Friday, April 5, 2013

You Write Like a Boy

I recently had occasion to look through my ninth-grade diary, where I came upon this curious notation: “English—Miss K. said I write like a boy! Thanks!” Needless to say, this entry brings up some questions:
  • Why, exactly, did Miss K. think I wrote like a boy?
  • Was her comment meant as a compliment or a criticism?
  • When I wrote, "Thanks!" was I expressing sarcasm or pride?
I’ve thought long and hard about my English teacher’s comment. From my current perch as a journalistic, nonfiction author, I wonder if she had picked up on the fact that my writing tended to be more reportorial than emotional. Was there a dispassion in my ninth-grade writing that she pegged as “masculine”? Did I rely more heavily on verbs than adjectives and thus not write flowery prose? Or was it the content that made her draw that conclusion? I don’t know which piece of writing prompted her comment, but in those days, I know I wasn’t writing about sports. Still, perhaps the protagonist in a story I wrote was more self-confident than those of the other girls in my class. I guess it will remain a mystery.

As for the second question, I’m hoping it was more of an observation than either a compliment or criticism. To put the comment in historical context, it was written in 1969, when the second wave of feminism was in full swing. I don’t recall Miss K. being a feminist. (She was known as “Miss” K., but that was before “Ms.” became a popular option.) I asked my brother, who had her as a teacher a few years after me, but all he remembered was that she was “cute.” I remember her being relatively new to the profession, and perhaps not as nurturing or supportive as some of my more memorable instructors. Still, I’d like to give her credit for being evolved enough not to criticize me for my writing voice. So I’ll take her words as either a compliment or an observation.

Alas, to the third point, I think I really did feel proud of her assessment. In the late 1960s, men got the great jobs and had the adventures that girls like me secretly wished we could have. I never wanted to be a boy, but I did read Boy’s Life and fervently wished I could go on the escapades chronicled in that magazine. In my mind, by saying that I wrote like a boy, Miss K. was telling me she thought I was tough and adventurous. That meant I might have the stuff to pursue a worldly career beyond marriage and childrearing. So I am 99 percent sure that I was expressing pride, rather than sarcasm, when I wrote, "Thanks!"

In my quest for enlightenment about my diary entry, I pulled out my ninth-grade yearbook and looked up Miss K. Yep, now I remember her. She even signed my yearbook. Here’s what she wrote: “You certainly have the ambition and ability to go very far in life. Best of luck and success to a very intelligent girl.” Now I wonder if it was my ambition and drive that she thought were masculine. I was always pretty competitive, whether in gym or in English class. And since this was three years before Title IX started to level the playing field for women and men, ambition wasn’t exactly an accepted part of a high school girl’s DNA. 

Of course, one conclusion I could draw is that Miss K.’s comment said more about her than it did about me. Today, when gender roles are somewhat fluid and political correctness is paramount, I can’t imagine any teacher thinking, let alone telling a girl she writes like a boy, or visa versa. Though I suspect most teachers wouldn’t have voiced those thoughts in 1969, either, maybe it was an acceptable faux pas for a young woman just out of teachers’ college.

At any rate, I suspect I've spent a lot more time thinking about Miss K.'s comment now than I did when she originally made it.


Deborah Heiligman said...

This is such an interesting post, and question. I wish you could travel back in time to yourself then, and Miss K. then and see what else you could figure out. Maybe you could look her up and see what she's doing now? My son teaches second grade at a progressive school. Early on in the year there was a grouping of some kind for an activity. Someone commented that a particular group didn't have enough boys. One girl said in a matter of fact tone, "I'll be a boy." And my son thought it was so great how she said it and how the other kids just accepted it. So much great change in forty years. I'll have to ask him how she writes.

Fortunate One said...

I had a similar experience from a high school English teacher in 1965. He wrote that I had a logical mind, "rare in a female." I was flattered by the first phrase, but
felt dissed by the second. I felt slightly offended, though I'll admit I tend toward the rational rather than emotional in my thinking. It may have had something to do with the fact that I was the only senior who suspected that the "theme" of Ravel's Bolero, though I couldn't bring myself to use the words "sex" or "seduction" in my comments. It wouldn't have been modest in those times.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Sue: When I read things like your essay, I'm once again grateful that I live in this time and place in history. And also that I'm of that "certain age" that I saw some of what life for women was like before. I'm convinced your teacher meant her comments as a compliment. And I'm glad that such a comment wouldn't make any sense today!

Susan Kuklin said...

Once, after writing a book or an article - so long ago I don't remember which it was - an interviewer asked me, "If you were a man, could you have gotten all this personal information?" How do you answer such a question?

Today's young writers live in a much more gender fluid world. Although I doubt that your teacher meant harm, today's Miss K would probably say to you, Sue, "You write like Sue Macy." Now that's what I call a compliment.'

Thanks for this evocative post.

Sue Macy said...

So here's another perspective on this whole post. I told my dad that Miss K. once told me I "write like a boy" and I wrote a blog post about it. And he asked, "Did she mean your handwriting?" Wouldn't that be a kick in the pants if she'd been referring to my handwriting and not my voice/style of writing? But I really think she meant my voice....

Thanks to everyone for their comments. Deb, I did try to find Miss K., but her name is somewhat common and all I found was a younger woman who works at HP. On the topics of gender fluidity and changing times, I'm really glad people can write like themselves these days, rather than as "boys" or "girls," but I'm a little horrified that my days as a junior high student were culturally and chronologically so long ago. :)

Karen Romano Young said...

How strange. I'm guilty of reading New York Times articles with my hand over the byline and then trying to figure out whether a male or female wrote it. Usually I don't start out that way, but I slap my hand down over the byline when I see something that gives me a clue, and continue the article before doing my little gender check. Often the writer who has said something to tip me off is a man making some sexist comment, but weirdly sometimes it turns out to be a woman.

But other than this I can't think how you tell a male voice from a female's in writing nonfiction, so I'm as puzzled as you are. It would be interesting to do a study of this, comparing words or phrases to see what the tip-offs are, if any.

I'm with the others: keep trying to find Miss K!

Great post.