Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Age of Squeamishness

I had the most interesting experience at the American Association of University Women's 'Clatsop Girls United Leadership Day' (to give it the official title) or 'Girl Power Day', as my friend Iris called it.  We were both there to give talks to girls from local elementary and middle schools about the career and education opportunities available to them in their future, and basically to just get them thinking about different possibilities for their lives.  Iris talked to them about baking (she is one of the owners of the great Blue Scorcher Bakery in Astoria), and I got to talk to them about Composting with Worms.  

Here is the thought provoking thing that I observed. 

I spoke to two groups of girls, the first were 7th and 8th graders, and the second were 5th and 6th graders.  They were both great, and both groups asked good questions, but the older girls were SO much more squeamish about the worms! One girl wouldn't even come up and look, but sat at the back of the room insisting that she would throw up if she even saw them.  A few of them were willing to touch the worms, and handle the worm castings, and there was one fantastic young woman (who told me she wants to be a zoologist when she is older) who gave the group an excellent explanation of the physical attributes of worms.   But for the most part they were fairly reserved and fine with just watching and listening.

But the younger girls!  As soon as I gathered them round and dug into the bucket of compost with worms in it, they were completely into it, digging their hands into the pile, feeling the worm castings, letting the worms crawl on their hands, looking for worm babies- I brought along several containers of nightcrawlers purchased at a local bait shop to show the difference between red wigglers (good for compost) and earthworms, or nightcrawlers (great in the soil, not good for compost), and they took the containers off to their desks in groups and began pulling the worms out to hold them, asking about which was the head and which was the tail, and squealing "Oh!  The worm is pooping on my hand!  Look!"  I had completely lost their attention at that point, they were just so into the worms.

It was so cool.

And my question is this:  What happens between 6th grade and 7th grade that changes girls from hopping up and down with the excitement at the thought of plunging their hands into a pile of composting vegetable matter filled with worms, into girls hanging back looking to see if anyone else is going to touch the worm first before they think maybe they might be OK with it, but just for a second?
Because whatever that is, that's what we need to help girls (and boys) overcome.  When people are excited about something, and able to show it, and just plunge right in without fear of what other people will think, great things can happen.  And since these girls are some of the people who will be running the show when I am old and (hopefully not too) decrepit, I want them to be able to make as many great things happen as possible in their lifetimes.

In the meantime, I hope they are all perhaps just a wee bit less afraid of worms, which really are some of the most amazing creatures out there. 

I released the captive nightcrawlers into the soil throughout the farm later that day.  I just took the containers and turned them over onto the soil, leaving the container there to provide some shade.  Within an hour, the worms had all disappeared into the ground.  I hope they have a good time down there.


  1. It almost seems hormonal, doesn't it? I've noticed that the 6th grade girls are still passionate and outgoing, where many 7th grade teachers tell me that their girls try to act reserved and "cool" in class.
    How sad that this societal pressure still exists.

  2. Daisy, I did wonder about puberty, and if that was part of it, but I don't think we can blame hormones for the whole of it. I agree, it has to be societal pressure as well.

    It was SUCH a strong contrast between the two groups, and I could tell there were girls in the older group who were more interested than they were letting on, but who hung back because they weren't sure if this was something they should be excited about or not.

    It is sad, and I just wish I knew what to do to help change it. I suppose doing more things like this 'Girl Power Day' is a start- exposing young people to different ideas and possibilities, and then trying to support them as they build up the self-confidence to follow their interests, whether or not they are 'cool'.

    I am just SO glad I'm not 13 again!

  3. Hi Teresa, That was a really interesting post (and I like your picture, too, with the green and the worms). It was very thought-provoking. I'm not around those ages much, but I was thinking that maybe more exposure of the positive kind like you were doing with them at the earlier age when they're still into it might carry over. Some of these younger girls may have been receptive, but not actively encouraged (I don't know, just guessing), and then when they reach "that age" they conform. I never got past the "worms are cool" stage myself. It was partly who I am, but I did have parents who encouraged my interest in animals, all kinds of pets such as newts and snakes as well as the dogs and cats, etc. I can't say I like maggots, but the rest are pretty much OK!