As a teacher, I am often forced to make choices that weigh on me. Did I really give that student the help he or she needed? When a student acted out, did I successfully manage to correct the behavior while maintaining a positive relationship?
As the co-sponsor of a board game club, my job becomes surprisingly difficult. The club is supposed to be fun, and it is. Every Friday afternoon, my classroom is packed with students who are excited to be at school late on a Friday. What is even better is that many of my game clubbers are the "nerds" of the school who are finally in a place where they can be themselves. The students do more than play chess or other games: They argue about comic book characters, try out weird voices at each other, and swap tips for Skyrim quests. One of the female students who attends is so quiet, so much of the time, that I was stunned (and delighted) when she realized I had a PS Vita and gushed to me about Danganronpa for half an hour. For one hour after school on Fridays, my classroom is a place of pure happiness and acceptance.
I am also delighted to say that our club has more young women this year than last, and that many of them are excited to face off against the boys over a chess board. Everywhere I turn, there are more teenage girls playing Wii, joining in a game of Ivanhoe, or just working on our current jigsaw puzzle. It is awesome. Given that nerd culture is widely thought of as female-unfriendly, and that we are now watching our own politicians twist themselves in knots about whether it's okay to talk about "grabbing women by the p***y," it's of extreme importance to create environments where women are not only safe, but welcome and respected.
The integration of young women into my club is also where some of my challenges as a sponsor come from: I occasionally have issues with boys who are comfortably among their friends and who want to talk to each other in sexist ways as part of their nerdy "locker room talk." We've already had conversations about not describing victory or defeat in terms of rape, and about not referring to each other as "b****."
But interventions are not always successful. One kid just got kicked out of my room for a week for saying that a boy he was arguing with was "on his period," then doubling down when I asked him to stop by saying that the other kid "forgot his tampons." He is about to get his ban extended because he keeps coming to me to argue that his comments were not offensive. It's infuriating.
Most of the boys who persistently engage in nerd macho talk are themselves insecure. They are searching for a place where they can feel comfortable in their own identities. As their teacher and mentor, I don't want them to feel rejected or ostracized. But it is also my duty as an educator to protect young women who never deserve to be spoken about in ways that perpetuate the idea that they are inferior to men or that their bodies are up for discussion by men.
For now, my solution is to call out sexist comments when I hear them, and to temporarily ban repeat offenders. (Kids should always have another chance to come back and prove that their behavior has changed.) My male co-sponsor and I have both had meaningful conversations with students about how to treat other people. But I don't always know how to permanently change attitudes, especially among the boys who can't seem to drop the bravado and who are more interested in impressing other boys than in impressing their teacher. Sometimes I feel torn about it, because those boys are often the ones who need acceptance and support the most. But here's the bottom line: I can't grant that acceptance (or let them try to earn it from their peers) at the expense of other students—especially female students who are just starting to embrace their own nerdy identities. Students who trust that my game club is a place where they are always welcome.
Maybe the actions that I take will have an impact a while from now, when I'm not around to see. Or maybe if other teachers, mentors, game group leaders, and friends all send the same message that I'm sending, we can collectively help nerd culture to change. I can't do it all on my own. So if any of you, readers, are in a position to call out sexism (or other prejudice) in your gaming club or group, it's your moral obligation to do so. If you don't, what attitudes and behaviors are you validating?