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Eighth grade is girls' hell

Published Oct. 8, 2005

If you're an American female on the far side of high school, you probably recall eighth grade with as much fondness as your first bout of PMS.

Boys, suddenly awash in hormones, crossed new frontiers of obnoxiousness almost daily.

Math and science classes taught you more about insecurity, intimidation and failure than you ever learned about square roots or the periodic table.

You hated your body, your hair, your wardrobe, your parents and, depending upon who had a crush on whom, maybe even your best friend.

You were 13 or 14, and life was hell. To paraphrase humorist/cartoonist Lynda Barry, eighth grade put women in a bad mood for the next 20 years.

Perhaps it's possible to muster a measure of grim humor about it a couple of decades after the fact, but the damage done to girls by their schools, their peers and their parents at a critical stage in their emotional development is anything but amusing. According to writer Peggy Orenstein, girls get pushed into a "confidence gap," and many can't climb back out.

For her new book, SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self Esteem, and the Confidence Gap (Doubleday, $23.50), Orenstein, a 32-year-old San Franciscan, spent an academic year attending eighth grade at two schools in California: the predominantly white, middle-income "Weston Middle," and the predominantly poor, minority "Audubon Middle" (she changed the names of the girls and their schools to protect their privacy).

Orenstein concludes that, "although all children experience confusion and a faltering sense of self at adolescence, girls' self-regard drops further than boys' and never catches up. They emerge from their teenage years with reduced expectations and have less confidence in themselves and their abilities than do boys."

Her work expands on a study by the American Association of University Women that polled 3,000 girls and boys, ages 9 to 15, about gender and self-esteem, concentrating on "the ways in which the education system _ often unwittingly _ inhibits, restricts, diminishes and denies girls' experiences," Orenstein writes. It found that, by their early teens, "girls had internalized the limitations of gender.

"Boys are more likely to say they are "pretty good at lots of things' and are twice as likely to name their talents as the thing they like most about themselves," Orenstein writes. "Girls, meanwhile, cite an aspect of their physical appearance. Unsurprisingly, then, teenage girls are much more likely than boys to say they are "not smart enough' or "not good enough' to achieve their dreams."

Orenstein's message is getting a lot of attention. During a recent visit to South Florida, she met with a group of Dade County school administrators, school board members and educators. She was amazed that they seemed so eager to hear more, rather than reacting defensively.

During her year-long return to the eighth grade, Orenstein observed teachers at both schools who routinely ignored girls' raised hands to lavish attention on boys who yelled out answers. Boys, then, were rewarded for aggressiveness; girls for passivity.

Orenstein followed girls to homes where parents had different standards of behavior and personal freedom for their sons and daughters that generally fell along these lines: Boys will be boys _ but girls have to be perfect.

In school, she found that the erstwhile quaint annoyance of hallway bra-strap snapping has progressed to grabbing, pinching and fondling. She heard boys taunt girls with every imaginable sexually derived insult _ "ho" being a favorite _ and found that, when girls complain, they often find themselves in trouble for making trouble.

None of this is confined to just the two California schools, of course. When Orenstein came to South Florida and visited Norland High School in north Dade _ where she met with 50 middle school and high school girls, almost all of them black _ what she heard wasn't any different than what female students have said to her everywhere:

The "popular" boys are the worst sexual harassers.

Boys who have sex are considered studs, but girls who have sex are seen as sluts.

Girls can be meaner to each other than boys ever can be.

"If you ask them what's easy about being a girl, they say, "Nothing.' What's easy about being a boy? They had a lot to say about that."


"Boys get away with everything."

"Girls get pregnant, and boys say it's not theirs."

"Boys get to stay out late, and their parents trust them more."

"You ever see a girl on a football team?"

"Girls have to struggle more. It's a man's world."

The same girl who made that last remark was quick to assure Orenstein that boys sexually harass only those who allow it to happen. It's that assertiveness that places black teenage girls at the top of the female self-esteem totem pole.

"The black girls always say, "If you respect yourself, people will respect you,' " Orenstein said later. "There's a very big cultural difference. It's not that (black girls) don't experience sexism and racism. It's that they have cultural reserves to draw on that white girls don't have."

As for Hispanic girls, Orenstein writes that "without the personal self-esteem of black girls or the academic opportunities enjoyed by many white girls, the consequences of silence and marginalization ... are especially dire. In their teenage years, they have more negative body image, are at greater risk for attempting suicide and report higher levels of emotional stress _ anxiety, depression, nervousness, insecurity or exhaustion _ than any other group of children, male or female, of any race or ethnicity.

"Latina girls are particularly vulnerable to gang membership and are twice as likely as white girls to become teenage mothers ... the least likely to be called on or speak out in class, the least likely to be recognized as gifted and the least likely to believe they can achieve their dreams."

At times at school, Orenstein found herself lapsing into old, stereotypical patterns.

"I would often want to make a connection with the girls and relate to them by saying, "Love what you did with your hair today.' I had to really force myself to find something else to say because we all learn to compliment girls for how they look and boys for what they do."

She also had to confront again many of the negative experiences she had had as a teenager, especially Math Trauma.

"Girls fear humiliation because they get their sense of self from outside from such an early age," she said, and, in that context, "one teacher can make you or break you. I had one math teacher who broke me. That was it. He let the boys run roughshod over the girls. He said sexist things in class and _ math life was over."

Carol Berns, an educational consultant in Coral Gables and former Dade County gifted-program teacher, thinks girls get shut out of math and the sciences because they lack role models.

"When you go into the middle schools and on up, most math and science teachers are male," Berns said. "You get males selecting males" when teachers look for students to respond to questions.

This isn't so for younger students, said Joanna Hayes, who teaches gifted fourth and fifth graders at Country Isles Elementary School in Broward County. She said that, in those grades, the opposite actually holds true.

"The girls are so gung-ho waving their hands that it's the boys you have to look out for. When boys put their hand in the air, you pick on them because they're finally raising their hands, but by the end of the (fifth-grade) year you can already see them getting in little groups and getting those middle-school attitudes."

Chris Arculeo, who teaches honors math at Broward's Tequesta Trace Middle School in Weston, thinks the entire problem is overstated.

"My girls are shining stars just like the boys," she said. "They maintain interest. Maybe it changes in high school, but I've been teaching eighth-grade math for the last six years, and I think it's overplayed."

A single teacher can make a difference, Orenstein said. She found teachers who made sure that female students were heard and others committed to including women in the curriculum.

"I watched a science teacher who would ask a question, then wait a little bit, because girls tend to raise their hands a little later because they second-guess," she said. "If you wait, it does make a big difference."

She met a teacher named Judy Logan at a third San Francisco Bay-area school who not only asks her students to "be" famous people of other genders and races but manages to conduct low-key, productive discussions about sexual harassment. Her approach, Orenstein said, works far better than the lower-the-boom disciplinary tactics she observed at the other schools.

"In Judy's class, where they were talking it out, they made a lot more progress in figuring out right and wrong," she said. "A climate was established where girls could say, "Sometimes, I think this may be flattering, but then I'm not sure, so I feel dirty because I'm not sure.' For a girl to be able to say that in front of 35 kids, half of them boys, and not get slammed for it was amazing."