On the front wall of English 9, Harper Lee’s words scrawl into the ribbony drift of pink, dollar store butcher paper, cut to shape like a half-ironic smile.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
If not a low-hanging fruit for anyone grossly unprepared for an essay, I always assumed that those words served as the simple manifesto of our high school english curriculum (so innocuously well-meaning that I even overlooked the limiting pronouns). If four years of AP English didn’t catapult you into Harold Bloom’s collegiate literati, you at least became an empathetic, half-decent human being.
To Kill a Mockingbird ended up being a distinctive book in my high school career. For one, as a freshman, it was my Official Introduction to America’s History of Slavery (written by a white person, no less). It is also the only female-authored book we would read as a class.
Of course, that’s not to say that high school was purely a testosterone daydream. There were a few female authors for summer reading, perhaps a Woolf or Angelou for optional independent study. But the books that constituted the “main course work,” the books we spent most class time discussing and analyzing, were disproportionately and overwhelmingly written by and centered around white men. We spent hours picking apart Hamlet’s whiny melodrama and Miller’s American Dream, while the women in most of those novels were secondary, enigmas, symbols more than tangible human beings.
Climbing into each others skin seemed like an exciting resolve, but it’s clear that those who don’t identify as male seem to have to do most of the heavy lifting.
Now, lest I be attacked on 4chan message boards, this isn’t an argument that all male high school reading lists are the root cause of misogyny, abuse and sexual misconduct in America (our crappy consent education has to do with it too). But the way in which we socialize boys to be so comfortable locked within their own perspectives and the way our education provides men with a thinking world that doesn’t include women or queer voices goes on to perpetuate a belief that they aren’t people whose feelings and perspectives need to be learned, understood and accounted for.
And it’s this myopic view creates the normalized base of unawareness and sexism that fuels more severe behavior. It’s the perspective lock, the centering of one’s own desires without thinking about the other’s that affords men the “wear-her-down” attitude towards romance and sex that pervades our culture. It’s the myopic view that informs victim blaming—a phenomenon in which oceans of men turn helpless, wondering out (very) loud why she didn’t report her life-altering trauma the very moment it occurred, or why she didn’t just leave, or sure you stopped physically responding but did you say no? Men, more specifically straight, white men, seem to lack a very basic empathetic imagination, and that’s because they’ve been given the privilege of walking within their perspectives—their own skin, as some say—for far too long.
The problem of sexual misconduct and workplace abuse isn’t one of a violent fringe, but of entire generations of men raised wrong. It is a system of a pyramid, where the most violent crimes sit on the head, enabled and strengthened by this very base of ignorance that no one, including most “good” men, are immune to.
Perhaps those pronouns on the ugly pink butcher paper were intentional after all and Harper Lee’s hopeful words string across our high school education in the bitterest of ironies. Reading lists across the nation remain disproportionately male, and male readers go on to read almost exclusively male authors. It is easier to walk within his skin, not because it’s better, but because it’s what we’ve been taught to do our whole lives.
And it is in toppling this norm that the MeToo movement will find its most valuable purpose: not merely snipping off the head of the pyramid, but uprooting it’s infinitely more powerful base. Stories have the power to do that. I walked out of English 12 sympathizing with a scorned mother monster from ancient Scandinavia (yes, we still have to read Beowulf), so really, anything is possible. A few less Holden Caulfields and a few more Pecola Breadloves and some boys might even start calling themselves feminists! Or at the very least, they won’t have to wait until they have a daughter to humanize women.