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Are They Ready?: Questioning When to Have Difficult Discussions

"Why do you think the girls felt that way? Why didn't they want the shoes anymore?" I ask my 7th-grade class yesterday. We had just read 'The Family of Little Feet' from The House on Mango Street, which describes three girls getting unwanted sexual attention because they've worn high-heeled shoes in their neighborhood.

The students look at me, silent and unsure. This is usually a loud, talkative class. During The Giver they were bubbling over with thoughts and ideas. At this question, though, many of them are stumped. A few, mostly boys, begin to quietly raise their hands. 

"The shoes were fancier than anything in the neighborhood, and people were jealous?"

"The shoes hurt?" 

I pause for a moment. This class is, frankly, younger than my class last year. Not just in perceived maturity, but in actual age-- the majority are eleven or twelve-year-olds. "How many of you have ever worn high heels before?" Two girls shyly raised their hands.

I realize now that, despite my usual assumptions, it's possible that my students haven't fully realized the everyday reality of being a woman in America. A number of them may still be seen and, perhaps, see themselves as little girls.

That's not to say they haven't experienced it yet-- these encounters can happen at shockingly young ages. It's possible, though, they even if they have, many of my female students don't yet realize the weight of those actions, how it will color their existence, how it will change the way they move through the world. 

That's the first time my gut will clench that morning. Should I keep going? Are they ready to have this conversation?

The thing is, I'm a huge advocate for having difficult discussions. I've written about that for this and other sites multiple times. I know we can't shy away from these conversations, no matter how hard it might seem sometimes. They have to happen.

Still, I'd be lying if that decision always came easily. With my ninth-graders, these topics feel much more easy to discuss. Their age, access to Tumblr, and the fact that the majority have hit puberty at this point mean that they are often already aware of what's happening in the world. My job is to create a space to have a dialogue. 

With my seventh-graders, though, we're in a  strange, gray area sometimes.

"Okay," I continue, "How many of you know what 'catcalling' is?"

One kid raises their hand, saying, "I think I heard about that." The rest giggle, and a few, adorable "Meow!"s flutter through the class.

My gut clenches again. 

They are on the cusp of entering into a much more adult, sometimes exciting, though often frightening and difficult world. I want to acknowledge that, but I also acknowledge that some of then are on the cusp and not quite over the edge yet.

Some of my students don't know what awaits them and, honestly, sometimes I don't want to be the one to tell them. I don't want to shatter that innocence, that sweet view of a world where they walk down the street with their friends and cat-calling is something resigned to adorable creatures and not the sinking feeling of being unsafe. 

I look at their faces, bright eyes looking at me waiting to explain what high-heeled shoes and cats have to do with any of this. I know that I have to prepare them for the reality of the world. I know that this is a discussion I need to have with them because I care not just about them, but about the humans they will become and encounter later on in life.

Still, my stomach aches with doubt. What's the line between necessary difficulties and shattering their innocence? Does that line exist? 

I try to come at the question another way. "Have you ever gotten attention from someone that you didn't want or made you feel weird?"

That's when it happens. Two girls look over at me. They don't raise their hands, but I see their solemn faces as they nod their heads slightly. My stomach unclenches. I move forward. 

The conversation moves slowly from there. I ask a lot of questions ("Why did they feel weird? What made them uncomfortable? What would you do in that situation?"), I ask them to talk to each other, I ask them to put themselves into the shoes of other people. 

That's when I am hit with a slightly comforting notion: the conversation won't end today. I am starting it now, and it may not hit for some kids. It may pass over them. What we talked about or what we heard today may not click for them until a few years from now, when the world has opened to them in different ways.

I can't tell you if I masterfully facilitated the conversation, or even if I made the right choice to continue talking about it, or if I will make the right choice next week as we keep reading. All I can hope is that, when they're ready for it, this conversation will unlock from the back of their memories, and they will at least be a little more prepared then if I had stayed silent.

Maybe that's all I can ask for. 

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