Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Returning To The Academy

by Tom Bozzo

Well, preschool.

John's preschool days are organized around periodically changing themes. The current theme is "post office." They have little mailbags, play with letters, etc.

Insofar as I am something of a postal economics specialist in my other life, Suzanne thought it would be cool if I volunteered to go to school and talk to John's class about my job. I thought that was pretty rich, seeing as my job is nearly impossible to explain to well-educated grown-ups, who default to wanting to ask me about what I think about the direction of interest rates, or other headline macroeconomic topics about which I'm really a casual (if educated) observer. Or, more annoyingly, "Oh, so you're responsible for the 39-cent stamp, heh heh heh." Colleague C once summed up the job as "turning people's numbers into other numbers," but with my marketing hat on, I insist on saying that we turn our clients' numbers into better numbers.

Not having said a firm "no" means, of course, that I was drafted to appear tomorrow morning. I must say that the lesson plan that was drafted for me is workable. I shall read the "Mailing a Letter" (Amazon account required to follow the link) story from Richard Scarry's excellent What Do People Do All Day? It provides a reasonably accurate account of the former manual sorting environment, apart from the anthropomorphized critters. Then I'll spend a couple minutes trying to describe the automated equipment that does nearly all of the sorting in the modern mail processing environment: the blur of the letter mail flying through the OCRs and barcode sorters, the mechanical dance of the new robotic feeders on the automated flat sorter. Perhaps I'll answer a couple questions. Then I'll bask in the sort of daddy adulation that is usually reserved for the commissioning of a new LEGO spaceship.

That's the theory, anyway.
Wow, that sounds fun! Can I come to your class?
Sure! Just don't ask any hard questions.
okay, here's a tip from years of doing this sort of stuff: bring a treat! Food to bribe 'em during and something to take home after, you know, to show what John's neat mail-something-or-other dad gave out. We live in a materialistic world.
Richard Scarry. Hmm. Now that I've ruined TtFTE for you, I suppose it's my duty to point out how incredibly sexist RS's books are...
Nina: Our nursery school being what it is, there are rules against bringing treats that are too treat-like. I'll have to check with Suzanne.

Kim: That has not been totally lost on me, though the underlying issue may be the underlying sexism in the 1968 workplace.
Oh! My daughters were raised on Richard Scarry! All of the books, to the point that the paper looked like it had been through tough times. Maybe that's why they have chosen to wash dishes and tend to men as their life's calling. That would explain it.
In thinking about Nina's comment and the truth that lies behind the flippancy (i.e., not all girls -- or mice, cats, and worms -- raised on Richard Scarry become housewives), I wonder if the effect of these sorts of depictions are not so much on the girls/women, but on the boys/men.

That is, it may be a lot more common for parents to have tell their girls, "you can be a doctor, too," than for parents to tell their boys, "girls can be doctors, too." The first is a statement about specific opportunities for a much-loved daughter, the second about a far more abstract principle, namely gender equality.

Granted, many parents will do both, but I'd guess that more parents make sure their girls think they have choices than make sure their boys grow up believing in gender equality. And I'd bet that only a small slice of American parents say to their boys, "you can be a househusband [housecat, housemouse, houseworm ..] too."

I probably just need to stop overthinking kids books. It's hard, when your three-year old announces, "Mom, only guys can be train engineers."
Kim: I did not mean to be flippant. I certainly recognize the problem. It's just that there are so many children's books that do well by girls these days, books where they are depicted as strong, thinking persons, that I am less concerned about the impact of the more traditional ones.
Mainly, I am absolutely saddened about the pervasive sexism in the work place, in family life and having two daughters makes me all the more atuned to these issues. They are not likely to escape gendere-related problems. I sometimes think even their daughters (should thay have any) wont be free of them.
Nina: Flippant wasn't the right word; should have used "humor" instead. (I don't have the same talent with words that you do -- love your blog!)

I am always surprised at how ubiquitous the classics are. Go to a doctor's office, a dentist's office, the Little Red Bookshelf at the grocery store, or any day care center and you're likely to see books by Richard Scarry, Robert McKloskey (who, to be fair, is head and shoulders above his contemporaries in terms of gender equity, although not racial diversity), Victoria Burton, Rey & Rey, etc. It's probably just path dependence: faced with a bewildering array of choices, we buy the books that we remember from our own childhood, which in turn encourages publishers to keep reprinting them, etc.
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