A couple of days ago, I was sitting in a meeting with one of my male students and the dean of lower school at the high school where I teach, who is also a male. We were discussing an incident that happened in class earlier that day. The dean asked the student to tell his side of the story. As the student played back the scenario, it matched up with how I saw the incident play out as well. I thought, This is going really well. This is a classic case of miscommunication and misinterpretation between teacher and student; we'll end this in no time.
Then, the student called me "sassy."
I immediately interrupted him. I conveyed how attributing my interaction as "sassy" has larger, negative implications of how he views me as a woman. He struggled to understand where I was coming from and did not understand the problem with using the word "sassy."
After multiple attempts, he still did not understand the issue. Even when it was pointed out that he wouldn't call any of his male teachers "sassy." Even when it was pointed out that women who are firm, direct, and assertive have a tendency to be labeled as "sassy," "bitchy," and "hard to work with," but when men act in those ways, such words are not used.
I told him this happens all the time with adults twice his age, but it needs to be combated by addressing it as unacceptable. I explained how it is difficult to understand how something so small means something so large. The dean went on to share a personal story during his time in law school when he said something very similar about a woman in his class. During the time, he didn't recognize the issue until someone addressed him about how it was unacceptable, which led to him owning his actions and apologizing.
Lastly, I admitted how calling me "sassy" hurt my feelings because I know if I were a male and interacted that way with him my tone would not be labeled as "sassy" and using that word perpetuates the inequalities between men and women.
I said what I needed to say and was ready to move back to the conversation with the student about the incident in class. However, the dean refused to move on with the conversation until the student apologized to me. The student did not want to apologize because he felt he was being "forced" to, and he wanted to do it on his own terms and in his own way. The dean actually began to end the conversation and said the student had to return to the ISS room until he was ready to apologize. The student became frustrated.
The dean communicated how the student's failure to apologize made the space unsafe and tainted. He conveyed how not owning his actions and apologizing made me, as a woman, less than the two of them in the room.
The student apologized. Did he mean it? I'm not sure. I think he is still struggling to understand the problem with the word "sassy," and that's OK for now. I believe some idea of how the words we use, even just one word, can perpetuate gender inequalities is now implanted in his mind. As adults, we must address these issues in the moment with our family and friends but more importantly in our workplaces and with young people.
After the student left, the dean and I debriefed. He thanked me for stopping the conversation when the student called me "sassy." I thanked him for supporting me and taking the situation as serious as it was. Beyond addressing and combating these issues, we must continue to recognize and appreciate one another for standing up what is just and what is right.