Oh, ladies, welcome. Welcome to the increasingly complicated world of being female. With so many in power trying to turn back the clock on human rights, I am sad to say that I feel your initiation into this world was inevitable, but I am so sorry that it had to happen this early. And I am deeply sorry, bewildered, and irate that it happened at the hands of your teachers, those who have been entrusted to guide and empower you.
Ladies, the specific teachers and school administrators who were responsible for the decision making that led up to the events on April 22, 2016 utterly failed you.
By now you have no doubt heard that the community is outraged- a community that includes teachers, parents, alums, and members of the community. Rest assured that we are vocal, organized, and intent on seeing that the correct actions be taken to remedy what we see as a shameful mistake. But I wanted to write a letter to you, because I was you not so very long ago.
I attended WUMS from 1997-1999, and I remember all of it. I remember every class project, every algebra test, the fantastically awesome Euro-market (do you still have that? tell me you still have that!) every walk between classes in the mint-green hallways. I learned an enormous amount from dedicated teachers who had my best interest at heart.
But academics are not why I attended middle school, it turns out. I attended middle school to learn how to interact with my peers and my teachers, to begin developing my social skills and start to understand the impossibly complicated nuances of flirtatious interactions, to test my boundaries, to be corrected when I stepped out of line, to learn that contrived social hierarchy is a shape-shifting animal that should be observed, understood but not taken for law, to be crushed by disappointment and uplifted by tremendous joy, to learn to apologize, to learn how it feels to be picked on so that I might never, ever find myself picking on others.
And then- yes, there's more! There's the sweaty stuff nobody wants to talk about but that nonetheless consumed me and all of us. I spent all of 7th grade dreading the onset of my period and yet utterly mortified that it hadn't arrived yet, trying in earnest to hide my flat chest while others tried just as dutifully to hide their fully developed ones. I lived in my cousins' hand-me-downs and had no idea what the right clothes were and where to shop for them (remember, this was Woodstock before internet shopping...pity my generation!) and on top of it all, it would be years and years and years until I kissed a boy and this notion laid heavily upon me.
All this? This is enough to deal with. And I came from a loving home, the perfect paradigm of family. Think of all the young ladies who are struggling to keep up with all of this at school while dealing with much more complex issues at home.
And then, ladies, in the midst of all this, they corral you into the gymnasium and place upon your shoulders the crushing concepts of shame and victim blaming, those potent seeds of the Rape Culture that's grown so inexplicably and horrifically rampant in today's world?
Listen up, ladies. There's nothing wrong with a dress code. School is a formal place where we begin the process of learning how to be young professionals. (Speaking of, did they inform you, at this little gathering, of the wage disparity between men and women? Never mind- another time perhaps.) Certain styles are not appropriate for school, and that's fine. This is true for everyone, regardless of gender. School is probably not a great place for pajamas, for example. Except on pajama day.
A dress code may be put in place to help you and your male counterparts prepare for the professional world, not because your bare shoulder may detract you male counterparts from his work. Do I have to even say this? It appears I do. What an archaic, backwards, and above all, damaging concept they tried to instill in your developing minds. Once again, I am so very sorry that you had to experience this. At school. At your age. At all.
Ladies, you are not burdened with the responsibility of how men choose to act. That will NEVER be your responsibility. Oh, you will hear it, again and again. You will hear on the news that a rape victim's case was dropped in court because she chose to attend a party where alcohol was served. You will hear terrifically terrible things aimed directly at women.
Do not internalize it. Fight back. Fight back with respect, dignity and fire. Now is the time- and you're already doing it, I'm thrilled to see it- for eloquence, for conviction, for respectful dissent. Now is the time to organize, write letters, make phone calls, stand up and keep standing, because this is only the beginning of a long, hard fight.
I hope you realize just how many of us are standing with you and fighting for you,
Melina Coogan,WUMS '99
(Third from left, in 8th grade, wearing a JC-Penny tank top that would be considered 'too provocative' by WUMS current dress code.)
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