There are times when I'm teaching and I will deliberately go off the script of marking boring work and delve into a conversation under the pretence of getting the girls to engage with a text. Today was such a day. I could sense my grade 9s weren't really riveted by the work we were doing; in spite of the value of the work. We were marking a past paper which is great preparation for exams but not so great when it's just another Wednesday morning at school.
The comprehension in the past paper wasn't particularly exciting nor particularly dull. It was Daniel Browde's reflection of attending his 20 year reunion. One of the questions that became a talking point for almost half the lesson was the issue of the social hierarchy he describes as a labyrinth: "The labyrinth was not the place, although it was apt that the reunion was held there. The labyrinth was the group: the 250 human beings herded together every weekday for 5 years. And not just any 5 years: those godforsaken, tender, teenage years". Browde refers to the old order of his high school years establishing itself 20 years later at the reunion. The old order refers to the social hierarchy we've all found ourselves to be a part of at some point during our school lives and possibly even in our adult lives.
I couldn't help but use this text to find out what the girls' experience is at the moment: "Is this the case at St Mary's?" There was an awkward silence and eye contact. Eventually one of the girls responded bravely after a coaxing smile from me: "Well, it's difficult to talk about the issue without mentioning names, but there's definitely a hierarchy in our grade". This response opened the flood gates to a confession session about the dynamics among the girls in their social circles.
While listening to them regale me with their experiences and the rules of the game I couldn't help but share what I'd seen during high school. I told them about the "Snob Squad" and the "Homies" the two popular groups when my sister was in Grade 7 in 1998. The "Snob Squad" was the white girls corollary of the "Homies"; the cool black girls. They set the standard of cool in their grade 7 year which extended itself into their high school experience. It seemed this was still happening in 2016.
Some of the girls shared their experience as outsiders as some of them had been to co-ed, public primary schools which did not prepare them for the cliquey, private school, girl experience. One of the new girls initially felt that "But all the girls in our grade are friends" only to contradict herself by making a perceptive remark "I think the problem is that girls are competitive" which meant that even friendships were about competition. The same girl also made a comment about the grooming process happening in high schools: the cool girls in Matric will befriend the cool girls in grade 11 who will do the same to the grade 10s and so the cycle goes until everyone in the school knows who the cool stream consists of in the school. This initiation process made the girls believe that there's no point in even trying to break the trend of cliquishness that is an established culture in the school.
One of the girls likened the social hierarchy to a ladder and one way of climbing up the rungs and becoming an A-lister (yes, they actually used this word) is the proximity to boys: the more boys one had in their circle the more popular they became in school. This was nothing new to me but it saddened me that in a time where these girls have been bombarded with images of Beyonce and girls running the world, boys still determined the value they placed on themselves and each other. This is one of the greatest criticisms against single-sex schools (especially for girls): girls become obsessed with boys because they are not part of their every day experience. And the obsession can manifest itself in the strange value boys have-- even in their absence-- among teenage girls.
I was disheartened by most of what the girls shared but I also couldn't help but share in the hilarity of the situation. One of the girls pointed out how ludicrous the cliques are when she made an example of two groups sitting back to back in their same area: instead of forming one big, inclusive circle perhaps. The girls felt that this is a clear example of how entrenched the groups are among the girls. I then became interested in how the groups formed. There wasn't a simple answer to this: some came from the same primary schools, others it was sport but for others it was just a force of nature. You saw a group of people who had the same mannerisms as you and you decided to be friends. Or for those who are more confident, like attracts like and before you know it, all the pretty and confident girls are sitting together and firmly establishing their position as the A-listers.
Instead of marking a past paper we had managed to do an analysis of the social hierarchy in the school for 40 minutes. I'm sure the girls walked out feeling victorious because they managed to to shirk away some work; but the discussion was a different kind of work I like having in my classroom. Analysis doesn't only need to happen through an assessment. Analysis can happen through a conversation looking deeper into the social interactions we take for granted.