Friday, October 17, 2008

Princess? Oh I'll Give You a Princess

One of the things that I think about constantly as a teacher of young children is the influence that I have on my student's lives.  For many of my kids, I'm the person they see most consistently outside of their immediate families.  In addition, most of my students are having their first "school" experience when they enter my classroom; it's a responsibility that I take pretty seriously.  One of the interesting aspects of teaching preschoolers is that a lot of the instruction I give them is social; my job is to "prepare them for kindergarten," which has more to do with appropriate peer interaction and socialization than academics.

My job is to socialize these kids.  Me, a woman whose most significant social outlet at present is my weekly Scrabble Club meeting.  When future generations experience a spike in social awkwardness and book lovin', I'll take full responsibility.

I try to be really respectful of where kids are coming from; what their families believe and what they might be learning at home.  When a conflict arises between what I'm trying to teach and what they've heard from their parents I can usually clear up any confusion by helping my students differentiate between "home rules" and "school rules."  Gun play is an area that benefits from this delineation; you may be able to play pretend with guns at home, but at school you can't "shoot" your classmates when they won't share.  Kids are surprisingly good at adhering to these boundaries once they're drawn.

There are some issues, however, where I believe that one of my duties as a teacher is to widen my student's horizons.  The societal enforcement of gender roles is something I feel strongly about, and something that I constantly take pains to subvert within my own classroom.  Highfalutin language aside, I'm creating a voting bloc of feminists, once princess-loving preschooler at a time.

I was never a princess kind of a girl.  I split my youth fairly evenly between playing sports and reading any book I could get my hands on.  The closest I ever came to wanting to be a princess was my preschool Halloween costume; I dressed up as She-Ra, Princess of Power.  If I'm going to be a princess, you had better fucking believe it's going to a be princess of power.  The enormous popularity of Disney and their all-powerful marketing department have combined to create a cult-princess following in the preschool crowd.  In addition to the princesses characters themselves, Disney in it's infinite wisdom has created all manner of Disney Princess products, a series of horrifying items ranging from dolls to CDs to a Disney Princess TV/DVD Combo.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being a princess, I suppose,  but my students aren't able to grasp Disney's half hearted attempts to empower its princesses.  Yes, Jasmine longs to experience life outside of the palace.  And yes, she is looking for a prince that loves her for herself an not just because she's a princess ... but all of that pales in comparison to her shiny clothes and pet tiger.  Plus she's weirdly thin and her overarching goal is to get married.  Woo-fucking-hoo.  My kids need real role female role models ... women who define success without reference to sexual relationships.  Women who go off on adventures and come home with treasure and unkempt hair.  Unfortunately, those types of role models are (literally) less sparkly than Disney princesses, and their dresses don't twirl as gracefully. Which is where Ms. Marie steps in.

The other day I was drawing with several of my three year-old students.  We had just finished listening to the Disney Princesses sing the ABCs, a CD "Susan" had brought from home.  Susan walked up to me with a crayon and paper and asked me to draw a princess for her to color.  So I drew a princess.  My princess was wearing jeans and holding a pumpkin (she had a crown on over her pony tail).  Susan was not happy.  "She not a princess," Susan said.  "She doesn't have a dress and she's not pretty."  So Susan and I had a conversation.  I explained to Susan that my princess was a pumpkin princess, and that she had to wear pants because she worked on a farm and her pigs stepped on her dress if she wore it to do chores.  I further explained that I thought my princess was pretty and that people think different things are pretty.  "I think spiders are pretty," I said, "do you think spiders are pretty?" Susan's answer was an emphatic "NO."  Then I told Susan that everyone could be the princess of something if they worked hard and were nice to people.  Susan seemed to buy it; we decided that she could be the princess of dancing and she spent the next 20 minutes drawing pictures of herself spinning in circles (with a crown on her head.)  I don't know if it will stick, but I did hear Susan telling some of the other girls that anyone could be a princess ... I count that as a successful lesson.

I drew other princesses throughout the day for myself and for other students; princesses of food, and gardens, and football, and a nice fat princess of baking, which inspired a whole different conversation (WHY IS SHE FAT!?!?!?!) I got inspired and drew my friend Greta as the Princess of Paint.  I think she'd be kind of a great role model for my kiddos.

Yours in princess power,


Jenn said...

Greta looks she always does. :)

megamax said...

rock on princess shadow.