Tuesday, May 3, 2016

An Open Letter to the Girls at Woodstock Union Middle School

To the Young Ladies at Woodstock Union Middle School,

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?

Oh please.

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,

In Solidarity,

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.)
find me on Instagram : @thewildercoast


Temporarily Valid said...

love this! Thank you for speaking to this issue. It sickens me that young women have come out of our alma matter with insecurities driven by the administration. It's not the dress code that is the issue, it is the thought that it is a woman's responsibility. That this could've been prevented if only...
I've personally encountered more personal shaming in my lifetime than I'd like to admit. If only...This stopped. That is the answer.

Matt Benoit said...

What a great post Melina, thank you! Since reading about this last night I am still kind of in shock and angry about this whole issue. You read about it on the internet every now and then (which is much to often), but I never through I would see our school's name attached to such a shameful thing.
I never thought I would be so ashamed by the actions of one of my schools. What a completely and utterly horrible thing to put the students through. I am not sure what has happened with the teachers and administration in that part of the building but I remember strong female teachers who would not have stood for this kind of shameful behavior.

Anonymous said...

What happened on April 22, 2015?

Temporarily Valid said...


Temporarily Valid said...

On Friday, April 22, the school gathered all its female students in the gymnasium to discuss their lack of compliance with the school dress code. Ms. DiBella, who is responsible for “student accountability”, led the female-only meeting, while the male students played card games and recreated in other ways during the all-girl meeting.

colleen said...

You are not alone ladies, you've got a lot of strong women behind you, and we will not let this stand.
Colleen M
WUMS '99
WUHS '03

colleen said...

Also, on an unrelated note, I will always cherish this photo of us.

Vivian Lang Derouin from Connecticut said...

I am so encouraged by this letter from a graduate of this very school. So encouraging, supportive and educational. Girls/women are NOT responsible for the inappropriate actions of men/boys in this world. As fathers and mothers and grandparents we need to keep reinforcing appropriate behavior, respect for both sexes, compassion and being kind. That is it! Then the responsiblility for your actions is on you as an adult. Don't love that this had to happen, but do love that it has become an educational opportunity for young men and women at your school. Best to all of you in your future endeavors.

Klancas said...

What a wonderful post! Brava to you! I am an alumna (class of 1992) and mom to a girl and a boy. I live far from Woodstock now, but having followed this controversy on social media, I was inspired to write to Superintendent Worth, the three Woodstock reps to the WCSU board and to the president of the WUMS/HS board. I encourage everyone to do the same. It's not as powerful as your piece above, but it shows the administration that the community and alums care. - Kate Lancaster

Rhett said...

This sort of thing is so infuriating. It's happening in Missoula, too. http://missoulian.com/news/local/washington-middle-school-students-protest-dress-code-as-sexist/article_9f6ff585-305d-5d3e-b70e-1f9f0ddee278.html

Great letter, Melina.

WAKE said...

Melina, thank you for this poignant, wonderfully powerful, and empathetic piece you authored and sent to the young women at Woodstock's Middle School. I have passed it on to them as best I can and I am sure it will spread like wildfire on social media the way my original letter to the Administration did when I posted it on Facebook last Wednesday. I have received so many heartfelt and eloquent messages from around the country from people who discovered this story online and took the time to share their thoughts with me. Many have been WUMSHS alumni, and others just concerned and outraged people who want to help make a difference. Many have also written letters to the Superintendent, Alice Worth and sent copies to the Vermont Standard to be published. My heart and soul are so full with hope that together, united, we can change the course of history here in Woodstock, and hopefully elsewhere as well. Would you consider sending your piece to Alice Worth and the Vermont Standard?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post. I am the mom of one of the students, and your piece moved me to tears. It is good, and important, for our girls to know that they are not fighting alone.

Little LT said...

Articulate and eloquent and very accurate Melina! In the 50's and 60's they used to make the girls get down on their knees and if their skirts didn't touch the floor they were sent to the principle's office and then home to change into something "appropriate"(sometimes with the promise of detention in the following days). I really hope that the school environment hasn't devolved by 50-60 years..... Of course, by the 70's, mini-skirts were so popular that skirt length in school became a moot point.
When we attended WUHS (Class of 2000) the issue of a dress code was in its infancy, and they made us wear our shirts inside-out if they had swear words on them. They also banned the "Johnson" and "Co-Ed Naked" shirts while I was there.
They also debated and voted on making us wear uniforms as opposed to a dress code.
Skirt length and dressing in drag was never an issue. As I recall, some of the boys sports teams would dress in drag for some event or games.
We, as students, objected to the proposition of a strict dress code or uniforms on the basis that it violated the fundamental freedom of expression, and, by extension, freedom of speech.
Girls, you are not alone in this, and you have done NOTHING WRONG!!! If a boy is actually hiding under the stairs to look up your skirt, then grab him by the ear and drag him to the authorities for punishment for voyeurism. His behavior is his responsibility and not yours. But awareness of such behavior IS your responsibility.
Just remember: a united peaceful protest has great power- especially if your parents and community are behind you, and can result in a peaceful solution. Don't get violent, get organized!
RMF Class of 2000

Little LT said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I'm one of the Woodstock girls, and I just wanted to thank you so much Melina for what you wrote. I sent it to all of my friends, and one girl emailed it to literally every kid at school. (I'm not even kidding, every single student has gotten this.) So many of the girls were talking about this today, and it means a lot to all of us, thank you!

Michelle M Hough said...

At 40, I struggle daily to shake off the programming that my "early title IX" generation experienced. Shame and inequality have no place in our schools. Hearing younger voices say so eloquently, with such courage and confidence - what my heart and mind want so badly to verbalize, is stunningly powerful to me. Thank you all for the open letters and comments that have helped the community understand and support you.

In solidarity.

Michelle Hough (Barnes) WUMS 1990

Kat said...

Hi Melina- I agree with much of what you say and do also encourage these young women to think critically about all of the structures that society places around them, and to use their voices and leverage the power that they really very much do have to make change. I just want to caution this conversation from making these teachers the evil force. I work with many of them and know in the deepest part of my heart that they care fiercely about these students and find ways every single day to empower them, male and female alike. They had absolutely no intention of perpetuating the culture of blame and shame; rather, they were trying to create a safe atmosphere to talk about things like the silly, complicated, annoying, easy to misinterpret dress code at the school. Clearly, there were unintended outcomes. And some of these outcomes were mis-interpreted as well, and passed along third-hand and were misconstrued, like a giant game of telephone. This is leading to good, thoughtful, necessary conversations in our community. The teachers are having powerful reflections on the role they play in ALL of this. But they are certainly not terrible people, and a witch-hunt should not ensue. There should be LOTS of respectful conversation, and parallel action about things like power and privilege and gender and challenging societal norms, and all of it.

Maria said...