I spend a lot of time thinking about speakers. Listening to them, watching their videos, vetting them by phone, inquiring how they structure their sessions, what activities they use, and just how they will engage audiences.
So when I learned about how teens from a Dallas-suburb reacted to the sexist language of guest speaker Justin Lookadoo, I couldn’t help but tune in to the all the chatter.
It wasn’t just my curiosity about how a speaker bombs so hard it makes national news and captures the attention of Buzzfeed and Gawker, but it was also made me think about the years I spent speaking at middle and high school assemblies and classrooms talking about dating violence.
Public speaking never came easy to me. I was rarely excellent…or horrible. I was usually fair. On occasion, I was good. I never trained as a speaker so it isn’t hard to believe that I hated assemblies the most. There isn’t anything hundreds of teens cramped in smelly gymnasiums would find worthy enough to invest interest.
I loved the small groups—those engaging in the conversation often produced such rich reactions and discussion. Empowered teens who, in their own words, told me about their impression of healthy relationships. There were girls who insisted boys didn’t have to pay for dates and others who erupted, “If he’s gonna date me, he is.” There were boys and girls who had rigid ideas about gender and relationship roles and other students whose faces couldn’t disguise the look of surprise (and sometimes disgust) hearing how their fellow classmates felt.
Honestly, I’m relieved that Twitter didn’t have such a presence when I was at the front of that classroom. But I’m even more relieved it was around last week when students called out messages about antiquated ideas of gender roles that ultimately promote bullying and dating and family violence in our schools and homes.
In full disclosure, I’ve never watched Lookadoo’s presentation. But I would never sign speakers without reviewing videos, reading any articles they published and talking to a few references. The first stop would be their website. Based on Lookadoo’s web content, he’d never be part of my program for middle or high school-aged students.
I wouldn’t be able to justify (or apologize enough for) content encouraging girls to “Be mysterious,” because “Dateable girls know how to shut up.” Or other content that tells teens, “God made guys as leaders. Dateable girls get that and let him do guy things, get a door, open a ketchup bottle.” Whether these elements are part of his program at each session doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. They are pieces of larger, glacier-sized values that support the messages he is disseminating to public school students.
I’m not sure what students would have said about me on Twitter back when I was their speaker. I’d rather not think about it. I prefer to think about the multiple times I connected teens to services when they approached me after class to tell me about their abusive father or controlling boyfriend. Or the time a 16-year-old boy broke down in tears when he told me he was abusing his girlfriend and wanted help.
I prefer to think about the brave teens who ask for help, the ones who speak up to their peers and the ones who challenge the damaging messages of a national speaker… and begin a conversation.