performance. I watched the whole thing from the back of the theatre, and there was not a second of hesitation about the affirmation these girls gave to the youngest members of their community. They knew that it took courage to do what they did, and they knew it was incredibly important to give the 5th grade students unconditional approval of the risks they had taken. Would those risks have been taken and affirmed so freely at a co-ed school? I do not have the answer, but I know what happened here.
In the upper school, looking for the motivation behind unkind behavior becomes more complicated, and in that vein, we now talk more about comparison, and how that may lead us down the wrong path. We all compare ourselves to each other far too often. A couple of years ago, our upper school students completed a survey regarding confidence, in which the students were asked to choose what they believed to be their greatest inhibitor to building true confidence. A majority of students in each class chose comparison. Of course, the challenges with comparison are not reserved to teenage girls. Someone across the room is always smarter, more beautiful, and more talented than we. When students begin to compare themselves to each other, a tendency toward schadenfreude or “bad joy” can begin to seep through our best intentions. When we delight in something bad happening to the prettiest, smartest or perceived most popular girl, we can witness a darker side of humanity.
In 2013, Ann Friedman wrote about something called “the shine theory.” In a nutshell, Ms. Friedman explains that when we meet that woman who is the smartest, most charming, or most articulate in the room, we should not feel the need to compete with her; instead we need to become her friend and ally. Contrary to our misguided belief, the amount of success in any room is not fixed. If one person is shining, it is best for us to be by her side and encourage her success. The idea is that the light will also shine brightly on those around her. “Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison,” she said. “It makes you better. True confidence is infectious.”
When we reach a place of authentic confidence in this all-girls environment, we are free to go into the co-ed world as ourselves. We also accept others as who they are. And so, I bring us back to the skeptic. We are surrounding our girls with other strong, competent, and confident girls and young women. They are real, but they are not perfect. We do not want our girls to enter Harpeth Hall as perfect or leave our school as perfect. They are smart, serious, funny, creative, brave, and kind for many hours of the day. The next time I meet the skeptic, perhaps I should say that we hold this place for girls to be precisely who they are, and to be surrounded by girls who strive to be the best of who they are more hours of each day.
A show of support. The 8th grade students made a congratulatory sign with personal notes to display in the 5th grade pod the day after the talent show.