Strength Comes In All Shapes and Sizes
**Guest Blogger: Shannon Tepfer
I am an “Army brat” and one of five kids, ranging in ages from 3 to 15 years older than me. I was born in Germany, both of my parents are in the medical field and all of us moved from place to place every 3-4 years. I grew up with three very tough female role models, my
mother and two sisters. I was in every sport imaginable, swimming, softball, soccer, dance, gymnastics, and horseback riding. You name it, I was in it, and happy to be there and experiencing it all. I remember my mother coming to my school once to talk to one of my teachers dressed in her army fatigues. I asked why she chose to wear that outfit instead of regular civilian clothes, she said “because this is war, baby!” My mom, the fighter, the soldier, heading off to win the battle over my teacher, who clearly had an issue with
something I did in class, had no idea who she was messing with.
Both of my sisters worked at early ages, graduated from high school at the age of 16, and moved out of the house soon after. I was raised with the idea that women are strong and tough, can do and be whatever they want, and can make things happen for themselves. I knew this, I know this, I will always remember this. I teach this very idea to my own daughters. We are strong! We get it done! The part that I find funny about this is, collectively, my mom and sisters average height is 5 ft tall, not very intimidating. But when you are in their presence, they exude the aura that they are 6 feet tall. You get the picture.
I remember my mother coming to my school once to talk to one of my teachers dressed in her Army fatigues. I asked why she chose to wear that outfit instead of regular civilian clothes, she said “because this is war baby!”
It is my first year as an early childhood educator. I love my job, I still have fond memories throughout the years. We would decorate our room with colorful images and have different centers based on the needs and wants of the children. Every cuby had the child's name, a coordinating color, and animal to go with it. I was in room H and we were the Hippos. So, we had little pink and blue hippos for each cubby and mailbox.
Every day the girls would get dressed up in the costumes we had in our class and the boys would play on the floor with trucks and cars. This seemed normal to me then. I encouraged play in these areas but never forced them to not play in gender specific areas in the class. Looking back on it now, I do think I encouraged kids to play in these areas based on gender norms for the time, which I now know that shouldn’t be done. But this is how everyone did it. This is what my lead teacher taught me when I was being mentored. My director never told me not to assume wants and needs based on the gender of a child. Furthermore, the parents never seemed to complain. That is until “Abby” came to my class.
Abby was, and still is, a bright and vibrant little girl who was, and still is, an equal opportunity friend. I was Abby’s teacher for two years in a row. I moved up a class when she graduated from beginners and we became teacher and student once more that following year. She was the same as the year prior, a few new quirks here and there, but still the same little firecracker; outspoken, standing up for her friends, and always quick with a comeback or
answer. I continued on with my same teaching techniques that were passed down and never questioned, until the month of Purim that year. We made masks in class, baked cookies, dressed up, made groggers, and made gifts for friends. I read books, played counting games and taught some early literacy to all of the kids each day leading up to Purim. Little did I know that my thoughts about gender would forever be changed by one little voice.
She was the same as the year prior, a few new quirks here and there, but still the same little firecracker; outspoken, standing up for her friends, and always quick with a comeback or answer.
It was a few days before the big family Purim dinner celebration. The students and families were encouraged to come to this event, as always, and celebrate the holiday together as a community. The students would hear the story of Esther and sound their groggers that we made in class. They would pass out their gifts to their friends that night and would also march in a costume parade. I asked the students, throughout the day, what they were going to dress as for the parade: a simple question that was often answered quickly by the student or parent. If they didn’t know what they wanted to be, I would give some ideas of costumes that might be nice. As Abby was leaving class, I asked her what she was going to dress up as for the Purim parade. But I didn’t ask the question the same way that I had asked the other children. I remember exactly what I said because her response to me is still burned into my memory. I asked her, “Are you going to be a princess for Purim?”. She replied, “Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I want to be a princess”. This took me by surprise, completely. I know better than this; I know that women can be whoever they want to be. I was never frilly or delicate growing up, I was rough and tumble and loud. Why was I placing this gender role on this little girl? Why did I do that?
After her reply I quickly changed my position about the costumes and suggested a more open and non-gendered array of costume ideas. She told me she was going to be a doctor and I told her that was really cool and that I couldn’t wait to see her all dressed up for Purim. As I look back on this moment, I ask myself, as educators, do we perpetuate gender roles in our day to day speech with our students? I can honestly say that I unintentionally asked Abby if she would be a princess, without conscious thought about it. I wasn’t thinking ‘she's a girl so of course she will say yes’. It just came out that way subconsciously.
I know that women can be whoever they want to be. I was never frilly or delicate growing up, I was rough and tumble and loud. Why was I placing this gender role on this little girl?
How many situations, in day to day work and life do we, as educators, find ourselves in these situations and essentially fail at being neutral. Why aren’t we encouraging our students' individuality? Ever since that moment, I have been more conscious of what I say and how I approach these moments. This experience will stay with me and continues to shape my philosophy on how to teach children.
So, Abby’s story and the story about my mother? Two strong people who, in their own circumstances, chose to dress in a way that didn’t conform to societal norms but rather defined them in ways that they felt strength, pride, and power. I am glad I had these experiences, one that taught me and one that reminds me.
**Shannon Tepfer is currently completing her MAed at AJU in Jewish Education. She has worked professionally in the Jewish community for the past 14 years. She has worked as a preschool teacher, religious school teacher, and an educator for Jewish summer camps. Shannon is currently working as the Youth Director for Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks and also as a JLC educator at Adat Ari El in Valley Village.