I met up with an old college friend last week. I hadn’t seen her in ten years, and during that decade she’d become a teacher and almost a lawyer. Some of her time was spent teaching eighth grade Spanish at a middle school in Atlanta. Now she teaches at a boarding school in Jersey.
She started telling me, nonchalantly, about some of the crazy names parents give their kids these days. Many of them were based on liquor (types and brands — some spelled wrong). This friend is considering doing some stand-up comedy, and says she has endless material based on her time in the Atlanta school system alone. Crazy things happened that were run of the mill. “Like how some of the girls would gyrate in their seats,” she said. “I mean the ones who were prostitutes.”
Eighth grade prostitutes?!
“Yes,” she said. “It happens often, sadly.” They get clothes and money and tattoos at age 13. One time a student misbehaved in class, and when my friend threatened to call her parents, the girl said, “All I have is a P.O. You can call him.” Her parole officer then told my friend that it didn’t matter what she did in class, so long as she actually went to class, or showed up to school at all.
The state of the world often gets me down, but I try not to let it. Still, it’s hard to hear about these things and not be upset. In an era where legislators and presidential/VP candidates are fighting to take away women’s basic rights (I promise you, these laws condoning rape and raging against reproductive rights are just the beginning), I cannot begin to comprehend how we will fight this uphill battle to get to the point where children like my friend’s former students can receive any sort of emotional, physical, or practical support. Let alone preventative programs that would save them from the terrible exploitation they end up facing otherwise. It really does feel like we’re sliding backwards against the decades of (semi) progress we’ve made in civi rights and gender equality as a (semi) progressive society.
My brief time in Sumatra (which is under Sharia Law) made me realize what could happen when women are denied the most basic of rights. At the time, I was working for a human rights group, documenting the social impact of natural disasters and civil war on internally displaced people. A few women we interviewed had been beaten by religious leaders after meeting privately in a hotel room. Why? Because they had been spotted through a window with their head scarves off. They were meeting to discuss how to help one another, after not receiving aid from the government when their husbands were killed in the 2004 tsunami. We think this type of thing could never happen in the U.S., but pervasive fundamentalist thinking amongst politicians breeds just as much hate as in other flavors of sectarian governance. We need real separation of church and state, as well as more women elected in positions of power — not just politically, but in corporations and nonprofits and academia. Look at the numbers and tell me this is an equitable society. It’s shameful, what we’re becoming.